Larry Thomas, a solid high school linebacker, shared the dream of millions: an NFL career and a big paycheck.

It wasn’t an outlandish aspiration for a kid from Marrero, La., just outside New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi, population 36,000. The place is home to gridiron pros like Reggie Wayne, Kordell Stewart, Norman Jefferson, Ryan Clark and Marty Booker.

But football wasn’t to be. The streets beckoned. Thomas landed in prison, sentenced in November 2012 to 10 years in Orleans Parish Prison for simple burglary by Judge Laurie White. But there, where seeds of second chances are sown, Thomas had a good harvest.

In a state stained by one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, Thomas earned his way into an innovative program, designed five years ago by White and another judge that would lead him to New Orleans Local 130, changing his life’s trajectory and restoring his dreams. He was released from prison in February and has since joined the IBEW as a construction wireman.

New Orleans Local 130 member Larry Thomas gained electrical skills as part of the re-entry at Angola.

“I’ve been received with open arms by the IBEW and my employer,” Thomas says. “They are showing me the ropes to make an honest living, and IBEW is a brotherhood coming together for one common goal. I’m learning how to live a better life, a Christian, godly life.”

After being assigned to a pre-fab facility, Thomas has moved on to working as a construction wireman on the building of the Louisiana Cancer Research Center. “Larry is doing real well. He’s conscientious and respectful. He’s a quick learner and I just can’t say enough good things about him,” says his foreman J.W. Hazel.

“Re-entry” is today’s lingo for programs that help prisoners rejoin life outside lockup. Experts say sound mentoring is indispensable.

For Thomas, that mentoring arose from an incongruous, seemingly impossible source of inspiration--the solemnly dedicated, skilled tradesmen at work on their own redemption, lifers at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, once considered the most brutal penal institution in the U.S.

It was an overwhelming frustration that led Orleans Criminal District Court judges White and Arthur Hunter, along with Angola’s chief warden, Burl Cain, to establish Angola’s re-entry program. Nationally-recognized, it pairs non-violent, non-sex crime offenders with sentences of 10 years or less, like Thomas, with a skilled cadre among Angola’s prisoners, more than 60 percent of whom are serving life sentences.

“I want to stop the crime cycle,” says White, a Democrat, elected to a 13-year term in 2007. A former prosecutor and defense lawyer, White says she has felt powerless as nearly 60 percent of the offenders she sentences to Orleans Parish Prison return to the courtroom within three years of their release.

White considered the contradictions surrounding Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the U.S., with an 18,000-acre footprint. Larger than Manhattan, it is 135 miles northwest of New Orleans, bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River.

In a deeply red state where low taxes are an issue of almost religious resonance, Angola must be largely self-contained, running a cattle ranch, a  vegetable farm and a manufacturing plant, all worked by the institution’s 6,300 prisoners with profits going to Prison Enterprises, the self-funded business arm of the Louisiana Department of Corrections. Prisoners, including those who will never leave, are trained in every skill from horticulture to cooking and the trades and crafts necessary to maintain the institution’s sprawling facilities.

The prison complex includes a Baptist bible college that issues four-year degrees to many prisoners who have become respected leaders among their peers. A TV station, radio station and quarterly magazine are all run by inmates.

At the judges’ suggestion, Angola authorities asked some of the accomplished tradesmen and lifers who have transformed their lives to share dormitories with court-approved candidates and become round-the-clock coaches merging on-the-job instruction and social survival skills. Authorities took the unconventional step of asking inmates to run the program.

More than 100 prisoners and ex-offenders are now participating in the re-entry program. More than 60 have been released and administrators say recidivism is far lower than it has been with other programs over the years. State legislators representing other jurisdictions are trying to follow New Orleans’ lead and establish similar programs on their home turf.

Throwing Out Tradition

Warden Cain, has thrown tradition out the window by giving one inmate authority over another, says Perry Stagg, Angola’s assistant warden for programming. “That’s a cardinal sin in prison management.”

When they meet a mentor from the [predominantly black] Ninth Ward of New Orleans who has gone through some of the same things they have in life, re-entry participants are more likely to trust in the program, Stagg says.

Hayward Jones is one of those mentors. He has spent 16 years in Angola on a life sentence and served as Larry Thomas’s social mentor. “Larry was a good candidate for the program. He was like a sponge. As mentors, we’re helping change outside communities from inside the prison by giving guys like Larry a chance everyone doesn’t get.” 

Jones’ fellow mentor, George Gillam, who has served 21 years of his life sentence, has earned his bachelor of arts in Christian education and a culinary arts degree while incarcerated. “I felt I wanted to give back,” Gillam said. Too many of today’s young prisoners, he says, have no reverence for authority.  

Mentor George Gillam, serving a life sentence, has earned degrees in Christian education and culinary arts. “I felt I wanted to give back.”

“Larry admitted what he did wrong and then we challenged him to see what he can do right, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, to give himself over to the program,” Gilliam said.

Stagg says many of the mentors, who never had the chance to be role models for children, now take pride in newfound parental roles. Re-entry participants are required to stay in touch with their mentors after release. “I’ve seen mentors with tears in their eyes when they hear of one of the prisoners they have worked with straying from the path and getting in trouble again. It’s like the men they mentor are their own children,” Stagg says.

For two years before his release, Thomas learned about the electrical trade, getting hands-on experience working throughout the prison installing fiber optic cable for surveillance and other applications. “Larry asked a million questions,” says Clifton Gremillion, the prison’s communication department superintendent. “He’s a real good guy and I always encouraged him to be a leader, not just a follower.” Thomas’s social mentors amplified that lesson.

“I learned from my mentors that sometimes you only get one shot at things. I don’t have to have a life sentence to learn what life is all about. My family is very proud of me and excited I decided to turn my life around and do the right thing--to wake up every morning and go to work. Nothing is better than the way they look up to me,” Thomas said.

The re-entry program is not without risks for offenders who choose to participate. While a 10-year sentence could be converted to two years for those who play by the rules, if they fail, they could end up doing more time than prisoners who forego re-entry but are rewarded for good behavior.

Finding Willing Employers

A re-entry program is only as successful as the number of employers who are willing to take a chance on hiring ex-offenders. After being approached by the court, journeyman inside wireman Sandy Theriot, director of Local 130’s Electrical Training Alliance, went looking for a signatory contractor who would hire Thomas. She contacted Jason Schumm, director of the South Louisiana chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association.

“I found Larry’s situation compelling,” says Schumm, who was already working to answer a request from Kenneth Polite, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, to help launch a program seeking 30 area employers to agree to hire two ex-offenders each.

Polite, 39, attended high school in New Orleans, moving on to Harvard and Georgetown University Law School before being appointed U.S. attorney by President Obama in 2013. He says Louisiana’s jails and prisons release 300 prisoners every month and “at every turn, these men and women are running into roadblocks” even though experts expect 86,000 job openings in Louisiana within the next two years, many in the energy industry.

“We’re trying to engage the business community to offer opportunities to released prisoners who have the greatest chance to succeed,” Polite says.

‘Soft Skills’ Support On-the-Job Training

Job applicants coming out of Angola’s program, Polite says, have 100 hours of ‘soft skill’ training, including victim awareness and financial literacy. Instructors even include a member of the Harvard University faculty. And their certification in one of 20 ‘hard skills’ curriculums reduces the training investment required by their potential employers. “So far, re-entry has been pretty successful,” Polite says.  “And Local 130 has been a tremendous partner.”

Local 130 Business Manager Paul Zulli, right, says the program gives people ‘a second chance at success.’

Still, i

“This program is important because it gives back to the community and gives individuals who have made mistakes in their lives and may not have had the same opportunities as most of our members a second chance at success,” says Local 130 Business Manager Paul Zulli.

t’s not an easy sell getting contractors to hire former inmates, Schumm admits. To support his pitch, Schumm arranged for managers at a family-owned electrical contractor, to tour the prison’s training center and hear about Thomas’s progress. Thomas’s employer was won over. Thomas was hired.

Local 130’s Training Director Theriot has expressed the hope that Thomas will further his education by entering the apprenticeship program. 

Theriot says the re-entry program is essential to renew New Orleans. “Whole sections of New Orleans have per capita incarceration rates higher than third world countries,” says Theriot. “And the sad part is many people who have not committed a violent crime are doing life because of repeat drug charges.”

 More employers need to follow the lead of Thomas’s employer, she says.

“Thomas’s attitude is infectious,” Schumm says. “Here’s a young man with a small child looking to reinvent himself.”

Because of the new member’s progress, the next candidate from the re-entry program will have an even better chance of being placed with a NECA contractor, adds Schumm.

“For the IBEW to grow and be truly respected by our neighbors and our political leaders, our locals need to reflect the composition of our surrounding communities,” says International President Lonnie R. Stephenson.

That means, says Stephenson, supporting a diverse population of electrical workers, consisting of returning veterans, college educated men and women looking for more stable careers and ex-offenders who have everything to gain by participation in the electrical trade.

“The New Orleans re-entry program offers ample evidence that good jobs with a future are the key to reducing the number of men and women in our jails and prisons and reforming our nation’s criminal justice system. The IBEW is proud to participate and we are proud of the success of Larry Thomas,” Stephenson says.

Home page photo used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Michael Coghlan.