(WVUE) - Louisiana is often dubbed the incarceration capitol of the world, with more people behind bars here than in any other place. So how does that get fixed? FOX 8 went behind prison walls to take a rare look at a program run by hardened criminals that saves your taxpayer dollars, but more importantly, saves lives.
The drive into Angola is one not too many people want to take. Some go there to die.
"I think everybody's scared to come to Angola," inmate John Tyler said.
Some 18,000 acres are dotted with cell blocks, dormitory-style buildings and barbed wire-lined fences. It's an intimidating environment. We went inside to get a closer look and found lives being saved. One group of inmates we met spent time learning how to assemble and fix an engine.
"If you go in with the mindset you're going to do it, you're going to do it," Tyler explained.
The 26-year-old Slidell native is serving time for possession of heroin and simple burglary.
"Before, when I was at home, I didn't realize my true potential," Tyler stated.
He saiD coming to Angola saved him.
"Now I have something to look forward to when I go home, instead of going back to the selfish me, going back to drugs and stealing and doing the things I was doing, I can actually go out there and earn a right living," Tyler explained.
"You'd be surprised how much potential these men have, they don't even know it," fellow inmate Justin Singleton said.
Tyler is a member of the prison's re-entry program. It's a one-of-a kind opportunity for people convicted of non-violent, non sex offenses.
"We consider this a smart-on-crime initiative not a soft-on-crime initiative," Judge Scott Schlegel said.
Schlegel is responsible for bringing the program to Jefferson Parish courts. The idea is simple: Take a criminal who prosecutors, defense attorneys and social workers agree is suitable for re-entry to society, give them two years at Angola as opposed to 10, allow them to earn certifications for a career of their choice and then release them when ready for five more years of probation at home. Schlegel believes it's a way to drastically reduce the state's recidivism rate.
"We have to do something better, we have to do something different," he said.
Here's the twist. The teachers are lifers, like Justin Singleton, who help decide when the participants are ready to go home.
"It's never too late to do the right thing," Singleton said.
He adds, "You can't cut a branch off a poison oak tree and expect fruits to grow and apples to grow, but because the roots are bad. You gotta dig up the roots. Once you dig up those roots, then you start to plant something better in there and that's when you start to see other things grow out of these men."
Singleton arrived at Angola at 23, convicted of principal to second-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
"I made a lot of bad decisions when I was younger," Singleton said.
Angry and scared, Singleton eventually enrolled at the prison's seminary, learning the tools to cope.
He explains, "It made me realize that my life is very small compared to the bigger picture, and that if I would put more emphasis on the lives of others, God would bless me where I was."
The Eunice, LA, native became a sort of father figure for fellow inmates, and then a mentor, teaching engine repair classes to the new members of the re-entry initiative, referred to as mentees.
Singleton explains, "In the morning, we do text book work, board work, book work, take exams, things of that nature. The second half of the day is hands-on projects."
Mentors and mentees don't just spend a few hours together in the classroom. This training is so intense, they actually live together, eat together and spend most of their free time together.
"This is about them changing their lives and re-building relationships, and when they get back into society, they can help rebuild some of the same communities that a lot of them helped destroy," Singleton said.
Established in 2010, the program has now grown to include 20 different areas offering vocational skills like culinary arts, plumbing and electrical work.
"Right now I'm learning HVAC trade, general AC and heating, they're teaching me everything. I'm in the beginning stages, but I've been learning a lot because there's a lot to it," inmate Steve Coronado said.
One of the requirements of leaving is that mentees must have a job lined up, in their field, outside prison walls.
Judge Schlegel says, "We try and develop a community to meet them at the gate and give them an opportunity to succeed."
Schlegel brings business people to Angola to see for themselves how it all works.
"When you get here, you understand the program," Schlegel said.
In the hopes that someone in this group will give one of these men a chance.
"You'd be surprised how many people actually work in this field out in society who can do the work but don't have the credentials. These men will have the credentials and they will know how to do the work," Singleton said of his mentees.
U.S. attorney Kenneth Polite is a big proponent of the initiative, getting over 25 New Orleans area businesses to commit to hiring the ex-cons.
"What are we exactly doing if we're just incarcerating people over and over and over again without any positive results from it," Polite said.
The effort also saves taxpayer dollars.
Schlegel explains, "It costs $15-20,000 to house an inmate a year in the Department of Corrections, it's a lot less to supervise them."
But ultimately, this program isn't about money.
"Our main focus is that we don't want any more victims. We don't want these men to go out and create any more victims, we want these men to come through this program, be rehabilitated and not just be successful, we want them to go out and help other people be successful," Singleton explained.
John Tyler knows it's a tall order, but is looking forward to the challenge saying, "Anything can be easy as long as you want it."
And as long as you have a team behind you, like Justin Singleton, and the other lifers, believing in you, that you can leave these grounds and make a difference.
Tyler says, "Only thing is, not to let them down. I ain't got no intentions of doing that."
Judge Schlegel says funding for the re-entry program is a major concern. He explains, budget cuts across the state are affecting the Department of Corrections, and the re-entry initiative is considered an extra.