By James McClendon
At 11, Daniel Tapia starting selling drugs on the streets of New Orleans to help support him and his mother. At 13, he was convicted of his first distribution charge. At 14, he was listed as a career criminal. At 15, he went to juvenile detention for 3 years. And at 18, six months after his release, Daniel Tapia was convicted of the murder of Otis Bailey in the second degree and sentenced to life in prison.
“I don’t even remember what happened right after being convicted,” he said. “I’m not trying to be dramatic. I don’t even remember the jury leaving the courtroom, and they had to walk right past me. I was just shocked, thinking ‘I’m never going home. I’m never getting out of here. My life is over, and then I said this in open court to the judge, ‘With all do respect, I’d rather have the death penalty than go away for life.’”
However, in 2008, Daniel’s sentence was reduced to manslaughter after new evidence demonstrated that he had not been the gunman, but rather the getaway driver. So, in 2015, after 12 years behind bars, Daniel was released from prison.
Now, at 32, he works as a caseload manager for parolees in the New Orleans area. Yet while you can take the man out of prison, you can’t take the prison out of the man. He said, “For anybody who has spent a long time in jail, the challenge is just learning how to live civilly. I’ve spoken to people who think I have PTSD. I’m getting better now. But when I first got out, man, I’m not going around crowds. I’m not gonna be around people I don’t know. Everybody out here is moving along with their business, but in prison, walking past somebody and not saying ‘excuse me’ can get you chopped in the head.”
While Daniel has managed to turn his life around to a certain degree, he still bears the scars of his checkered past. He said, “My mother was shot by a cop, my grandfather was shot by a cop…I literally know in the triple digits the number of people who have been murdered. It’s just about everybody I grew up with is either dead or in jail doing long stunts.” Not only that but, “I grew up in the system. I’ve been wanting all these years just to be normal. Just to get out and do regular, normal shit,” he said. “You know, when I was in prison, I used to sit there and stare out my window and look at those motherfuckers in traffic thinking ‘Man, I wish I was in that traffic.’”
No doubt, prison has left an indelible mark on him: “In prison you aren’t supposed to make new friends because that makes you look weak, that you are looking for strength. You are supposed to stand on your own. So now, I don’t really have a lot of friends, I’m not gonna lie. It’s just hard to find common ground. I never went to prom. I never went to high school. Period. My life experiences are incarceration, and appeals, and lockdown and trying to get my life back.”
Unfortunately, many other convicts in Louisiana face the same problems as Daniel once out of prison. He said, “You spend your whole time in there looking forward to getting out. So once they open that gate, it’s like this big AHA! moment. You know, it’s the best feeling in the world. Finally free. You’re finally out. And then you say to yourself, ‘How the fuck am I going to feed myself? Where am I gonna go?’ And the next thing you know, you’re just sinking and sinking and sinking. It’s especially easy with people who have substance abuse issues. It’s a trigger and they just want to escape it.” According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2013 incarceration statistics, 70,000 people were on probation or parole in the state of Louisiana. With the highest rate of incarceration in the world per capita coupled with a recidivism rate of more than one third, Louisiana has been facing a major prison and rehabilitation problem for quite some time now. The unfortunate truth is that many convicts struggle to cope with and readjust to life outside of prison. Daniel said, “I’m not gonna lie. My first year and a half home, if I had a dream that night, it was about getting killed, going back to prison or being on the run.”
A local New Orleans parole officer (who wished to remain anonymous) locates part of the problem in the mental health opportunities available to parolees. He said, “We just have a huge amount of people who have mental health issues that just aren’t addressed. These institutions are staffed enough as far as people with acute mental illness. They can get the help they need. But people with severe mental illness are just kind of left out to dry.” In 2015, under the Governor Bobby Jindal Administration, Louisiana cut funding to the Department of Health and Hospitals, leading to widespread shortages across the city’s mental health institutions.
Yet, mental health services aren’t the only rehabilitation options that drew the short end of the stick. The parole officer said, “I’ve had parolees who say, ‘Look, I need help. I have a heroin problem and I want to get off it.’ But I can’t find them a bed at a facility, and so I just have to put them on the waiting list. He might get the bed in a month but by then he could say, ‘Screw it, I’m good with heroin.’ That’s frustrating.” No doubt there’s a problem when a parolee is coming to their officer seeking help and is turned down.
It begs the question if whether Louisiana’s rehabilitation services are adequate enough for convicted felons to reintegrate into society? The parole officer’s response: absolutely not. However, he stands firm in his belief that escaping this vicious cycle of crime boils down to a personal decision. “I’ve had gang members and murderers who changed their life. It is a personal choice. Most of them, they just don’t want to. It’s easier to sell crack or heroin than go to work for ten dollars an hour. Everybody wants to be the rich guy going to club–not working, not doing dishes.” His position is somewhat at odds with itself. The parole officer acknowledges that the services provided are lackluster, yet he maintains that their transition back into society is a personal decision.
But that ignores the strain of growing up being, “addicted to chaos” as Daniel put it. It ignores the struggle of being institutionalized, a problem New Orleans rehabilitation services have largely neglected. Daniel said, “Everything is done to find a way to take the humanity out of someone who has been in trouble with the law. You know: ‘We’re not gonna give them a job. There not gonna vote. We don’t want them to be on the jury. We don’t want them to live here.’ Man, what the fuck do you want me to do? Besides be an animal.”