By Timothy D. Ray, J.D., for Uptown Messenger
A crowd of almost 300 relatives of soon-to-be released inmates gathered at Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office to celebrate their family members’ (known collectively as ‘Crew 26’) completion of a re-entry program designed to cut the recidivism rate of former O.P.P. inmates. In its third year, Gusman’s re-entry program has brought the recidivism rate of inmates who’ve completed the program down to 13.6 percent compared with 25.6 percent for inmates that do not complete the program, compared to a national average between 40 percent to 50 percent.
Sheriff Gusman opened the program by welcoming the families of the 51 inmates/graduates. The Sheriff elaborated on how continued support from the graduates’ families is crucial to them not becoming repeat offenders. Gusman then turned to the graduates and acknowledged that “everyone who is graduating tonight has accomplished something in the face of adversity.” He said every graduate would leave having built character and become leaders. He stressed that only they control their futures.
In his introduction of Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who provided the opening prayer, Gusman touted what he described as a “strong partnership” with The Associated Catholic Charities and the Sheriff’s Office. Archbishop Aymond followed up Gusman’s sentiment by stating what a privilege it is to be “able to serve.” Aymond continued by saying the Archdiocese is “very grateful for the collaboration; that unity that exists between us.”
The Sheriff displayed a side of himself that has not been seen lately, at least not publicly. In recent months, when Gusman is featured in the news he is seen answering attacks that stem from the Mayor’s Office or the Office of the Inspector General. Today however, Sheriff Gusman addressed the massive crowd with a gentle yet stern tone, admonishing them to take responsibility for their actions and emphasizing his confidence that the graduates have been given the skills and the tools to re-enter society and be successful. The Sheriff said “this program’s success is not measured by the hours of teaching or the days spent in class, but it’s really measured by who goes back to jail.”
Deputy Leo Hayden, director of the Re-Entry and Rehabilitation Program, encouraged the families of the inmates in the program to attend some sessions, believing this approach will benefit the community overall. By the time the ceremony had begun, there was standing room only.
Graduate Joshua Tillery eloquently recited the ‘Southeast Regional Re-Entry Philosophy’ which states in part: “Having alienated ourselves from our own community . . . we have committed ourselves to being open to a process that not only promotes growth, recovery, and change, but will also equip us with the tools and resources to develop a mindset that will lead us to be productive members of the communities that we have damaged.”
Three caring residents of one of the ‘damaged communities’ that Tillery referred to were in attendance at today’s graduation, though none had family members among the graduates to support. JoAnn Cook, Caletha Powell, and Flora Jean Mays-Jones of the Central City group Shalom Zone Community Nola, came to support the graduates and Sheriff Gusman for bringing this model for re-entry to O.P.P.
“We live in the community that [has] the highest crime rate in Central City”, Cook said. Cook said their purpose for coming was to experience the graduation as well as to figure out a way to help the graduates become positive role models in their community.
Powell went on to say although they did not have any family members in this program, they consider themselves to be “community supporters” and supporters of the African-American male whom she believes is an “endangered species as it relates to the prison system.” Powell spoke for many when she said “we are sick and tired of this revolving door and we want to do something about that.” She stressed again their support of the Sheriff and the program director, but wanted to emphasize that they were there, primarily, to support “our young black men”.
Former educator Mays-Jones said the graduation ceremony was “awesome”. During her tenure in the education system, she said many believed some kids were what she described as “throw away kids”. Today, Mays-Jones was moved when she saw the great outpouring of support from all the families who attended the graduation.In the weeks leading up to the graduation, Gusman and Hayden encouraged the families to bring home-cooked meals to eat with their graduates. The guests are all seated at tables with formal tablecloths. Gusman believes eating together is important to the family unit. During his remarks, Gusman went around the room asking what different families brought. One person shouted across the room, “stuffed peppers”, another “pecan candy”, yet another exclaimed: “hot sausage on french”, Gusman jokingly added “with cheese?”.
Gusman then addressed the graduates directly.
“Alright guys, Crew 26, we don’t serve bread pudding, we don’t have any pecan candy, and definitely not stuffed peppers, but more importantly and very seriously, we don’t have your family,” the sheriff said. ”So if you want to enjoy that kind of food and enjoy your family, you gotta make a commitment to get out and stay out.”
Timothy D. Ray, J.D., is a crisis management/dispute resolution consultant and a resident of Uptown New Orleans.”