How the Formerly Incarcerated Support the Formerly Incarcerated

Nobody may be better equipped to help those newly released from prison than those who went through it themselves.

Musical artist and activist John Legend stops by The First 72 Plus. (Credit: The First 72 Plus)

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Growing up in New Orleans, Daniel Tapia, 34, moved every couple of years. “I started selling drugs at a young age,” he says. “I was in the streets, and I did things I shouldn’t have done.” He has spent nearly half his life behind bars. Six months after his release from a 3-year juvenile sentence, Tapia was sent to prison for 12 years. He says he refused to testify against the accused shooter in a murder case.

During his prison stint, he spent a few years working long hours to save up under a work-release program that he describes as “indentured servitude.” While still living in prison, he worked as the maintenance supervisor for a dockside operation providing oil industry services. The fact that he had a job that paid well and that allowed him to do overtime was crucial.

“[The work-release program] takes 63 percent of your gross income. And so you barely have any money left. Fortunately, there’s a limit. They can’t take more than $444 a week,” Tapia explains. “I would literally work 7 days a week 12 to 13 hours a day because I was determined to go home with some money.”

Tapia was able to save enough money to rent a house once he got released from prison.

Most former inmates don’t have that luxury. The first 72 hours after being released is more often a time of chaos and frustration. For example, in Louisiana, inmates receive a ten-dollar check upon release, but it is only possible to cash a check with a valid photo ID, which many of those released lack.

Worse yet, Kelly Orians describes people coming home and learning that they have thousands of dollars in debt for federal safety net programs that their children accessed while they were in prison. Incarceration is considered “voluntary poverty,” and so, as a result of the 1996 welfare reform, inmates are on the hook for the money spent on their children through programs such as Medicaid. Those and other court-related debts can be insurmountable for formerly incarcerated people, especially if only earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Orians is a staff attorney with The First 72 Plus, so named in reference to that first 72 hours after release. The New Orleans-based non-profit was founded by six men who had all previously been incarcerated. Prior to founding the First 72, all of the men had made a habit out of helping others returning home from prison by helping them secure a place to return home to.

While that first 72 hours after being released from prison is a challenge in many cities, New Orleans has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the U.S., and nearly half of New Orleans’ African-American men are unemployed. That may have something to do with the fact that Louisiana has the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world, disproportionately affecting black men.

“If you’re lucky enough that you still have family [when you’re released], if that family are receiving any kind of subsidy for their rent — if they live in public housing or they get a Section 8 [rental assistance] voucher — or if they don’t get a subsidy for their rent, but they have a landlord that doesn’t want to rent to people with felony convictions, you’re breaking the law by going to stay with them,” Orians adds. “You’re putting your family at risk of eviction.”

To help newly freed people cope with these challenges, The First 72 Plus’ co-founders, including Calvin Duncan, who was wrongfully convicted, bought a home that could welcome others upon release. First 72 also provides social services such as a mentorship from another formerly incarcerated person, and a small business incubator.

Orians says that the goal of the small business incubator is to help people “formalize their side-hustle,” so that, “they can supplement their income through small business development.” Ideally, these “side-hustles” can grow into full-time employment, she says.

The program helped Tapia start his own trucking business. Seeing others go through some of the same struggles he went through has been essential to his own success, he says.

“It’s been the biggest motivating factor with me to be able to start my own business,” says Tapia. “When I see [other incubator members and alumni] do something, like take their business to the next level, it motivates me.”

Tapia’s business currently offers a dump truck and an 18-wheeler for-hire, the former of which was working at a project in Mississippi when he spoke to Next City.

Currently, First 72’s small business incubator has 13 members and nine alumni businesses, which range from housecleaning services to car detailing to barber shops to Tapia’s trucking company.

Another graduate, Tarell McGowan, was able to begin his relationship with the organization before leaving prison. That helped him get into the mindset of taking the horticultural skills he gained in the penitentiary and transforming them into a successful landscaping company. McGowan Landscaping is now pursuing contracts with the city of New Orleans, and he employs four other people.

“Hopefully, if I get these contracts, the goal is to employ a lot more felons who can’t get jobs,” McGowan said. “For guys who do come home and don’t have support, I’ll be able to be at least some help to them so they can support their families.”

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Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.

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Tags: small businessincome inequalitynew orleansprisons

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