While many complained about the unusually cold weather that chilled southern Louisiana to the bone over the past several days, Schriever resident Derrick Young said he cherished every second of it.
After being released from jail, Young has come to appreciate every day of freedom no matter what the weather does.
"It was great seeing my family during Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's," the 38-year-old former inmate said. "It's been a good experience."
Young was one of about 1,900 inmates granted early release on Nov. 1 as part of the state's criminal justice reform plan, which was passed by the Legislature during the summer.
The initiative's goal was to reduce Louisiana's prison population by 10 percent over the next 10 years. The measure aims to save taxpayers $262 million over the next decade, state officials said.
Under the new law, offenders were released 60 to 90 days earlier than originally scheduled. Only those inmates serving sentences for non-violent offenses were considered for the program, Gov. John Bel Edwards press secretary Tucker Barry said.
"The ultimate outcome is increased public safety and better opportunities for success for people re-entering society," Barry said. "These exact reforms have been successful in other Southern states. Already, early numbers in the first two months of criminal justice reform indicate that the new laws are being implemented with significant success. Effective interventions, like the ones in these reforms, treat the underlying problems that perpetuate crime to keep the public safe and give people a better shot at thriving once they reenter society."
Of the 1,900 inmates released Nov. 1, 63 were convicted for crimes in Terrebonne Parish, 27 in Lafourche, local officials said.
All qualifying offenders freed on Nov. 1 were released on parole supervision and were either already participating in or moved to re-entry facilities.
Young, who pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm as a convicted felon in 2015, was originally set to be released on April 13. Although Young said he considers the extra time he got to spend with his family a blessing, re-entering society hasn't always been smooth sailing.
Even though he found work maintaining and repairing pipes for $12 an hour, building a nest egg has proven difficult.
"I'm working and have been getting along with everybody," Young said. "I get up and go to work every morning, thank you, Jesus. But my driver's license was suspended and because I was locked up and couldn't pay child support, they started taking money out of my paycheck. I can't make enough to put aside."
In addition to his financial hardships, Young and other inmates who were granted early release face scrutiny from skeptical district attorneys and law enforcement officials.
Terrebonne District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. said in a recent interview he is concerned that many of the inmates released from prison Nov. 1 will end up back behind bars.
"We believe some reforms were valid concerns and felt like we wanted to work to reduce the incarceration rate," Waitz said. "However, we were adamantly opposed to violent offenders being released on our streets. We do have concerns that some of the offenders who will be released have significant criminal histories. While some reform efforts may reduce some of the incarceration rates, I think it's unfortunate that some of those who will be released will go back to their ways and will end up right back in the criminal justice system. Their criminal histories speak for themselves."
But Young said one shouldn't judge a book by its cover.
"Everybody deserves a second chance," he said. "I went to jail for my girl having a gun in my house. I just think it shouldn't be like that."
Corey Acosta, Thibodaux district manager for the Office of Probation and Parole, said it's difficult for some former prisoners to get back on their feet because of the stigma involved with having criminal convictions on their records.
"You have some employers who don't want to hire people who've been in prison who've been convicted for a felony," Acosta said. "Some of them end up lying on their job applications or don't answer that particular question. It's that much of a stigma where they think they can't get hired. A lot of times it's guys who've made a mistake in their past and are ready to become productive citizens, which is what we all want. We definitely need more understanding from employers."
Former inmate Teddy Morgan of St. Charles Parish, who was also granted early release in November following a cocaine conviction, was able to find work at a warehouse. It's not what Morgan wants to do for the rest of his life, but he is grateful for the chance at a fresh start.
"It felt great getting out early," Morgan said last week during a phone interview. "I'm able to spend time with my wife and son. When you get out of prison you have to be more determined, but I'm doing OK."
Morgan, 37, said he hopes to one day open a restaurant or diner. Getting support from friends and family would greatly improve Morgan's chances to make his dream a reality, Acosta said.
"These guys need someone who will help them out," Acosta said. "Sometimes they just don't have that kind of support. It's tough for them, and I get that. We do our best to try to move them in the right direction. We're moving toward something more tailored to each person as they come out of prison. We figure out problems they're having and the things they need. For example, do they need an education, a skill or a job? We start them down that path. If they know how to weld, we help them find a job as a welder."
In the meantime, Young is working on getting his driver's license back so he can one day drive a truck. His road ahead is paved with challenges, but the former inmate's optimism remains undiminished.
"I know nothing is going to fall out of the sky," Young said. "It's not going to come overnight. I can't complain. At least I'm free and have a job. Life has given me another chance."