Ex-prisoners get helping hand in finding place in community

After spending most of his youth behind bars, Damon Jones is a free man again, searching for work and adapting to a new world of Internet and iPhones.

“Even the house phone, I don’t know how to cut it on and off,” said Jones, 35, of Zachary, who was released last month after serving nearly two decades in a Texas prison. “It’s all new to me.”

While he has some catching up to do, Jones said, he has gained a sense of purpose and community through Re-entry Solutions, an organization new to Baton Rouge that helps former prisoners reintegrate after their release. The organization focuses on employment opportunities, housing and restoring the families prisoners left behind when they ran afoul of the law.

“There’s a brokenness of the spirit that comes about from the incarceration process that we want to focus on,” Candy Christophe, the program’s founder, said at an open house event last week. “Our ultimate goal is to keep families together.”

Re-entry Solutions is expanding its services from Rapides Parish to the capital city using a $30,000 grant it received from the Huey and Angelina Wilson Foundation of Baton Rouge.

Dan Bevan, the foundation’s president, said re-entry programs are essential to reducing recidivism, but have been stigmatized by other charitable organizations in the area. He likened that stigma to an earlier reluctance by many foundations to support organizations that seek to stem the spread of AIDS.

“People didn’t want to get associated with that,” Bevan said.

Re-entry Solutions joins initiatives like the Capital Area Reentry Coalition, which also reaches out to former prisoners and helps them return to their communities.

Some 15,000 state prisoners are released each year to Louisiana communities, according to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Eligible prisoners are provided a re-entry curriculum and a program that also allows them to receive identification cards, measures aimed at increasing their odds of becoming employed upon release.

Finding a job can be daunting for convicted felons and sex offenders, but Re-entry Solutions has used its network of resources to help hundreds of former prisoners find work, said Jeff Williams, who runs the organization’s new office on Wooddale Boulevard.

The organization plans to focus its local efforts on finding offshore jobs for former prisoners.

Anyone who has been incarcerated and is seeking employment is eligible to enroll in the program, Christophe said.

After an orientation, members receive a skills assessment and participate in mock interviews and ré sumé building. A job fair is tentatively scheduled for next month, Williams said.

“We’ve found that it’s nearly impossible for them on their own,” Williams said. “They really need a support system because what they’ve done is they’ve lost credibility with the community. They have to depend on community partners like us to extend the credibility of our name to help them get a second chance.”

Jeff Pearson was a high school coach and teacher before going to prison for two years for indecent behavior with a juvenile.

“I spoke to the wrong person on the Internet,” Pearson said.

Since his release in November 2010, Pearson said, he has gotten back on his feet and found work at Shipley Do-nuts in Alexandria, where he arrives bright and early to make doughnuts. Though he has completed the Re-entry Solutions program, he said he still considers Christophe to be his “other mom.”

“What they do is basically open the door for you,” Pearson said. “They know whose door to knock on, but you still have to go out and get the job yourself.”

Jones, a Baton Rouge native convicted of burglary and engaging in organized criminal activity, said the program offers something that often was in short supply behind bars: hope.

“I can’t really explain it,” Jones said. “I feel better knowing that there’s somebody out there trying to help me help myself.”