The First 72+ was co-founded by six formerly incarcerated men well aware that people with criminal records can be legally discriminated against. In Louisiana, for example, there are 389 restrictions on employment for those with felony records—over twice the national average. The result is a place where 52% of Black men are currently unemployed. Joblessness, in turn, leads to recidivism: one in two formerly incarcerated people in Louisiana return to prison within five years. Recognizing the interrelationship between gainful employment, financial security, and stable housing, The First 72+ offers hand-in-hand services including free transitional housing, case management, peer advocacy, legal assistance, and small-business incubation—services that benefit not just formerly incarcerated men, but also the women and families who support them. Moreover, to bypass barriers facing the formerly incarcerated, The First 72+ has set out to build its own housing and start its own businesses. In 2018, the team acquired a vacant lot and helped create a replicable design for a reentry transitional house that will include a social enterprise to employ residents, along with space to help clients create their own companies. Now, instead of being seen as neighborhood liabilities, healing-based reentry centers—and the people they serve—can be celebrated as community-building assets.
In November 2020, The First 72+ co-director and impassioned social justice advocate Ben Smith died following a cancer diagnosis early that year. Ben, who was 69, will be remembered for his outsized spirit and selfless devotion to serving the formerly incarcerated. Born and raised in New Orleans—where he became enmeshed in the notorious Desire housing development—Ben was convicted of cocaine distribution and sentenced to 25 years. Out on parole, Ben and five other formerly incarcerated men—including Ben’s brother, Pastor Tyrone Smith—resolved to, in their words, “heal the community we had helped destroy.” Drawing on his longtime commitment to civic initiatives, including efforts to expand voting rights and support Black political candidates in New Orleans—Ben helped launch The First 72+ in 2014 to give formerly incarcerated people a fighting chance at reclaiming their lives. Whether picking them up from the parole board, or giving them a job on his grill truck (Da Grill) when no one else would hire them, Ben pioneered a national model for wraparound reentry services while also advocating for reforms that would help end unduly punitive sentences handed down under Louisiana’s strict drug laws. Taking his brother’s place as co-director of The First 72+, Pastor Tyrone Smith will carry on Ben’s compassionate and open-hearted mission.
The First 72+ is stopping the cycle of incarceration by providing a safe, stable, and empowering community to formerly incarcerated people (FIPs). One out of every two people released from prison in Louisiana return within five years. Recidivism is due largely to the many obstacles FIPs face when trying to find and maintain stable housing and gainful employment. To address these obstacles, we provide free transitional housing, case management, peer mentorship, free legal services, small business incubation, and zero-interest loans.
Ben: When I was in prison, I would see guys return all the time. Guys we were all certain would make it when they got home, guys who really wanted to make it. I would ask them what happened, and they would tell me about how hard it was back home. How they couldn’t find anywhere to live or anyone to hire them. How they would hit roadblocks at every turn. When I came home, I had the same experience, but my friends and family helped me out. Those are the same folks who helped us start The First 72+.
Kelly: When I moved to New Orleans, I worked with people sentenced as kids to life without the possibility of parole. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such sentencing was unconstitutional in non-homicide cases. One of the clients I drove home from prison—thanks to this ruling—was Reginald. Reginald was committed to do the right thing. He was also a certified horticulturist and carpenter, but he couldn’t find stable work for a year. He lost his housing, and was briefly put in jail for violating his parole. Reginald told me once when we were talking about being free after so long in prison: “I’ll say I’m home, I won’t say I’m free.” And that is why we built The First 72+, to not just help people come home, but to help them get free.
Our ultimate goal is to help our clients transition from being seen as liabilities in their neighborhoods to being asset-builders in their communities. We encourage homeownership and business ownership not only to promote financial security, but to help rebuild our community and our economy. Our clients are motivated and talented, but face some intractable obstacles when they return home. Most have a suspended driver’s license and old tickets, which means they also have bench warrants for their arrest. It is also legal to discriminate against FIPs in housing and employment, and if they are able to get a job, most FIPs have accumulated thousands of dollars of debt so their wages are garnished.
Ben: I am inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because of his commitment to human rights, and also by the first Black mayor of New Orleans, Ernest N. Morial. Men like these inspired me to fight for justice. I am also inspired by Judge Laurie White and Judge Arthur Hunter Jr. These two judges created a special court program specifically designed to help prisoners get education so that when they come home they can more easily get jobs. That type of progress and compassion is something I never could have imagined when I was young and caught up in the criminal justice system.
Kelly: Three leaders that have informed my work are Fannie Lou Hamer, especially her economic justice work and the development of the Freedom Farm Cooperative; Bryan Stevenson and his brilliant ability to tell people’s stories powerfully and ethically; and my mom, who is the most amazing and compassionate problem-solver I know.
Ben: That would be Wayne Sneed. Wayne came home after 44 years in prison; he went in as a juvenile. When he came home he was able to live with us, which allowed him to take it slow and focus on his health, his education, and reconnecting with his family. He is working a good job now, and he is getting ready to move into his own apartment. He also gives back to our community: he cuts our grass, volunteers to do intakes with new clients, and cooks for other residents. He is paying it forward, and that is what we are all about.
Kelly: For me that person would be Terrell. I met Terrell the day after he came home from eight years in prison. He had thousands of dollars of debt from unpaid traffic tickets. The best job he could get was to work on the back of a garbage truck, making less than $400 a week. He had every reason to go back to his old way of making money—but he didn’t. We helped Terrell help himself to leverage his skills and build Flight Night Industries. Terrell’s business employs formerly incarcerated people, and also serves as a source of community support in a neighborhood plagued by blighted property, unemployment, and crime.
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