By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
In 1979, when Kaven Donald walked into Orleans Parish Prison to begin a 198-year sentence on drug charges, a sign on the wall told incoming inmates to leave their belt, jewelry, loose change – “and all hope” – at the door.
But Donald, who served most of his time at Angola, never lost hope, finally winning parole in 2012 after numerous failed attempts.
In his early days of freedom, pounding the pavement to find employment, Donald recalls feeling bewildered when he would overhear strangers frivolously complaining about the weather. He was still trying to figure out how to operate in world he hadn’t known from ages 28 to 60.
“When you come out (of prison) and see the opportunities, it presses you to do better,” said Donald, one of three formerly incarcerated men currently employed by Catholic Charities’ Corner-stone Builders program, which works to ease the re-entry and nurture the independence of returning citizens from the time they exit prison gates.
“I believe, after living around those guys (in prison) all those years, that everybody – everybody – wants to be better,” Donald said. “There are so many obstacles against us, but we keep pressing and we keep pressing because there are people out there helping us.”
Clung to hope behind bars
Donald told his story at an Oct. 10 “teach-in” on mass incarceration at St. Martha Parish Hall in Harvey. That night, about 60 people encountered the formerly imprisoned face to face, heard their stories and learned how they might advocate for criminal justice reform. A returning citizen was available at every table to answer questions on his or her journey from incarceration to independent living.
“It’s hope that got me through Angola for 32 very long years,” said Donald, who returns to Angola and other area prisons to deliver that message of support. “Many of these guys have no way out of prison, but they’re trying to be better.”
Aging inmates clog prisons
The teach-in began with a snapshot of the country’s mass incarceration problem from Sue Weishar, a research fellow at Loyola University’s Jesuit Social Research Institute. The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world, claiming 22 percent of the world’s incarcerated while making up just 4 percent of the global population, Weishar said.
In the 1960s and 1970s, as the nation’s 76 million Baby Boomers began entering the criminally vulnerable ages of adolescence and young adulthood, crime spiked. In response, state and federal lawmakers began passing harsher and longer sentences for all types of crimes, from non-violent ones to murder, and “Three Strikes” legislation sent triple felons to jail for 25 years to life, even if they had committed non-violent offenses such as shoplifting, Weishar said.
“This has, quite naturally, led to an increase in the number of prisoners (who are now) 55 years or older, even though most have far outgrown the age span where one is likely to commit crime,” Weishar said.
Since the early 1990s, as Baby Boomers have “aged out” of most risky and violent behaviors, the nation has seen sharp declines in both violent and property crime.
“But here’s the interesting thing: As crime rates have dropped, Americans’ perception that crime is increasing remains high,” and a disproportionate number of cases are being prosecuted so local officials can be seen as being “tough on crime,” Weishar said. “If Americans don’t know that crime is dropping, how can they support locking up fewer people?”
Thankfully, Louisiana, known for years as America’s most incarcerated state, is moving forward, Weishar said. Sentencing reforms passed in 2017 are offering more alternatives to incarceration, are looking more favorably on the early release of non-violent offenders and are beginning to tailor habitual offender penalties – so-called “Three Strikes” laws – to the severity of the offenses.
Other reforms include making it legal for Louisiana felons to vote after five years of probation, working to assure that fines do not become a barrier to successful re-entry, and giving those sentenced to life in prison as juveniles an opportunity for parole after 25 years.
Such reforms are expected to reduce Louisiana’s prison population by more than 10 percent over the next decade, with 70 percent of the estimated $262 million in savings to be reinvested in evidence-based prison alternatives, recidivism reduction programming and treatment and community supervision, Weishar said.
The reforms were enacted despite opposition from many district attorneys and sheriffs, Weishar added. The changes caused one sheriff to lament, in an article published last year in the New York Times, that the reforms were letting out the “good” inmates he and his staff used “every day to wash cars, change oil in our cars (and) cook in the kitchen.”
Over-sentenced woman turns her tragedy into a positive
The night’s most riveting testimony came from Rhonda Oliver, who was sentenced in 2001 to 20 years at St. Gabriel for her third “strike” – stealing $169 worth of goods. Unable to afford an attorney, Oliver tenaciously represented herself but had a difficult time having her appeals heard – her paperwork had fallen through the cracks in Jefferson Parish courts. She was released when the mistakes were unearthed, after serving 14 years.
“After 14 years in prison, I heard a judge tell me, ‘We apologize, Ms. Oliver. Your persistence has finally paid off. You (should have been sentenced) to (only) four years,’” Oliver recalled.
“I was faced with homelessness; I couldn’t find a job; I couldn’t go back to college because I had a debt; I couldn’t get a driver’s license because I owed a fine,” Oliver said of her re-entry.
She found help from Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, which gave her the $10 daily charge to stay at a Salvation Army shelter and a bus pass – so she could look for a job. Two years ago, Oliver found steady work at the city of New Orleans’ Code Enforcement office, but has never forgotten the sting of her first months outside of prison. She said finding “a toothbrush and toothpaste” was easy, but the things she needed to become self-sustaining were much harder to come by.
“I still needed shoes. I still needed clothes,” said Oliver, who was inspired to establish her own grassroots organization, Women Determined, to help formerly incarcerated women regain their independence. Her advocacy work includes going into area prisons to get women’s shoe and clothing sizes – so they can hit the ground running on their search for employment upon their release.
Women Determined also seeks donations from churches to fund its “Adopt a Lot” program, which pays stipends to formerly incarcerated people who maintain overgrown lots and has the double impact of helping the community, Oliver said.
“I didn’t want anyone else being released to nowhere like I was – facing homelessness – because no one would give you an opportunity, no one would give you a job,” Oliver said.
Now on her feet enough to study accounting at Delgado, Oliver said she still struggles every semester to come up with the funds to buy books.
“If (the formerly incarcerated) can’t find housing or they can’t get an education, then what are their options? Recidivism – returning to prison,” Oliver said. “But I was not going back. I was walking the streets every day to find work, because I was determined.”
The teach-in was hosted by the Justice and Life Ministry of St. Martha/Infant Jesus of Prague Parish in partnership with the Jesuit Social Research Institute, Cornerstone Builders and Women Determined.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.