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Elain Ellerbe | October 16, 2018
Over the 25 years of my work with incarcerated individuals and their families, I have had the great pleasure and honor to run into a number of what I call “reentry warriors.” These people were the early champions of improving reentry for those leaving prison long before reentry became the darling of policies and politics surrounding criminal justice reform. Back then, thinking major reform could come legislatively was a pipe dream. Now, dozens of states, including Louisiana have reformed their prison systems for the better and the federal government is on the brink of doing the same with the First Step Act.
There are a number of individuals I can speak volumes about, but there are two young men who were in-the-trenches that I have had the honor and pleasure to labor beside: Andrew Hundley, President and CEO of Louisiana Parole Project and Johnny Carriere, Executive Director of The Refinery in Opelousas, Louisiana. While their paths just crossed in recent times, they had a connection through a mutual friendship with my late husband, Michael Ellerbe, a very early crusader in all things reentry in Louisiana. Michael’s imprint on Johnny and Andrew is extremely obvious to me as I have watched them grow in knowledge and influence as well as how they develop and implement the outstanding programs they both now lead.
Both have received media attention not only on a local and state level, but also nationally. In a recent article in Daily World, a subsidiary of USA Today, Johnny was highlighted for his work at The Refinery, a transitional housing program located in Opelousas, Louisiana. The Refinery not only provides housing, but also assistance for men released from prison who go there to get their necessary identification documents, GEDs and job opportunities.
The really interesting aspect of Johnny’s involvement in this work is that he knows what it’s like to have to come to grips with substance abuse after having to pull himself out of some extremely dangerous situations. Johnny states, “What I’m doing now seems so foreign to me. It’s almost crazy to think of how my life has moved into this phase. I’ve blown scholarships and affected lives because of selfish ambitions and doing different stuff, but I have come to realize that it’s all a matter of finding your way. That’s what we are trying to do here with the men that we’ve had and who are currently with us.”
In the 10 years since Johnny first took the leadership reins of what was then named the Opelousas Lighthouse Mission, he has expanded the facilities from 32 beds to 64 beds, which now includes a Chapel, greenhouse, and community garden. He rebranded the mission as The Refinery and now has a staff of four working alongside him.
Like Johnny, Andrew has transformed his life, having been the first juvenile lifer to be resentenced as a result of the Supreme Court decision and Louisiana’s change in sentencing laws that now requires juvenile offenders to be given the opportunity of parole after a certain period of time is served, effectively banning life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Andrew was released from prison after 16 years and initially worked as a case manager for a nonprofit involved in reentry work. He went on to be one of the catalysts for the Louisiana Parole Project that provides intense case management and programming for other juvenile lifers who have been incarcerated for over 30 to 40 years and are now well into their 50’s and 60’s. In a recent article in The Advocate, Andrew states, “The work we have to do continues, I see myself as an example of the power of second chances, but there’s no doubt in my mind that if others got the same opportunity that I received, that they would excel also.”
Johnny and Andrew now have formed a partnership between the two organizations as well as a lasting bond and friendship. Their common connection to my husband and their continued contact with me, helps us all as we still grapple with Michael’s passing in 2013. I know he would have been extremely proud of “his guys”.
As I have long preached, at the end of the day, it really does not matter what transpires in the policy realm if we do not have the in-the-trenches / boots-on-the-ground people to provide services to returning citizens. People like Johnny Carriere, Andrew Hundley and the many more I could list here are not well known, but there would not be the success being experienced today in Louisiana if it were not for these lesser known reentry champion warriors. And I should know — I wear that mantle proudly too.