September 08, 2015 Asked and Answered

How a program at an infamous prison helps inmates re-enter society (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

What good can some men serving life sentence do for other inmates? A great deal, says Judge Laurie A. White, who co-founded a re-entry program for inmates of the infamous Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. In this episode of Asked and Answered, she tells the ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward about how the program utilizes the skills of men who will never leave prison to improve the lives of those who will.

White’s work on the Orleans Re-entry Court Workforce Development Program led the ABA Journal to feature her and her fellow co-founder Judge Arthur Hunter as two of our 2015 Legal Rebels.

Listen to the Podcast

Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Francis Ward: Before Laurie White was elected to the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in New Orleans, she represented inmates serving life sentences at Angola [State Penitentiary]. She saw the men had a lot more to offer than many realize. And those experiences led to her work with creating a program where some Angola lifers provide job training and life skills work for new inmates facing less time.

I’m Stephanie Francis Ward. And on today’s episode of ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, Judge White is going to be telling us more about the program. Also, Judge White is one of our 2015 Legal Rebels, an annual feature that looks at innovators who are remaking the legal profession.

Judge, can you tell us a bit more about how the Orleans Re-entry Court Workforce Development Program works?

Laurie A. White: Yeah, I sure will. It was decided that the best way to start a program is to pick the people you put in the program. And that’s what I wanted to do with the program. So selecting an individual that’s in front of me for sentencing was a great place to start. So you’ve seen them over the length of time that they’ve been coming to court. You know what kinds of problems or drug issues they may be dealing with. And you sort of know what kind of offers the state is making for them. And you can figure out is this person a good candidate. Does this person need to get away from their community?

Do they need to do something to get a fresh start? And so that’s how, when they would be in a posture to plead guilty, then they could plead guilty to come into the program.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. Can you tell me a bit about when you started going to Angola as a lawyer to help some of the lifers with their appeals, I have the impression that you really discovered these men had a lot to offer with a variety of things where, for people outside the criminal justice world, they may not realize that someone in Angola who is having a life sentence can really help someone else? Can you tell us a bit about your experiences and getting to know them?

Laurie A. White: Sure. I had been a prosecutor in New Orleans, and I had been a prosecutor in Baton Rouge. And then I became a defense lawyer. And while I was a defense lawyer, I started representing people in post-conviction relief proceedings. And in post-conviction, obviously, they’re doing jail time. And in Louisiana, we have the highest incarceration rate of anywhere in the world. And that’s what I said, the world. So a life sentence in Louisiana means life. So during my 20 years or so as a private lawyer, I ended up handling post-conviction and didn’t really know what it was to begin with.

So when I managed to pick up a couple of cases with someone who would pay a little bit of money here or there, and I would go meet with the client after looking at their paperwork, I was very surprised at how knowledgeable they had become about the law, and then how knowledgeable they were about maybe what they had done to do their own rehabilitation.

And I met several inmates, one of those being Calvin Duncan, and the other Norris Henderson, who worked in the prison library. And they were super interesting. I was just really overwhelmed with how much I thought rehabilitation they might have done for themselves to be the people that I was meeting.

Both of them had been in prison about 20-something years. And the more I got to know them—I ended up working on both of their cases. Both of them are now out of prison. And both of them were falsely accused. And I was so surprised, first of all having been a prosecutor, that people could be falsely accused and convicted. And then to learn that people who had suffered from such an injustice could be so incredibly helpful to other people in prison and not bitter. And both of those gentlemen are now out of prison. We’re still friends.

Calvin is actually working with me. He’s gotten a grant to start doing re-entry work with me and kind of doing some handholding with my re-entry guys from the time they leave the prison until the time they come back for me to monitor them through the court. So I was surprised and knew that they had more to offer.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Now, you had mentioned with both of those men, and probably many others you have met, how they had done some of their own rehabilitation work while they were inside. Can you tell me a bit about how at that time inside, they just kind of did not give up hope in their situation, but they also found a way to live through it and not, I think you said earlier, not being bitter. That probably was key for their ultimate success.

Laurie A. White: Right. And I think the other thing, for these gentlemen, having been falsely accused, I realize they probably didn’t need the same rehabilitation as maybe people who had committed crimes and were in prison. So my first thought was, “OK, these gentlemen are rehabilitated because maybe they weren’t in need of rehabilitation to begin with. But once you’re locked up for a length of time, you’re definitely going to have some issues. And they did not have those types of issues.”

So then as my knowledge and experience base progressed, I saw different men in prison who had, in fact, committed crimes; admitted that they committed crimes; and were on the same path that I saw that Norris and Calvin were on. And that was to be a good citizen, even if your community is the prison. And so I realized having represented several people that were released from prison. And in essence, I was doing re-entry work as a defense lawyer, and I started an inner-city boxing gym, my husband and I did, where one of the young men that I had gotten out of prison who had been in for a good number of years started boxing.

So of course, he asked us to help him. And before we knew it, we basically owned this boxing gym and all of the problems that went with it. And that’s when I realized trying to do as much as we could to help this young man, there was no way that we could do it all for him. We couldn’t recapture the time that he’d been in prison. We couldn’t teach him the morals that he needed to learn. We couldn’t educate him. We couldn’t help him get his GED. All of those things. And then having been a prosecutor and a defense lawyer here, and knowing my community, I knew that we needed to start re-entry not when people get out of prison, but we need to start sooner.

We need to start in the schools. We need to start at home. But if that’s not possible, then where can I offer some support and make this happen? And that’s where it started with putting people in jail to go directly into a program.

And Judge Arthur Hunter, my co-creator from New Orleans, spoke with the warden out at Angola State Penitentiary, which is Louisiana State Penitentiary, and it’s pretty known for being a life sentence prison. And it’s been considered brutal and infamous for many years. And he agreed to our idea and allowed us to use lifers that are doing life sentences to be the mentors for young men that we put in the program. And that’s what we did.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Can you tell me a bit about the job-training aspects that you have there for people in the program?

Laurie A. White: Sure. When I put someone in the program, they are given a social mentor, an educational mentor and a vocational mentor. And what they do is we have approximately 20 different groups of trades that they can work with. Anything from welding to auto mechanics to auto body, plumbing, sheet rock, horticulture, electrical, quite a few. And what they do is we have nationally certified the lifers that are teaching these programs. And these guys study. They have to get their GED first of all. That’s a condition of the program. And then they go into like HVAC and refrigeration, auto mechanics, and then they work and study under a prisoner who is a lifer who is a mentor.

And then they learn to get to an area where they are certified nationally, recognized certification, at two levels. Before the prison mentors recommend that a mentee is to be released back to my supervision, they have to pass not only the certification, their GED, but 100 hours of pre-release training. And basically, what they’re doing is they’re teaching them and hoping and working with them for a moral change as well as educational.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And if you can tell me about that a bit. I know when I was speaking with Calvin Duncan previously, he had mentioned talking to these young men about how to make changes. And I understand that many of the young men in the prison are black. And there is certainly a lot of racism in our country. And talking about how to I guess acknowledge that, but also not to let feelings about that get in your way in terms of success. And just those life skills, I mean, it sounded to me very much like things that your father might tell you in life.

But he mentioned that unfortunately a lot of these men didn’t have fathers, and never had any kind of father/son relationship that was healthy until they got into your program. I know his comment was, “It’s kind of sad, you don’t have a father figure until you go to Angola.”

Laurie A. White: That’s right. And interestingly, the prisoners that are the mentors in Angola were in the same boat. They didn’t have father figures, but they have now become father figures to those entering the program and because they have succeeded and become successful at the prison as trustees and more educated or ministers because there is quite a bit of—all of that is allowed at Angola. So for people that are sentenced to life, the warden and our Department of Corrections has allowed them to still excel and do things to be a success, even in prison.

And that’s why I thought those were the things that we could use to help these young people, because an inmate can speak to another inmate much better than a white judge named White can. And while I may have street cred or whatever—

Stephanie Francis Ward: And who is a woman from a middle class background, yeah.

Laurie A. White: So it provides a whole new realm. And that’s why I use people that were in prison to come to my meetings now with all of the re-entrants that are in my program. I meet with them once a month. And I have people from the community; and I have employers; and I have people that I’ve sentenced and are now out of prison. They come and join in the support of the people that come in and are being supervised by my court. And they also are the ones who can really call bull on anybody that’s saying, “Oh, I can’t get this done or that done.”

Stephanie Francis Ward: Are there any plans to offer something like this for your women’s prison?

Laurie A. White: We’re hoping to as soon as possible. Angola State Penitentiary has like 6,300 inmates, but it’s also on a very large piece of land. And because of cutbacks in our state going, “Wow, we’ve incarcerated people for too long, let’s close down some prisons,” they’ve then moved some people, a lot of inmates, to Angola. The women’s prison, we only have one large state prison and then some smaller ones. It’s mostly space, and we want to do this and plan to do it. And I’m working with the secretary of the Department of Corrections so that we can do more of this.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I have the impression that this program doesn’t cost the state a lot of money. Is that correct?

Laurie A. White: That’s correct. In fact, interestingly, the Louisiana State Penitentiary has an inmate rodeo. And the proceeds from that rodeo are what is supporting our program. But what it does to support the program is just pay for some of the testing for the high school equivalency test, pays for the certifications. A lot of the equipment that we’ve received has been donated from large companies, unions, individuals for them to work with the different from welding and refrigeration, electrical shop, all of the small engine. Those things have been donated with the tools. The books and other things are, basically, items that would be in the prison anyway.

You were still going to house and feed these inmates and give them the medical care and the food. So we’re just redirecting what they do in their hours that they’re awake during their time. It’s time better spent.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. Can you give me a sense, perhaps anecdotally, what is the success rate for people who finish the program and are released?

Laurie A. White: Very high. I accept, in Orleans, we were the first parish because we’re parishes in Louisiana instead of counties; we were the first parish to start the re-entry program. And I accept cases from 11 sections of court. My colleague Judge Hunter accepts from his section of court.

I have right now 32 people that are pending in Angola because there are different segments. I sentence them, and they go into the program. So if they complete the program at Angola, and they’re not removed, then they make it to me. Then once they make it to me, and then they’re successful, then you have another level of success.

I’m working with about 20 people right now. And I’ve had 20 actively on supervision. I have about four that have been re-arrested for significant issues that I have removed from the program. And then the prison, their removals are different. Their removals are for prison reasons. Either a write-up for maybe a sex offense or smoking weed or prison offenses. So they remove them from the program. I have nothing to do with that portion. Then, when they complete the program at Angola, which is anywhere from 24 months upward, then they come back to me. And then, as I said, I’ve had several that have been re-arrested or have had heroin problems and can’t get off the heroin.

But our success rate seems to be in the numbers way above 60, 70, and 80 percent. And because when we started this program, it’s sort of a pipeline effect, I have to put people in the pipeline to get them through the first portion at Angola to then come to me, so it’s different levels of success rates.

We also initially had people that I would put them in the program, and they would be released or go to work release, or they would go out on parole. So we’ve had to adjust how the sentencing is handled. So this has been quite a work in progress.

Stephanie Francis Ward: For people who when they do successfully finish the program and are released and are successful with that, are there some common habits of these men that you see repeatedly?

Laurie A. White: Yes. In particular, we find that having been incarcerated and gotten the support system, as I’ve said, from a vocational, religious, all these mentors, they have more support than they’ve probably ever had in their life. And when they’re released, and they come back, and now they’re trying to get on their feet, and a lot of the gentlemen have the same issues.

They don’t have a driver’s license or their driver’s license is suspended because they had tickets that have to be paid for. They have child support issues many times. They need to get a job. But now, of course, they’re a felon, and people don’t want to give a felon a job.

They need a place to live, so they will usually, if they were not already in a relationship, they get in a relationship so that they can have a place to live with someone. And then they’re trying to go to work. And now, they have money in their pocket maybe. Now, they’re back in the same community.

So they’re trying not to return to drugs or the same old, same old. And they’re trying to remember everything they’ve learned and put it to work. And they don’t feel as well-surrounded and protected as they actually did in the prison when everyone was working on rehabilitation as a group. We use a holistic approach in the prison.

We use a holistic approach outside of the prison. But this program has no funding, so I have no staff. It’s strictly me and a probation officer that’s assigned to re-entry. And I need more handholding for the support of the 20 or so that I’m seeing on a monthly basis.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I have the impression that, for some of the people who enter the program, it’s a fair amount who are repeaters. And it’s just kind of for stupid stuff. I don’t mean stupid in that they shouldn’t be there, but just dumb stuff people do to get put in prison. So it’s not like they just get sent to prison the first time. It’s guys who have had a fair amount of screw ups but nothing serious. But it is serious for their lives.

Laurie A. White: Right. Because they’re now in a posture to be multiple billed or charged as a habitual offender, which means their sentence is going to be longer and flatter. And when I say flat, I mean without good-time release or even parole eligibility perhaps.

But the people who go into our program are people who are charged with non-violent crimes. They’re non-sex charges. And the sentence has to be 10 years or less to be considered in the program. And they have to not be multiple billed. And our prosecutor multiple bills on a regular basis every day. And that’s something that he agrees not to multiple bill them, for them to go into the program, but reserves the right to multiple bill them if they should fail out.

And there have been, in recent weeks, two or three people from the court that were flunked out at the prison level. And now, the prosecutor is going to multiple bill them. So this is a real last-ditch offer for some people.

Stephanie Francis Ward: If you do the program, get out, screw up, go back in, could you go back in the program?

Laurie A. White: Well, it depends on the screw up I guess.

Stephanie Francis Ward: A non-violent screw up.

Laurie A. White: Sorting through that. It’s up to the court to make a decision on what we’re going to do with someone. I have, as I said, revoked a few people. And then others, I’ve put into treatment if they’re having a drug problem or a different kind of treatment or a different kind of housing. So this is not something that—it is an attempt at rehabilitation and to work with, holistically, the individual and their problems.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you have a sense of approximately what percentage of your people who come to the program have some sort of addiction?

Laurie A. White: Oh, 95 percent.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Oh, OK. And you mentioned that a lot of people who have come through the program and are successful, they help them when they come out. Do you have strong ties with the recovery community in New Orleans as well?

Laurie A. White: Yes.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK.

Laurie A. White: Yes, because I’m looking for referrals at all times whether it be housing, employment. If my friends own a business, I’ve leaned on them to give an ex-offender a job. If my friend is a psychiatrist, I’m like, “You know, could you help with this person?”

So whatever they need, we’re trying to find the right place for them because there are some really great success stories coming out of this. And to watch, just in my court, when the Calvin Duncans and the Daniel [unclear] and the Samuel Bells; all people that I have sentenced or represented, help another one and say, “You’re not taking this serious, and this judge is trying to help you, and you’ve got to rethink this.

Or you need to realize your life is going to be thrown away.” And that makes a huge difference.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m curious. When you’re asking friends who own businesses to hire these men, what kind of responses do you get?

Laurie A. White: I get noes, but I get some yeses, too. So I don’t mind. I have a friend that hired someone, and the young man called last week to say “I don’t have a ride to work.” Well, that’s not something you call your judge about. You get yourself to work. And a lot of this is just learning what other people that have worked and have a history of working and have a history of maybe even family that says this is how you’re supposed to properly behave in the community and in the work world that just don’t know these things.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m curious, too. When people who are facing sentencing, when they hear about this program, is there a common reaction? For people who might be able to be in this program, what do they think when they hear about it?

Laurie A. White: Well, Angola is not someplace that people want to go to. And they’re a little afraid that the program is at Angola. But they also realize, if they could get a job and get out of their world and have an opportunity, many of them are extremely interested. I have had lawyers that are not interested in their clients doing this because they’re afraid their clients will fail. And then they’ll be multiple billed because the prosecutor is withholding that as part of the plea agreement. If that’s the case, then I have to trust the lawyer’s advice on that because, if they don’t think their client will make it, I don’t want losers in the program.

I want people that want to change their life and be successful and do something different than what’s the same old.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. Is there something, now that you’ve been doing this a bit, is there anything that says you just get a feeling that, yeah, this person can do this and change their life?

Laurie A. White: Oh, yeah, because I do the interviews before I accept them into the program. And a lot of that is from my experience spending time representing people and knowing this community, just knowing. Sometimes, it’s gut. Sometimes, it’s the knowledge. Sometimes, it’s the people I see them in court with. Sometimes, it’s the way they respond to authority or don’t respond to their lawyers even. And they’re willingness to do things like come to court and drug screen, or if they’re in jail, their position on my life needs to change, and I know you have this program. So yes, it becomes almost a sixth sense to figure out who I think can be successful and who wants a chance.

Stephanie Francis Ward: One of the things, when I was interviewing people about you for your profile for the journal, multiple people told me that one of the things that was most unique about you they would say is, “Well, she is this white lady, but she really takes the time to care and understand about these guys in prison. She actually cares about us and knows how to talk to us.”

I don’t know if you feel that way about yourself or not. But for someone who wants to work with people who are in the prison system, and if they’re a white lady like you and me, what advice would you give them how to truly relate with clients or people in front of them and really care about them and give them that impression that you do really care about them, and you want the best for them?

Laurie A. White: I don’t know what you would tell somebody. You just have to care. It’s just something that you either care or you don’t, and people know that. And I’ve never been one to mince words. And I’m the first one to say, “Hey, I’m a white lady trying to help you. If a white lady cares about you, then why don’t you care about yourself?” And just some of those things.

And I’ve never ignored any issues. It’s been right there. I was fascinated with the first inmate that I met as much as that inmate probably was with me. And I think it’s an interesting dichotomy because it’s not like I’ve had relatives to go to prison, and my goal was to always be a prosecutor and put bad people away.

But I also know that people, no matter what color or whatever their funk is that if they are good people, then they should be cared about and helped. And I think everybody should get a shot. And I send people to prison every day. So I like being able to help people.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Judge, that’s everything that I have to ask for you today. Did you want to add anything else?

Laurie A. White: I think not. I just appreciate you all shining some light on our little program here. And we’re hoping that it’s going to increase and expand.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Thank you so much for your time. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and you have been listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

[End of transcript]

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Laurie A. White is a criminal court judge in New Orleans. She is also is a co-founder of the state’s Re-Entry Court Program. Working with Louisiana’s Department of Corrections and the state penitentiary, the program selects inmates serving life sentences to teach job training and life skills to nonviolent felons with shorter sentences. White, a former prosecutor who later did work for the Louisiana Appellate Project, is the presiding district court judge of Criminal District Court, Section A, in Orleans Parish.