Re-entry Court offers opportunity for young convicts to learn from lifers

Walking back to his dormitory at the Angola prison from the auto shop every day, Christopher Fauria passes grizzled men in wheelchairs who have grown old at Angola and almost certainly will die there.

Fauria, 34, is determined not to become one of them. He is an inmate too, but a short-termer, sentenced to a new program called Re-entry Courtthat uses lifers to teach young convicts everything from welding to anger management to being a better father, in hopes that this will be their last time behind bars.

“Having these skills, witnessing what goes on here, I don’t want to be in this situation no more,” said Fauria, who has several previous drug convictions and pleaded guilty to a burglary charge last October. “I have nine kids. I can’t afford to come back here.”

Re-entry Court was spearheaded by two Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges, Arthur Hunter and Laurie White, who were tired of handing down prison sentences to offenders who would emerge no better than when they went in, unable to find a job upon release and likely to commit more crimes.

Since last summer, Hunter and White have ordered about 40 nonviolent offenders with relatively short sentences to serve their time at Angola state penitentiary under the tutelage of inmate mentors. Those without high school degrees earn their GEDs. All get certified in a trade and spend evenings in “life skills” classes while constantly being prodded by the older inmates to pull up their pants, stop cursing and respect others.

Every instructor in the program, from the auto shop supervisor to the man in charge of the substance abuse class, is a long-term inmate who will live the rest of his life at Angola, barring a reprieve from the usually stingy parole or pardon boards. The trump card in their teaching arsenal: “Don’t end up like me.”

It is too soon to say whether most participants will stay out of trouble once back in New Orleans. But both mentors and mentees say the program has been life-changing. Mentors have a rare chance to exert a positive influence on the outside world.

“If we give back enough, if we divert even one of these guys from robbing or killing my family or others, I believe we’re giving back to public safety,” said Randy Finch, 33, of eastern New Orleans, serving a life sentence for the murder of his girlfriend in 2002.

Finch is a “social mentor,” tweaking mindsets and etiquette so the men will get along with colleagues, show up to work on time and resist the call of the street.

Re-entry programs of any kind are scarce in Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the nation. Roughly half of released inmates will end up back behind bars, either by committing another crime or by violating parole requirements.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman administers a new re-entry program that currently provides 100 hours of instruction to about 50 inmates at a time. Inmates nearing their release dates in state-run prisons receive a similar quick-hit re-entry curriculum.

But a majority of offenders, particularly those with shorter sentences, serve their time in parish jails that for the most part do almost nothing to prepare them for life on the outside.

Of 15,000 prisoners released each year, 11,000 come out of parish facilities, usually with no more than bus fare and an admonition not to come back. Secretary of Corrections James LeBlanc said he plans for all offenders to eventually receive the 100 hours of instruction, but that change will not be fully implemented for some time.

“It’s the only way to give people hope to get out of the perpetual cycle of crime, where they return to the community with less opportunities than before they got the conviction,” said White, the Orleans Parish judge, of re-entry programs.

Hunter and White, the only judges authorized to preside over Re-entry Court, hope the pilot initiative will expand to other courtrooms. They also hope to start a program for female inmates.

Equipping offenders with a trade that provides a decent income, and teaching them the behavioral norms needed to keep a job, will ultimately lower New Orleans’ sky-high violent crime rate, Hunter believes. Fauria, for example, is studying auto mechanics at Angola and hopes to work as an electrician when he returns to New Orleans later this year.

If a former inmate stays out of trouble, taxpayers will also save the thousands of dollars a year it costs to keep an offender behind bars.

Because Re-entry Court relies almost entirely on long-term inmates, who are paid between 50 and 75 cents an hour, the price tag is minimal aside from books and materials. As the judges hand down more sentences, all 127 slots will eventually be filled with young men from New Orleans. In addition to the current skills being taught at Angola, which include culinary arts, welding, carpentry, air conditioning repair and horticulture, prison officials hope to add other specialties such as plumbing and veterinary technology.

“Eventually, 95 percent of these people will be released,” Hunter said. “It’s better for them to be released with a skill than without. Otherwise, they’ll go back to their former life, and the process starts all over again.”

Only nonviolent offenders serving sentences of less than 10 years are eligible for Re-entry Court. Normally, such offenders would not end up at Angola, where nearly three-quarters of the 5,100 inmates are serving life sentences with no chance of parole, and the rest are in for 20 years or more.

But Angola, once known as the nation’s bloodiest prison, has well-developed vocational programs, in contrast to parish prisons that usually have few classes beyond GED prep. Angola also has a number of lifers who, at least within the confines of prison culture, are sufficiently reformed to tell youngsters what’s what. The regrets they have about their own missteps add to their credibility.

The mentors, who number around 50, live in the same dorms as their young charges. They are always available for a heart-to-heart, always on the lookout for a pair of pants sagging unacceptably low.

“It’s kind of like they can live their life through these guys they mentor and they train who are going back out, and their success in the community is also the success of the lifer here, and he takes ownership of them as if they are his children,” said Angola Warden Burl Cain, who helped design the program. “Therefore he has purpose in life, and hope. His life is not wasted in prison. He’s doing something good.”

For the young New Orleans natives, Angola is a shock, but not in the way they expected. It resembles a reform school more than a shank-infested free-for-all. The lifers who have earned the privilege of dormitories instead of cells have been there for so long — nearly half of Angola is 45 or older — that they are considerate of other inmates and chastise anyone who is not. Many have found religion behind bars. The short-termers almost universally use the phrase “eye-opening” to describe their experience.

Growing up in the Lower Ninth Ward, Wendell Gettridge’s role models were drug dealers with fancy cars. At Angola, where he is learning about auto mechanics and electrical circuits, he runs into the same guys he once looked up to. Now, he would do just about anything to avoid being like them. He has missed his son’s football games and will likely miss his four-year-old daughter’s first day of school. Even a year away feels like forever.

“The names I heard doing a lot of things, that I had ambitions of being, I’m seeing them up here now and really seeing this ain’t the place to be,” said Gettridge, 27, incarcerated on a marijuana conviction.

Tyrone Gould stopped attending school at age eight, when his grandmother died. At Angola, he has upped his literacy level from second grade to sixth — and learned how to fix cars.

“I got all my convictions selling drugs. That was all I knew about,” said Gould, 32, who is from the 7th Ward and expects to be released next March. “I could go out there right now — I know about brakes. I’d love to do that.”

In the air conditioning and heating workshop, instructor Chester Schneider has written words to live by. “Good technicians are not problem makers, they’re problem solvers.” “No excuses!” the white board reads in neat green capital letters.

Schneider made a good living repairing A/Cs, but he used his earnings to fuel a drug and alcohol addiction. A drunken episode at a Slidell gas station in 2003 netted the Biloxi native a life sentence for first-degree robbery. He teaches his trade to other long-termers, but he takes special satisfaction in educating men who might soon use their new skills on the outside. He posts newspaper classifieds on the wall, with jobs in HVAC — heating, ventilation and air conditioning — highlighted.

“I have a life sentence. The system threw me away,” said Schneider, 53. “If I just send one of these gentlemen out there with a trade, so they don’t create another victim, another crime, if I can stop that, that means the biggest thing in the world to me.”

One of Schneider’s pupils is Joshua Washington, sentenced to Re-entry Court for using a stolen credit card. A 26-year-old African-American from New Orleans, Washington never had a father in his life, and calls the blond, blue-eyed Schneider a “father figure and friend.”

Indeed, Schneider keeps up a patter of advice as he helps Washington figure out why a water fountain from one of the prison chapels is not producing cold water. Drawing on his years of professional experience, he drills his student on what it takes to make a customer want to call you back next time.

“This has been eye-opening to me. It’s shown me a different aspect of life,” said Washington, who has been at Angola for 10 months and will likely be released by the end of this year. “When I get back into society, I’m going to focus up. Life is too short for negative drama and nonsense… I want to keep my family all right and make my momma smile.”

Since most Angola inmates never get out, Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot has never been concerned with the job market. Now, she is pounding the pavement in New Orleans, trying to connect re-entry graduates with jobs in the trades they studied while incarcerated. In today’s economy, it is hard enough to find work, let alone land a job with a felony conviction. No one will be released from the re-entry program until he has a job lined up, Fontenot said.

The handful of men who have exited the program are doing well so far, with less than a year on the outside. Nicholas Joseph is attending Delgado Community College. James Price, released in February, is working at River’s Edge, the same French Quarter restaurant where he manned the stock room and bussed tables before violating his parole on a burglary charge. The carpentry certification he earned during his eight months at Angola is tucked in his wallet, and he hopes to soon find a job in that field.

Price corresponds regularly with his Angola mentors, drawing on their words of encouragement when he is having a rough day. The friends he had when he was running drugs still call him up, but he does his best to brush them off, preferring family time with his girlfriend and kids.

“They just have to be mad at me. The things I used to do, I see where it led me,” Price said of his old buddies.

Unlike most of his re-entry classmates, Troy Becton could have learned a trade, since his father owns a welding shop. But he never lasted at the family business for long, drawn instead to the quick adrenalin of the drug lifestyle. Just released after his second heroin conviction, he knows he is on his last chance.

Becton was baptized at Angola after coaching by his inmate mentors, and he now attends church. He is hanging out with friends he once dropped because they were boring straight arrows, working with them to buy school supplies for underprivileged children. Since his release last month, he has been making $100 a day as a welder at Smith’s Ironworks, his father’s shop on Earhart Boulevard, using the training he received during his year in the program.

“I want to show people in the community that we can change,” said Becton, 39. “I will not drop this ball. I will not go back to jail under no circumstances. I will be a positive light to this community and make my mother proud of me like she was trying to be.”

This article was originally published here.