By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator 

As dozens of men, dressed in warm jackets and knit caps, crowded into the dining room of St. Vincent de Paul on Nov. 14, Gerald Parker, formerly incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for 43 years, gently guided a man, dressed in an oversized gray sweatshirt and baggy jeans, to Linda Fjeldsjo, coordinator of Joseph Homes for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, for an introduction. </span id=”2″>

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Friends and residents of Joseph Homes of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge pose for picture taking as they gather for their annual Thanksgiving dinner at St. Vincent de Paul. Photos by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator

 

“This is David Johnson,” beamed Parker. “He was released today after 44 years and today is his birthday.”  

“Oh wow!” said Fjeldsjo. “Let me give you a hug!” 

And with that simple gesture, Johnson began to offer hugs to everyone he met. Just hours earlier, he exited the gates of Angola for the first time as a free man. 

“I cried,” recalled Johnson of his release. 

Beaming with joy, Johnson was overwhelmed by well wishes and greetings from fellow travelers, who remember and mark the date of their own releases. 

Johnson was met at the gate by Parker, who also served time at Angola. 

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Former and current residents of Joseph Homes, a transitional home for formerly incarcerated men, gather for the annual Thanksgiving dinner at the St. Vincent de Paul dining room in Baton Rouge on Nov. 14. The event gives the men the chance to meet new friends and connect with each other as they transition back into society. 

 

“I once again had the blessed privilege of going to Angola on behalf of the Parole Project as a friend of David,” said Parker to the gathering before dinner was served. “I drove into the prison and … immediately after I got to the gate and the warden escorted me in, I was reminded just how good God is. One of the biggest desires of my heart during the 43 years I was in prison was to experience going out with free people instead going into the shakedown room after a visit. But when I drove past the checkpoint I was reminded just how good God is.”

Parker, a former resident of Joseph Homes, also talked about how everyone in the room had something in common: they were all part of a blessed group. 

Jeff Lively lived at Joseph Homes for a year and saved enough money to move into a rented home in Plaquemine. Lively was 17 years old in 1983 when he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, probation or suspension of sentence. That changed by 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. 

Lively now works construction jobs and takes on odd jobs, such as lawn care, whenever he can. He likes to work. And, he likes to visit. That includes his sister Sandra Partin and family friend Ellen Sessions, who joined Lively for the Thanksgiving feast. 

“I’m thankful to my Lord and savior Jesus Christ for the people he’s put in my life who helped me since I got out of prison,” said Lively. “Thankful for all the help I got from Joseph Homes, Parole Project, and I’m thankful for the people that passed that law (2012 Supreme Court ruling) that I’ll never have a chance to thank. There’s a lot of good people left behind that I think about daily.” </span id=”13″

After a turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, string bean casserole, broccoli casserole, macaroni and cheese and birthday cake were served against a backdrop of small talk and laughter. It was a feast celebrating how far the ex-inmates had all come and where they were today: together and free. 

One of the biggest challenges, according to Fjeldsjo, is the ability of the formerly incarcerated to visit their friends who remain behind bars. After three and four decades of living together, the men consider each other family. 

“The topic of our last support group meeting was ‘holiday blues,’ ” stated Fjeldsjo. “Sometimes you watch television and read magazines and it seems that’s how everyone’s celebrating the holidays. And I warned them not to fall into that trap because so many of them, their family is up the river at Angola. They have spent so many holidays with them and now they’re alone out here. So … we’re family.”

And, on this chilly November night, with smiles, hand shaking, hugs and laughter, that’s exactly what it looked like – a family gathered around the table.