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Giving Back: Program provides second chance after jail

LAPLACE — “We’ve got to give these guys a second chance.”

Opportunity Now Re-Entry Program graduates clap following their graduation last week. The program provides work readiness, job placement and other self-sufficiency services to qualified inmates.

Opportunity Now Re-Entry Program graduates clap following their graduation last week. The program provides work readiness, job placement and other self-sufficiency services to qualified inmates.

St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre said those words as he spoke about the Opportunity Now Re-Entry Program, the latest venture of the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office.

“I’m willing to bet it’ll work,” he said confidently.

Sheriff’s Office employees, program graduates and community members gathered last week at a graduation ceremony for the first batch of program participants, all of whom are Louisiana Department of Corrections inmates housed in St. John Parish’s correctional center.

“They believe that the program benefitted them … they believe that the program was time well spent,” Tregre said of inmate participants. “I feel real good about this group. I want to see results.”

Tregre said Opportunity Now differs from traditional re-entry programs because it is a collaborative effort between the Sheriff’s Office, the Louisiana Workforce Commission, Louisiana Rehabilitation Services and the Louisiana Department of Corrections. He said the program provides work readiness, job placement and other self-sufficiency services to qualified inmates in an effort to break the cycle of recidivism.

Participants undergo three months of intensive work readiness and life skills training, Tregre said, adding the course is designed to help individuals make better choices and cope with a wide variety of issues — from family relationships to money issues — they may face upon re-entering society.

“They’re grateful for the opportunity,” Tregre said of the first 14 graduates. “They’re all excited.”

Joe Lewis, a program director who has established and facilitated Opportunity Now programs across the country, said the program in St. John Parish incorporates nearly 120 hours of instruction with case management and job placement components that truly make the offering unique.

Lewis said Louisiana Rehabilitation Services provides structure and a platform to put together a substance abuse program for participants, and that the case management portion of Opportunity Now helps inmates get necessities such as a driver’s license once they’re released.

“People need a hand up … not a hand out,” Lewis said, adding the Houma-Thibodaux region of Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, as well as Tregre, have gone above and beyond in getting the program running.

Tregre said inmates who have been convicted on criminal charges are given the opportunity to volunteer for the program, which he calls a first step in what he would like to provide for inmates.

A collaboration with local businesses to teach specific job skills to incarcerated inmates is in the works, Tregre said, adding he has heard from business owners in the community about their willingness to teach painting, agriculture, window tinting, restaurant skills and other trades to willing inmates.

“How will they survive without a skill?” Tregre said of inmates after release. “They’re not going to make it … they’re not going to survive.”

The Opportunity Now Re-Entry Program is paid for by the state, and Tregre said “there’s no guarantee it’ll work, but we have to try.”

Tregre said inmates are spreading the word about the program, both in and out of the correctional center. Instruction for the program’s second class of students is already under way.