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Reforms are emptying Louisiana’s prisons. This group makes sure no one goes back.

Read the full article in The Washington Post: Reforms are emptying Louisiana’s prisons. This group makes sure no one goes back.

In 1974, Raymond Girtley was 17 and desperate — his girlfriend was nine months pregnant, and there was no money for diapers. He put on a mask, grabbed a gun and joined a group of young men planning to rob a softball team that was celebrating at a bar. The scheme landed Girtley in prison for armed robbery for the next 37 years.

When Girtley came home in 2012, he was similarly desperate to get on his feet. Less than a year later, he picked up a drug charge. A judge sent him back to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for another five years.

For Girtley and many others, “reentry” is just a stop on the loop between prison, rearrest and reincarceration. Nearly 42 percent of those who are released from Louisiana state prisons return within five years. Though there is little uniform data for recidivism, rates are similar across the nation

In 2019, Girtley came home again. He faced the same struggles — “no place to stay, no education.” But this time, his starting point was a pair of modest one-story brick houses on Perdido Street, across the street from the New Orleans city jail. The houses are run by the First 72+, a reentry agency founded and operated by formerly incarcerated people. Agency records show that not one of the 176 people who have passed through the houses in the past six years has returned to prison, an achievement that has caught the attention of state officials.

Girtley, now 65, returns regularly to the First 72+ headquarters to give others rides to the grocery or to the doctor. When he showed up to a recent fish fry, he was greeted by people he knows mostly by nicknames from their time in the yard at Angola: Little Daddy, Pug, Knucklehead, Monkey Man, Eastwood.

His bond with them is what keeps him free, Girtley said. “If I don’t hook up with them, I ain’t gonna make it on the streets.”

When released prisoners touch New Orleans soil, many of them head straight to the First 72+, a beehive of advice and assistance where someone can secure a ride, food, a bed or lightly used clothes. The phone number for the First 72+ is posted in many prison dorms and jail cell blocks. In addition to walk-up clients, the organization receives formal referrals from public defenders, probation and parole officers and prison officials.

The mood at the fish fry was celebratory as Daboo, Ned, Trent and Willie arrived, all of them newly released by the local prosecutor after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling found Louisiana’s split verdicts unconstitutional. Others in the crowd were juveniles serving life sentences until a different Supreme Court ruling ordered that they must receive a “meaningful opportunity” at parole. Together, they represent a tightknit brotherhood of those who walked out of the gates of Angola and hope to never return.

Since 2017, the prison population in Louisiana has fallen by nearly one-quarter, from more than 35,000 to 26,517, thanks to a bipartisan legislative package, though the state continues to lead the nation in per capita prison population. The incarceration rate in New Orleans tops 1 in 100, according to a recent analysis.

When law enforcement officials asked Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) who would work with all the prisoners being released through the state changes, he pointed to the First 72+ as a key example. To accommodate more clients, the organization added more transitional beds, some in Airbnb properties.

“So many people are being released right now,” said staff member Troy Rhodes, 52. He hugged some of the newcomers that he knew from his 16 years in Angola. “What you need?” he asked the newcomers, making lists of people seeking eyeglasses, state IDs, fresh fruit, work uniforms. Rhodes has adopted a short list of tried-and-true tactics, like taping a new arrival’s cellphone numbers onto the back of their phones or keeping copies of vital documents for when folks lose their wallets, “which usually happens at least once.”

Voter registration, too, often feels urgent to newly released prisoners, who want a civic voice after years of not casting a ballot.

“It affirms their place in this community,” said Rhodes, who had never entered a voting booth before he went to prison. “I didn’t think votes mattered then,” he said. “Now I see it as something bigger than me.”

The First 72+, formed by a group of formerly incarcerated men with the motto “Us helping us,” takes its name from research showing that personal trajectories set within the first 72 hours determine who will eventually head back to lockup and who will remain free.

In its early days, Ben Smith, a First 72+ founder who did 13 years in Angola for a drug conviction, lived in one of the two houses and survived on petty change and gas money.

Smith, who died at age 69 last year, made hundreds of trips in his puttering van to Angola to pick up newly released men and speak at parole board hearings. (The First 72+ does serve women, but its services are used overwhelmingly by men, who make up 95 percent of state prisoners.) After seeing released prisoners tempted by quick street money, Smith hired dozens of men to work alongside him on the mobile iron grills that he toted to festivals and parades to sell hamburgers and hot-sausage sandwiches.

People who emerge from prisons with unchecked violence and overuse of solitary confinement might isolate or become hypervigilant, in what is commonly referred to as post-incarceration syndrome. When Girtley arrived at Angola as a slim teenager, it was considered the bloodiest prison in the country. Nearly every day, someone would be stabbed badly enough that they would need to be rolled into a stretcher and run along the prison walk to the infirmary. “It was tragedy all day,” he said.

Girtley felt like he was fighting for his life. At the time, reading classes were available only to people who were within five years of release. “I lost interest in education,” he said. “I had 65 fresh years ahead of me. I was trying to survive.” He dug ditches, picked cotton and worked as a field hand. Learning to read no longer seemed urgent.

Now Girtley has to cope with being functionally illiterate. He will reach out to his daughter, Poonie, who is now 46, or head to the First 72+ and approach a staffer in a red T-shirt to have either read a text for him. He uses a thick black marker to keep track of days on his paper calendar, writing a D for doctor appointments. Someone brought him Allegra three weeks ago because he felt congested, but the box has sat unopened because he does not know how much to take. Applying for jobs online is a nonstarter.

Boilerplate policies of many governmental agencies and foundations also continue to bar felons from jobs, especially felons convicted of violent crimes. Haki Sekou, 70, was terminated by the national AmeriCorps program for his 1977 murder conviction, despite working for the first AmeriCorps project devoted to reentry, at a local Catholic Charities office.

The First 72+ itself has lost out on foundation money because the organization had people with criminal records on its board, said Kelly Orians, its co-executive director.

Similarly, liability insurance was difficult to procure for the organization, she said.

Within correctional circles, officials have long been wary of ex-prisoners spending time together. When Blair Boutte, 55, came home 20 years ago after doing prison time for manslaughter, “consorting with other felons,” even in substance-abuse groups, was grounds for revoking parole.

In the past month, officials from the jail on Perdido Street stopped a staffer from the First 72+ from participating in a facility peer-support group because of a 2016 conviction.

But in other corners, the “Us helping us” concept is winning plaudits. Rebecca Ikner, reentry program manager for the Louisiana Division of Probation and Parole, said she is impressed by the camaraderie she sees at the First 72+. “They do that peer support and networking so well,” Ikner said.

Boutte, one of the founders of the First 72+ and now a bondsman and prominent political adviser, says, “History teaches us that we are always better off fighting our challenges united with those who were in the fight before us.” He adds that “those of us who have been there” are able to say when a client is making excuses.

The increases in First 72+ clients are partly due to a newfound acknowledgment that reentry is a necessary part of release. That philosophy also draws inmates able to count their sentences in days, not years. Once they leave Central Lockup, they cross the street, walk up the driveway and knock on the door of the First 72+.

On a recent visit to Perdido Street, Girtley reached out his hand to welcome a young man in rubber jail slippers walking up the drive.

“I’m limited in what I can do,” Girtley said. “But I’ve been there, done that. And I wanna leave this world knowing that I was helpful to the next generation of kids out here.”

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