THIBODAUX, La. — Behind a heavy metal door, there are comforts of home at the Lafourche Parish Correctional Complex in Thibodaux.
“Right here we have our family visitation,” said social services counselor Ajah Breaux as she walks into a visitation room designed with a purpose. "We have games, books, all the toys you could possibly imagine."
One is like a child's bedroom, complete with murals painted by inmates.
Decorated visitation rooms are part of the correctional complex's re-entry program, helping inmates build positive relationships before they leave prison.
"Walls are defiantly broken down and it gives people that safe space to feel like they’re just hanging out with their kids or their family,” Breaux said. “We want people to come and feel comfortable. We don’t want anybody to feel scared.”
Already facing obstacles of housing and employment when released, Breaux says inmates routinely battle family disconnections.
“We want to try to foster positive relationships for people because we are aware that them having a lack of support can be the biggest barrier that might send them back to jail," Breaux said.
According to the Re-entry Mediation Institute of Louisiana about 14,000 inmates leave Louisiana prisons every year. About 44 percent are back behind bars within five years.
“We’re creatures of habit,” said Re-entry Mediation Institute of Louisiana Executive Director Veronica Bard. “When you don't know a community beyond who you were incarcerated with for decades, then you go back to that community until you can reverse that.”
Bard says a gap in social services is a big part of the problem, making reentry programs like the one in Lafourche Parish critical to stopping a revolving door.
According to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation. The non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative reports Louisiana has long been at the top of the list, currently with about 1,100 inmates for every 100,000 people.
"It's the people who have the boots on the ground that see every day these individuals come in and they're going to see them come back in if we don't get it right,” Bard said.
Breaux sees recidivism routinely. That's why the correctional complex also offers all sorts of educational classes. She says the program works and imamates from others prisons often request to be transferred to Lafourche Parish because of it.
“When we say our motto is ‘whatever it takes,’ that is what we will do to help people to get out and to do well,” Breaux said. “We really have a class for almost anybody's needs.”
Those needs are met through a program that can even mean early release, with a new lease on life.
“We're not necessarily returning people faster, we're returning them better than when they came in here," Breaux said.
The state department of corrections has even taken an interest into what's going on in Lafourche Parish. The correctional complex hopes to add more reentry services in the future.