But Viator was the first escapee from the program since it was established in the parish two years ago, said Walter Lee Jr., work release coordinator.
On the whole, Lee said, the concept works marvelously — as this story by correspondent Robert Jones aptly illustrates.
As for Viator, who is serving time for felony theft, he is back in jail, out of the program, and facing an additional charge of simple escape.
Robert R. Jones III
Martin Kehoe is a free man.
Freedom is something that might be taken for granted by those never incarcerated by the criminal justice system, but for those who have paid for crimes, freedom becomes a lot more important.
For Kehoe, 35, a native of New Orleans, his recent release from the St. Martin Parish jail, after serving time for drug-related aggravated burglary and armed robbery, was truly a new beginning, a chance to change old habits and forge new ones.
Nothing he would ever take for granted.
After serving 52 months, he is free and working at Frederick’s Machine & Tool in New Iberia — thanks to the St. Martin Parish Sheriff Office work release program, an aspect of his incarceration he credits with changing his life and making a new start possible.
“They came to me and offered me the opportunity to work in a normal environment and get out of lockup, and it made all the difference,” Kehoe said.
“A lot of people don’t have much to look forward to when they get out of jail, but for me the work program worked out. Now I am here and for the first time, I have gone from living a street life to having a real career.”
Kehoe, who has been working as a machinist for the company for the last 15 months, began while still serving time in jail.
He said the opportunity to work let him see new horizons and make sure his life stayed on track.
“The first day working was unbelievable,” he said. “I went from lockdown to being trusted to go out into the community and work. The feeling is hard to describe after being locked up for three years in confinement.”
Grateful for the availability of the program, Kehoe also expressed gratitude to managers at Frederick’s Machine for their time to train him and give him the opportunity to make a life for himself.
“They treated me with respect as regular employees,” he said. “They helped me out and took care of problems. Supervisor Jace Dugas, owner Daniel Doré and others encouraged me and others to learn and do well.”
Being from New Orleans, Kehoe said he had no family in the area, but he was grateful for his coworkers.
“These people are my family,” he said. “This was too good an opportunity to pass up. I gave them my word I would stay with them because they trained me but this is a really good job.”
The sheriff’s office work release coordinator Walter Lee Jr. said there are stringent guidelines for those inmates invited to join the program. They are all incarcerated under the state Department of Corrections and vetted by DOC. Inmates must be within three years of their discharge date or six months of their parole eligibility date to be eligible. Even inmates convicted of violent crimes like murder, kidnapping and arson can participate, but only when the prisoner is within six months of release and has kept his nose clean.
“The prisoners have to be non-violent with no discipline problems while in the prison. We feel if they have the wrong attitude, they are not trying to better themselves.”
With the careful screenings required by the program, the state Department of Correction ranks it as one of the most successful in rehabilitating inmates, Lee said.
“The program offers less repeat offenders than any other one out there,” he said.
Once an inmate is accepted into the program by DOC, Lee interviews the prisoner to access talents and skills and tries to place them according to their strengths.
He said they work generally as laborers, welders, construction workers, farm workers and machinists.
“They are paid like any other employee,” he said. “The money is sent to St. Martin Corrections, where it is deposited into an account and we are allowed to take out charges for them to be in the program. We are allowed a maximum of $22 per day or 50 percent of their net take-home pay for room and board as a per diem and $4 for transportation by a formula, but they have to make enough to afford the expense.”
Lee said the money comes into play when the prisoner is released and is looking to make a new start.
“The program is designed for them to accumulate money to pay for an apartment, buy a vehicle and support their families while they are incarcerated,” he said. “We hope they will keep the jobs when they get out because it gives them a way to make a living and helps with the labor shortage in the local economy.”
For Kehoe, this is exactly the case as he plans to make a home for himself in Acadiana.
“I plan to live the rest of my days here,” he said. “There is nothing in New Orleans. I want to do well for my son, Adriel, because when I met him, my whole world changed. When I saw him, I said, ‘God have mercy on me.’ For the first time, I am free and I am really living. I don’t have to worry because I am free and working. The change in my life is unbelievable.”