I met Thomas Johnson (not his real name) in Ronnie Moore’s office at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans (CCANO) on a rainy Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago.
Ronnie, a long-time civil rights activist, founded Cornerstone Builders at CCANO seven years ago. The program helps formerly incarcerated men and women re-enter society through service projects and also provides immediate help to those who have just been released from prison, including shelter, employment and a support network.
Thomas arrived at Ronnie’s office after being released from a prison in north Louisiana earlier that same day. Because Ronnie had another meeting to attend, I offered to help. From 1999-2003, I ran a re-entry program at CCANO for formerly incarcerated immigrants, so I knew “the ropes” and how important it is to provide someone assistance within the first 72 hours of leaving prison.
Thomas was released at one minute after midnight, a cruel but common practice at Louisiana penal institutions, which allows prison operators to collect a full-day’s per diem. He left without a pair of shoes on his feet – just a cheap pair of plastic sandals – and a white plastic garbage bag to carry his few possessions. He was cold, tired and hungry.
In the trunk of my car I was able to find him a sweatshirt and a cloth bag, but my spare pair of tennis shoes were too small. Our first stop after Catholic Charities was the Greyhound bus station, conveniently located across the street, where we got lunch and a ticket to a small town in Georgia where Thomas planned to stay with an elderly relative, leaving early the next morning. Our next destination was Ozanam Inn, a homeless shelter on Camp Street where Thomas would stay that night.
Along the way to Ozanam Inn, Thomas told me what landed him in prison. One evening after work at a French Quarter restaurant, a friend was driving Thomas to his apartment when their car was pulled over due to an expired brake tag. A records check revealed that Thomas had failed to register with a parole officer when he moved to Louisiana many years earlier. For this infraction, despite over 15 years of crime-free living, he was sentenced to three years in prison.
Thomas briefly described his life in prison. He lived in a large dormitory room where it was loud all the time and young men were “always fighting.” The food was terrible and the portions meager. He was always hungry and lost 60 pounds. There were no training or rehabilitation programs, so all there was to do all day was watch soap operas and reality shows. He made friends with two other gentlemen and they would often sit together and pray and talk. However, the guards became suspicious whenever people hung out together and would try and break up such friendships.
The morning Thomas was released he got down on his knees and thanked God he was finally leaving.
Thomas’ case illustrates many of the problems with Louisiana’s criminal justice system. Revocations of parole or probation account for nearly 60 percent of prison admissions a year, and more than 85 percent of persons admitted have a primary offense that is not violent. Over half of offenders are housed in local prisons, which sheriffs run as cheaply as possible, offering few services. This lack of attention to rehabilitation and training programs contributes to a 43 percent rate of recidivism over five years.
At a Philadelphia jail in 2015, Pope Francis told a group of prisoners, “Any society, any family that cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children and views that pain as something normal or expected, is a society condemned to remain hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain.” For decades Louisiana’s criminal justice system has been held hostage to “tough on crime” policies that have ruined lives and decimated communities. To this to end, we need to continue to hope, pray, and advocate that Louisiana legislators have the courage and wisdom to embrace major reforms outlined by the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force in the current legislative session.
* His name was changed to protect his identity.
Susan Weishar, Ph.D., is a migration specialist/fellow with the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) at Loyola University New Orleans.