Photo by Lt. Bill Davis, Bossier Sheriff’s Office

“We arrived here with shattered dreams, desperate and lost.  Now, we’ve gained self-respect, a sense of worth and a possibility of a future.”  –  Offender Graduate Robert Berry

For some men, it was the first time to don a cap and gown and participate in a graduation ceremony.  For all of them, though, it was the beginning of a new life.

Thirty-eight inmates incarcerated at the Bossier Parish Corrections Facilities in Plain Dealing graduated from the Steve Hoyle Intensive Substance Abuse Program (SHISAP) last Friday morning.   The substance abuse program is administered by psychologists and mental health counselors with the Louisiana Department of Corrections and Public Safety and facilitated out of the corrections facilities operated by deputies with the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office.

The graduate speaker was Offender Robert Berry, whose mother and son witnessed their loved one graduate from a life of substance abuse that started when he was 17…some 20 years ago.  Doing methamphetamine and jail time were not a life he wanted anymore.  He asked to come into the program, but in order to be successful, he knew it was all on him.

“You’ve got to want this,” Berry said, who tried to get clean and sober six other times while in and out of prison.  “We arrived here with shattered dreams, desperate and lost.  Now, we’ve gained self-respect, a sense of worth and a possibility of a future.  For those gifts, we are eternally grateful.”

Warden John Lewis of Bayou Dorcheat Correctional Center in Webster Parish spoke bluntly to the graduates.

“I want you to put me out a job,” he said.  “I want you to get out of here and never come back.”

Lewis noted that there is typically 60 percent recidivism for inmates, which increases to about 82 percent for those who’ve been incarcerated before.  Those who graduate from the SHISAP program tend to stay away from jail, and that suits Lewis just fine.

“Go out there, and put me out of a job,” he said.  “I’m very proud of you all, and if you ever see me at Wal-Mart, come up to me and tell me how you’re doing.”

The SHISAP program moved from Forcht-Wade Correctional Center in Keithville to the Bossier Sheriff’s Office jail facilities in Plain Dealing in July 2012.  Just as its names implies, the program follows an intensive treatment plan, which includes individual and group therapy, as well as a family recovery program.

“Most of the men who come to our corrections facility when they’ve been arrested are dealing with some type of substance abuse problem,” said Bossier Sheriff Julian Whittington.  “We’ve seen all too often the effects of drugs and alcohol on a person’s life, but if these men can overcome that addiction, there’s no telling what they can do when they get out of jail.”

Leading the SHISAP program is Dr. Susan Tucker, assistant warden of David Wade Correctional Center.  With her support staff and the Bossier deputies working alongside them as they house the inmates, they know the importance of what they are doing to change the lives of these offenders.

“We give opportunities for the offenders and family members to discuss, in a safe environment, of treatment with health care professionals, those issues that might otherwise be difficult to discuss once released,” said Tucker. “The offenders and family members discuss multiple topics including addiction, communication, dreams, goals and expectation of the offenders upon release.”

Some of today’s graduates were released from prison following the ceremonies as they completed the sentences, while others remained incarcerated as they complete their time in jail.  For some offenders, this was the first time they were positively recognized in their life, and program leaders see the significance of recognizing the graduates, many who never even graduated high school.

“They complete the program, get to graduate, and family members get to see that they’ve accomplished something,” said Jason Burns, mental health director with the program. “These are special moments in a person’s life, and having a ceremony makes it real.”

Some of the graduates received their High School Equivalency diploma and trade certification, in such fields as welding and culinary arts.

Roughly 3,000 offenders have graduated from the SHISPAP program since it began nearly seven years ago.  Graduations are held monthly.

Following the graduation, Berry was released from the corrections facility and headed out with his family.  With a big smile, he proclaimed, “I’m going to Golden Corral!”