NEW ORLEANS — Colleagues, friends and family of the founder of a local non-profit are coming together to remember a man whose life gives true meaning to the phrase “turning your life around.”
Before Ben Smith’s death from cancer earlier this month, he made it his life’s mission to help formerly incarcerated inmates, like himself, transition back into society after serving their sentence.
When Wayne Sneed got out of prison after serving 44 years in 2018 --- his first call was to Smith. They had met years earlier while they were both locked up at Angola.
“He looked at me and said ‘it’s really good to see you. Welcome home,” said Sneed.
That welcome home was more than just a greeting. As one of the founders of the First 72 Plus, Smith would help Sneed find work as cook and housing and eventually a sense of purpose beyond a life of crime.
“He took me and embraced me and he was like ‘you going to be alright. I got you,” Sneed said.
Fifty percent of people released from prison in Louisiana will return within five years, according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections. It is a statistic Smith worked so hard to change. Along with five other formerly incarcerated inmates, he started the First 72 plus in 2014.
“We know what it takes to help them bridge the gap between being in prison and being productive citizens,” said Co-founder Blair Boutte. “And Ben was a stickler for that.”
The First 72 Plus program is built on accountability. All must either be working a job or getting trained to work a job. At the center of the philosophy was Smith, remarkable when you consider where his life started out.
“Ben was infamous,” said Kelly Orians, co-director with First 72 Plus. “If you look over media reports over the last 50 years, you will see an incredible transformation.”
In the 1970s, Smith grew up in the Desire Housing Projects during one of the darkest chapters in New Orleans criminal history. His brothers Calvin and Gilbert were both shot and killed in separate shootings. Throughout those years --crime seemed to follow the family. In 1990, Ben Smith was convicted of selling cocaine and served 13 years of a 25-year sentence. Ben’s brother, Rev. Tyrone Smith, was also locked up with him for nearly five years before his conviction and life sentence were thrown out after it was determined he was wrongly convicted.
“Ben had this idea already in mind when he was in prison that he wanted to get out and help those guys who he left behind,” said Tyrone Smith.
“Is it going to be difficult to move on without him?,” asked WWL-TV reporter Paul Dudley.
“No --only because we have a lifetime of memories. I did his eulogy at the church and everyone thought I wasn’t going to be able to make it through but I got 66 years of good times with Ben.”
Though gone at just 69 --- Ben Smith’s legacy and memory will serve as a constant reminder that you should never give up on somebody.
“Ben went from being a little bit of a menace to society, I think a lot of people would agree on that, to being someone who was directly responsible for New Orleans becoming better and safer,” said Orians.
The remaining founders and staff at the First 72 Plus say they are committed to Smith’s mission and vow to continue to make sure formerly incarcerated inmates are given not just second chances but real chances at freedom.