NEW ORLEANS — There is a garden next to the house on Perdido Street, and a red dog house on the porch that used to belong to a street dog named Frank. You can tell it’s a place where people feel comfortable, a community center.

It’s also a place where 50 men have found new lives right after they got out of prison.

The group that runs the house, The First 72+, helps formerly incarcerated people transition back into society, and it has pioneered the kind of work that the state is now funding as part of its criminal justice reforms.

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced last week that Louisiana will reinvest $8.5 million in savings from reducing the prison population to lower recidivism, support victims and improve public safety in Orleans, Caddo, East Baton Rouge, St. Tammany and Jefferson parishes. 

The First 72+ has partnered with Goodwill Industries and Catholic Charities, which will use some of the state money to provide legal services and jobs to the men who pass through the group’s house. The Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit in Baton Rouge, will receive $112,165 in state funds to help prisoners from the five parishes return home.

“We’ll work with the community to ensure that their family in Caddo or whichever parish is ready to receive them," said Andrew Hundley, the executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project. His group also will help them find jobs.

The First 72+ takes its name from the idea that what a released person does in the first 72 hours of freedom often determines whether he or she returns to jail, and its efforts are widely seen as a model re-entry program.

Started in 2014 by six men who knew firsthand the shortcomings of the prisoner-release system, the group has raised money through car washes, fish-fry events and private donations. It says that no one who has stayed in its house has gone back to jail.

By contrast, nearly 43 percent of all former inmates return to jail within five years, whether through violating release conditions or committing new crimes, the Louisiana Department of Corrections says.

Hundley, who was imprisoned for second-degree murder for 19 years, met one of the First 72+ founders in jail and now refers some former inmates to the group. Hundley started his organization in 2016 and helped 44 men this year.

He said his group was running out of money, and “if we wouldn’t have gotten this grant, we would’ve had to stop the work.”

The First 72+ and Hundley’s parole project both hand out clothes and shoes and show the men how to get driver’s licenses, sign up for Medicaid and develop job skills. They also provide support networks of people who understand them. 

“When I first came out, I was on Canal Street, and I found out that my people were dead,” said Jerome Norman, one of the men who is living in the First 72+ house after 23 years in prison on a drug charge.

He saw his aunt’s obituary online, he said, and realized “I got to find somewhere to go.”

One of the group’s founders, Tyrone Smith, spent years in jail and is now the pastor of a Baptist church. He and the men who have stayed at the house know what it is like to face the confusion of being released into a changed society with no tools and no clear way to start again.

“Some guys, after being incarcerated for decades, they don’t know anything about cellphones, how to use them properly,” said Lonnie Cooley, 63, who was one of the first to live in the house.

“I didn’t know anything about credit,” said Cooley, who had been in prison for 38 years for armed robbery. “I didn’t know anything about any other basic things in life because I’d never lived on my own.” 

Since staying in the house in 2014, he has found a full-time job as a foreman, rented his own apartment and owned three cars.

“I felt that I had an obligation to be successful,” Cooley said. He said he used his time in the program “for its intended purpose, to give me that boost. Not as a crutch, but a boost, to get going in life.”

Smith and others helped former inmates informally for years before a donor gave them the transitional home in 2014. While the house is supposed to hold only six people, it sometimes has a seventh, with residents typically staying for three to six months.

Inside the house, art is on the walls, and glazed donuts are in the kitchen.

On a table by the door, there is a framed handwritten list. Each resident has one. It lists his goals, what he’s going to accomplish, what purpose he wants to have. Most of the lists include finding a job and getting into a relationship.

Cooley said government-run halfway houses are too impersonal.

“Before you unpack your bags, they want a fee,” he said. Without a strong support network, he said, “You think you can walk but you can’t.”

Standing in the living room, Norman said that his first month out of prison was the happiest of his life because of the help from the group’s members.

One of the First 72+ partners, Goodwill Industries, will receive $447,785 in state money, and its other partner, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, will get $254,208.

When Smith and the other founders started out, they picked people up from Angola in their own cars, finding them places to sleep or putting them up in hotels, he said. Even now, with 15 to 20 new people showing up at the house each week, the group still does outreach to inmates.

“It grieves me when I have to turn a guy down,” Smith said.

Just then a man walked through the kitchen with a few donated button-down shirts on hangers. Smith asked who had recommended him.

“AmeriCorps,” he said. “Everyone knows The First 72+ will help you.”

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