Work release program benefits Lafayette inmates, businesses

Gorden Duhon lounged a bit Thursday before his 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. work shift began at a Lafayette restaurant.

The 32-year-old Lafayette native sporting longish short pants, a polo shirt and Crocs on his feet was reticent about saying where he worked. Bosses are sometimes skittish about acknowledging they employ convicted felons who still have time left on their judge-ordered prison sentences.

Duhon pleaded guilty to theft in August 2012 and is scheduled for release in 2015. He is one of 170 minimum-security Lafayette Parish inmates who participate in the Sheriff’s Office work-release program, officially called the Transitional Work Program.

Duhon was an apprentice in another trade when he first started in the work-release program. “I got carpentry training. That was pretty cool,” he said.

But he’d rather be in a kitchen and cooking, which he learned to do at home with his mother and grandmother. Duhon said he plans to be a chef when he walks away a free man in March.

Participating Lafayette Parish inmates are being housed in the months-old Public Safety Complex on West Willow Street, where sheriff’s deputies each day ferry work-release participants to and from their jobs in unmarked vans.

All the inmates in the work-release program, male and female, are coming to the end of their sentences, said Rob Reardon, director of corrections for the Sheriff’s Office.

Employers from across Lafayette Parish and beyond hire inmates for all sorts of jobs, from high-paying construction and offshore production platform jobs to cooks and dishwashers, Reardon said.

The inmates blend in with other workers; they are not made to wear the recognizable black and white-striped prison garb that some 150 Lafayette Parish inmates wear when they work on road cleanup crews.

Reardon said the kitchens of many restaurants in Lafayette and elsewhere are staffed with Lafayette Parish and Iberia Parish inmates.

Eligibility for work-release is good behavior while in jail and three or fewer years left to a sentence. Inmates must apply and be interviewed by work-release program staff. They pay for room and board at the parish complex. And, if required, every paycheck pays a percentage of an inmate’s court-ordered restitution, court costs and child support.

Lt. Armen Alexandrian, Transitional Work Program manager, said working while in prison helps prepare the inmate for life after jail because they have the responsibility of preparing for work and showing up on time.

“We want them to do as much for themselves as they can,” Alexandrian said. “We don’t pull them out of bed to go to work. ... And they call their employer if they’re sick.”

Reardon said many work-release inmates who complete their jail sentence return to freedom with a decent sum of money in their pockets from their years of work. Inmates average $2,000 when they walk out.

“That’s the average,” Reardon said. “Some have a lot less; some have a lot more.”

In fact, he said, one inmate who worked offshore as a production operator on a seven-day on, seven-day off schedule had $100,000 in the bank when he was released.