By Jacob Beeber
As the car approaches the entrance, the first immediately noticeable element is a red brick sign reading “Louisiana State Penitentiary.” The next obvious characteristic of the grounds are the thick metal fences sprawling outward in every direction as far as the eye can see, topped with razor sharp wire. A small building, with tall guard towers looming beside it, is the only entrance or exit to the state prison here in Angola, Louisiana. The prison, nicknamed “Alcatraz of the South,” is currently the largest maximum security prison in the United States, with over 6,300 prisoners and 1,800 staff members.[i] It is located on an 18,000 acre property that was once the Angola plantations. Almost 71% of inmates here are serving a life sentence[ii], which reaffirms the belief in Louisiana that once one enters Angola, they’re not likely to come out, a stereotype that one New Orleanian judge is trying to change.
Judge Arthur Hunter, of the District K criminal court of New Orleans, has been on the bench for 21 years now, and before that worked as a lawyer for the sheriff’s department as well as holding other law related positions. His career path led him to recognize the climate of mass incarceration here in Louisiana and drove his passion for creating positive changes in the system. He eventually created one of the country’s first and most successful re-entry programs. The program was conceptualized in 2008 by Judge Hunter, and subsequently put into effect via Louisiana legislature in 2010.
Past the front gate of the prison, one main road surrounded by miles of open field leads through the prison grounds. Prisoners in bright orange jump suits can occasionally be seen working in the fields or moving from one place to the next, but the vast majority of the grounds are often desolate. The bleak atmosphere even seems to make the air heavy to breathe. Monochromatic buildings can be seen in either direction and serve as the mess halls and living facilities for general population inmates. Eventually, the car pulls up next to a garage made from thin metal walls. Inside the garage is a bountiful stash of beat up cars and auto mechanic machinery. A middle-aged man with thick, black glasses steps forward and introduces himself as Bill Carruthers. Bill is an inmate here at Angola serving a life sentence after being convicted of murder in the 1980s. Bill has a gentle face, and after hearing him speak for only a few minutes, he does not come across as someone who committed such a serious crime. He is currently one of the programs “mentors” and provides the inmates with the knowledge needed to become an auto technician upon their release. Carruthers explains that he was a full time mechanic before being convicted and his involvement in Angola’s re-entry program helped lift him “out of a very dark place”.
The re-entry program in Angola is considered the gold standard by many experts on criminal justice reform. The program allows criminals convicted of non-violent crimes, who would usually serve around 7-10 years, to go to Angola, learn vocational skills and life lessons, and leave the prison after only two years. Their charges could be anything from drug possession to simple robbery, as long as it was a non-violent crime. When an inmate is considered for this program, judges will look at their age, education, and general living standards as well as their prior crimes. If they dropped out of high school and do not have much formal education, they are a good candidate for re-entry. It is often these individuals, with little to no formal education, that are more likely to return to crime as a way of making money and getting by after their release from prison. While the re-entry program participants are still considered part of the general population, they have their own dormitories and schedules. When asked about the re-entry program’s main objectives, Judge Hunter replied that the,
“number one [goal] is to give that person skill training in carpentry, electrical, etc., so that they can make a decent living. Secondly, to instill some values and to, what I call, get their minds right in order to fully utilize their new skill set. What they call soft skill training, you know, getting to work on time, taking care of your finances, taking care of yourself, taking care of your family. The third thing is to reduce crime.”
Judge Hunter believes that if these individuals are taught these lessons, the likelihood of them committing future crimes should go down, successfully creating a safer community. The inmates, who have clearly made poor decisions in their past, are treated with respect and the idea that these skills they will be able to return to their communities and contribute in a positive way.
Seven years in to the program, according to Judge Hunter, about 30-50 individuals have successfully completed the re-entry program. The recidivism rate, or likelihood to return to crime and be re-arrested, among graduates of the program is approximately 13-14%. Alternatively, the recidivism rate among regular inmates not in the program is about 40%. This provides empirical evidence that Judge Hunter’s vision of the program is becoming a reality, and that the individuals who participate in re-entry are positively benefited by the experience. It’s not all calm sailing from here, though, as Judge Hunter explains that one of the biggest roadblocks facing the program is, “a lack of resources for once they get released. Many of the guys are facing transportation issues and housing issues.” Part of the protocol includes housing after their release, but as Judge Hunter put it, “that usually doesn’t last.” Judge Hunter is hopeful that he can create awareness for the program by giving tours and educating people on its benefits, and receive more funding so that the program can help as many people as possible.
This program is not only beneficial for the people who go through it. It also has extremely positive effects on the mentors, like Bill Carruthers, who have found a purpose for themselves in prison. Bill teaches young inmates the skills necessary to hold a job once they return to the real world, and often urges them to learn from the mistakes he made in his past. While Bill himself is unable to leave Angola anytime soon, he knows he’s having a positive effect on the lives of countless individuals as they go through the system, as well as the general society, as recidivism is much lower in those who go through the re – entry program. Speaking about the mentors Judge Hunter explained, “It’s their way of giving back, especially if they have sons, they can’t teach their sons anything so, basically, they’re adopting these kids as their sons and teaching them necessary skills.” There are two sets of mentors: one set who teach program participants the actual skills, and the social mentors, who teach them the value system to go along with those skills. Many of the mentors realize that if they were given the opportunity to go through this program, they may not be serving life sentences. According to Judge Hunter, mentors are picked on the basis of professional ability, willingness to be a part of the program, and past behavior in prison. Additionally, he affirmed that being a mentor in this program would help when these individuals are up for parole. Without a doubt, the re – entry program at Angola is a genuinely positive experience for all parties involved.
Throughout the 20th century, laws have been enacted and enforced that set the tone for the current state of mass incarceration in the United States. This is not only causing stress on families and communities, but is also costing taxpayers millions of dollars to maintain, staff, and run prison facilities. For example, the cost of sending an inmate through re-entry is about $150,000. While that may seem like a large amount of money, it is dwarfed when compared to the staggering $750,000 or more that it costs to house inmates for 30 plus years.[iii] It is no secret that prisons, either privately or publicly owned, are big businesses with extremely high costs, creating another challenge for programs like Judge Hunter’s. However, Judge Hunter is confident that, with judges backing the program, the morality behind it’s ideals, and its proven positive effects on society as a whole, re – entry programs will be able to gain a stronger support in Louisiana, and eventually around the nation. Agenda’s like the Louisiana State Penitentiary’s re-entry program help to end what is seemingly a ceaseless cycle. With more resources and greater awareness, it will become possible to expand the reach and include more and more inmates each year. Through these types of education curriculums, inmates can develop a stronger sense of purpose upon their return to society, and will be shown and taught a better alternative to returning to crime.
Jake Beeber is a senior at Tulane Univeristy, majoring in Political Science.