Photo by The Advocate’s Hilary Scheinuk

In a recent article, Grace Toohey, criminal justice reporter for The Advocate in Baton Rouge penned these words regarding a new reentry program instituted at one of Louisiana’s larger state prison facilities:

“In less than six months, one of the most dangerous and dreaded dormitories at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel has become one of the most peaceful. Some of the worst offenders housed there for infractions have started turning over weapons. And many, for the first time, are staying out of trouble for months on end.”

There is not a prison in this country that would not like to be able to say the same thing about their “worst of the worst” population. While some criminal justice reform critics still negate the effectiveness of reentry programs, the miracle of redemption for these hardened criminals happens every day.  I know because I’ve personally seen it happen more times than I can count as I worked inside the walls of state prisons and local jails for over 25 years developing and implementing reentry programs.

The program reported in The Advocate was brought to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center by Warden Perry Stagg.   Warden Stagg was one of the architects of the very successful reentry program developed at Angola wherein lifer inmates are paired with younger offenders who’ve been given the opportunity to earn shorter sentences through completion of reentry programs.   Warden Stagg was eventually transferred to Hunt Correctional as head warden.  It did not take him long to put a program in motion at Hunt based on what he had seen work so well at Angola.  The Hunt program pairs the most difficult offenders with volunteer offender mentors who live together for 45 days all the while focusing on rehabilitation that includes anger management, parenting, substance abuse and changing their criminal mindsets.

As Warden Stagg stated in The Advocate article, “You take a guy who needed this program because they were so lost in their life and what they were doing, and now they’ve come through the program and become mentors themselves,” Stagg said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

A very telling example of what Warden Stagg said is 27-year-old Tyrone Epps who just graduated from the program.  As Epps received his certificate of completion, he turned to smile at his father, Tyrone Allen.  It’s not really unusual for family members to attend these graduations, yet in the case of Mr. Allen, he did not have to travel far to attend the ceremony.  You see, he serves as one of the peer offender mentors also incarcerated at Hunt with his son.  As the younger Epps states, who now wants to become a mentor and has a 9-year-old son also named Tyrone, “We gotta break the cycle… I want to take all of the negative energy and turn it into positive”.

With the positive energy of a leader such as Warden Stagg and his philosophy of reaching the worst of the worst as well as a reentry program structured to provide human interaction to change people’s lives, the pathway to redemption can happen every day.