08-21-2017 Jail

Mental illness education vital to prison reform at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017.

The Louisiana Parole Project is working within the community to provide second chances to formerly incarcerated individuals.

Founded by sociology senior Andrew Hundley in 2016, the non-profit organization originally provided services for juveniles with life sentences who were released on parole. The program has now expanded to assist anyone who has served over 20 years.

Hundley was inspired to advocate for paroled juvenile lifers after he served his own lengthy prison sentence. Hundley was sentenced to life in prison after committing second-degree murder at the age of 16. He served 19 years before being released on parole.

Until 2012, it was legal to give mandatory life sentences to juveniles for serious offenses. Since the decision in Miller v. Alabama, it has been ruled unconstitutional, and many prisoners, including Hundley, have been released on parole. Although it is still legal to give life sentences without parole to juveniles who are considered beyond rehabilitation, it is no longer the only option.

“I personally recognized there was a need for many other juvenile-lifers who wouldn’t be able to afford the legal representation to go through the parole process or the support structure that I had upon release,” Hundley said. 

Hundley transferred to the University after completing online credits while incarcerated. He plans to graduate in the spring with a degree in sociology and aspires to attend law school or obtain a master’s degree. Sociology was a natural choice because he wanted to remain involved in criminal justice advocacy.

President of the Board of Directors of the Louisiana Parole Project and adjunct law professor Keith Nordyke stressed the importance of slowly reintroducing its clients to the modern world.

“They haven’t touched a cell phone [or] a computer,” Nordyke said. “They haven’t been to Walmart [and] they haven’t set foot in a restaurant. Our job is to bring them up to speed to society.” 

After one of its clients is released, a staff member from the Parole Project picks them up and keeps them in residence for ten days. During that time, clients are given new clothes, connected to employment opportunities and taught current societal norms.

The first 72 hours after a prisoner is released is critical, according to the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. Those who don’t have anyone to pick them up from prison or employment options are more likely to return to criminal behavior.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections estimates 43 percent of released prisoners will return within five years. So far, none of the Parole Project’s 43 clients that have returned to prison.

“Louisiana gives out life without parole sentences at an alarming rate,” Hundley said. “We throw people away and forget about them, and we don’t allow a review process after we rehabilitate people. If those Supreme Court decisions hadn’t come out, I probably would have died in prison in spite of the change in my life.”

Although 30 states still allow life without parole, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Louisiana still account for two-thirds of all juvenile-lifers, and Louisiana has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, according to the Sentencing Project.

The Parole Project also seeks to change the stigma surrounding those who have been incarcerated by turning them into productive members of society.

“If you invest in these people while they’re incarcerated and continue to invest in them after they’re released, you can turn a tax burden into a taxpayer,” Hundley said.

It costs thousands of dollars to keep prisoners incarcerated every year, and that number increases as prisoners age and have more medical expenses. The average prisoner costs Louisiana $17,486 a year, according to the National Institute of Corrections. The cost is even higher at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, or “Angola,” where most of the Parole Project’s clients are from, at nearly $23,000 a year.

The Prison Policy Initiative states Louisiana no longer holds the title of “Prison Capital of the World,” having been surpassed this year by Oklahoma. Nordyke said although there has been substantial progress with the state’s criminal justice reform legislation, there is always room for improvement.

“Let’s not punish anywhere past where we need to punish,” Nordyke said. “Punishment alone is a valid concept. But at some point it becomes too much. A life sentence is a death sentence. It’s a slow, painful death.”

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