Angola inmate now productive auto mechanic thanks to re-entry program

John Sheehan (Source: WAFB)
John Sheehan (Source: WAFB)
Bernard Moore (Source: WAFB)
Bernard Moore (Source: WAFB)
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB

ANGOLA, LA (WAFB) - Just like the rusty brake rotors he resurfaces, Chad Bush admits he needed more than just a little work. "I've always been my own biggest critic," says the auto technician. "I always thought I was a screw up. I guess the drugs compounded that."

Bush started using drugs in high school. He eventually graduated to heroin. The fact that he is working as an ASE certified auto technician at a big car dealership is a small miracle considering where his address was just a year ago. "Where was I before this," Bush asks with a wry smile. "Angola." Angola is Louisiana's only maximum security prison. "It's kinda' funny whenever you say it out loud," Bush says.

Had he been sentenced like a normal heroin dealer with multiple felony convictions, Bush would still be in Angola. Instead, his judge opted for a special re-entry program to give Bush one last chance to get straight.

"It's not a 'get out of jail free' card," says Bush's judge, Rusty Knight. Judge Knight runs the re-entry court for St. Tammany Parish, where Bush was convicted. "One of the things I think is unique about the re-entry program is that you try to change the moral compass of that person," says Knight.

According to Judge Knight, the program puts felons like Bush with no violent or sex crimes in their past, through a battery of tests to get to the root of the problems that steered them to crime. Once those  drivers are identified, the courts apply proven interventions to change the felon's behavior, and it's all done through inmates serving life sentences at Angola.

At sentencing, a re-entry inmate is handed a ten year sentence. The first two years are spent in Angola. First, the inmate completes his high school education if he has not done so already. While studying for that, he undergoes treatment for any substance abuse problems he might have, as well as anger management issues. He is also put through numerous life skills classes dealing with everything from parenting to finances.

Once he has finished his high school education, the re-entry inmate learns a trade. The program at Angola offers nearly a dozen options from auto technician to culinary training to horticulture.

It's all done under the watchful eye of inmate mentors. "I look at it as more of an apprenticeship program," says John Sheehan, an ASE certified master auto technician serving life for second degree murder.

"It's the idea that I get to spend a lot of one-on-one time with them," says Sheehan. "Not only do I work with them here during the day, I live in the same housing unit so that I can observe how they're doing on the job and away from the job."

These mentors build personal relationships with re-entry inmates. Most importantly, says Sheehan, they earn the trust of the inmates they work with. He says it's important the mentees know the mentors have their best interests at heart. "It's being able to to pull these young men on the side, one-on-one, building relationships, helping them understand that the way they were thinking before that got them in here is not what they to continue to do to stay out of prison."

The final component of the re-entry program could be the toughest: securing a job before release. But the court helps with that.

Craig Estave, service director of Bill Hood Automotive in Covington, admits he was very skeptical at first. "I finally went there [Angola] hands on and saw the program with my own eyes, and it made me a true believer," said Estave.

Estave hired Bush about six months ago, but Bush was not his first re-entry hire.

Across the shop, behind a mountain of old transmission casings, former drug dealer, Bernard Moore, inspects used cars for Estave. Moore says his trip through Angola and the re-entry program was just the push he needed. "I just wanted to change my life," says Moore. "It was time. It pushed me to want to better myself every day."

That success does not happen in a vacuum. Once a re-entry inmate leaves prison, Judge Knight says he is placed on a type of heightened probation. An inmate is regularly tested for drugs, sometimes as often as twice a week. He also reports to the judge once a week. At these meetings, Judge Knight can address any issues the inmate may be having and any reports the judge may receive from the inmate's employer.

If the inmate is doing well, he is praised. If he is not, the judge can intervene with additional counseling, and there is always the option of returning the inmate to prison to serve his full sentence.

Judge Knight has been using the re-entry program for six years and has more than 40 program graduates on the street. The longest one will soon have been out for four years. "I've only had to send four individuals back to the penitentiary," says Judge Knight. "Less than 10 percent recidivism rate is pretty remarkable."

Currently, only seven judicial jurisdictions take part in the re-entry program, while ten more are actively investigating it. East Baton Rouge Parish's first re-entry inmate will leave Angola this month. Part of the reason for the low participation rate is the cost.

According to Judge Knight, the cost for a ten year successful re-entry is about $150,000 per inmate. Judges using the program either have to cobble together funds from already strapped budgets or seek money in the form of grants. But when compared to the $750,000 or more it would cost to house that same inmate for 30 years or more if he were sentenced as a habitual offender, he says re-entry is a no-brainer. "Now, multiply that times the 42 guys on the street, or multiply that by 92, the guys currently in Angola," says Knight.

In the end, Estave says it's not about savings or second chances. To him, it's about the way the program scrapes away the old, rusty felon to create a new man who is ready to return to society. "They're doing something right over there. Whatever they are doing, it's right," Estave says. "They're coming back out respectful. They're coming back out hard workers. They're coming back out thankful and loving their job and glad to be back in society."

Judge Knight hopes if the program continues to attract more participation and if more jurisdictions show the same success rate as St. Tammany Parish, somewhere down the road, the Louisiana Supreme Court will be able to establish and fund re-entry courts much like the drug courts that are now in every jurisdiction.

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