Louisiana prison program built upon military pillars is changing inmates' lives
The Advocate October 24, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — Chaddley Sergent was a motherless child birthed into a volatile life of lawlessness.
Adopted in secret as a baby, he spent his childhood in a violent and dysfunctional household, watching his drug-addled adoptive mother get beaten by the men in her life. Oftentimes, the men would turn their ire on Sergent when, as a young boy, he intervened to protect the only mother he knew.
"I had a crazy life, man," he recalled. "Messed up childhood, a lot of abuse, a lot of violence. Seen a lot of things that a kid wasn't supposed to see."
By the time Sergent was 13, he already had a rap sheet and was hardened by the streets of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where he'd been raised. And by the time he was 19, his reputation on those streets had already extended beyond prison walls.
He was incarcerated for aggravated battery, criminal property damage and weapons charges in Louisiana, state Department of Public Safety and Corrections records show. He also has convictions awaiting him in Mississippi.
Prior to being transferred to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in May 2018, he'd been booted from a handful of other Louisiana prisons for serious infractions like fighting corrections officers and fellow prisoners, carrying shanks, and having inappropriate relations with female correctional officers.
"My life was purely based on violence. I ain't have nothing to live for," he said. "I was sentenced to 30 years and I knew I still had to go to Mississippi to do another maybe 40. So in my mind, I'm like, 'Man I got 100 years.'"
Resigned to chaos, it was at Hunt where Sergent was introduced to a new lifestyle hinged upon sobriety, discipline and structure. Several months before he arrived, a handful of inmates at the St. Gabriel prison began a veterans mentorship program. It started with a small group of prisoners with military combat experience who were trained to be trauma healers. Now the program has spread to four tiers in one of the dormitories and includes over 130 participants.
"We meet people where they are and walk them through their recovery process," said Austin Bernard, one of the program's leaders. "Our intent is to take broken people, like we were, help them become whole, help them learn to mentor to other people, and ultimately to go home and stay home."
Sergent was no easy sell. He didn't think the program was for him. He was ousted from the veterans dorm and sent to the hole three times for breaking prison rules. He tried to fight founding member John Thomas after Thomas had him placed back in the dorm a fourth time.
Eventually, Sergent bought into the mantra and has become a bridge between the veterans dorm and prisoners in the lockup's general population.
"When I realized he (Thomas) was serious, I gave him the same loyalty that I gave partners that have died outside of prison since I've been in here," Sergent said.
A new model
Hunt was the first prison in the state to receive an American Legion charter when veterans memorial Post No. 432 was founded in December 2018. A number of Legion officials and state delegates were on hand Thursday night, during a banquet inside Hunt's cafeteria celebrating what prison leaders say is a one-of-a-kind treatment program.
"To see some of these guys come to the program as a disciplinary problem, then graduate and actually become mentors to the next generation, that's what's great about this program," said Donnie Bordelon, who took over as the prison's warden in August after former warden Kirt Guerin was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.
Since the program began in 2018, some 26 participants have been released from prison. None of them have returned. Those on hand Thursday relished in the unique treatment model's zero-percent recidivism rate.
Veteran inmates also gave out value awards during Thursday's affair to prisoners who've exemplified some of the principles of military training.
Anthony Bailey, an inmate who transferred to Hunt last November, won an award for standing up for everybody.
"I challenge the knuckleheads," he said.
Bailey was recently denied parole after being incarcerated more than 20 years, and said that could have been a setback. But he remains a voice of positivity, trying to urge his tier-mates to stop doing drugs, misbehaving and preying on weaker inmates.
"I try to change everyone in here because you have so many younger people that are in here that are still stuck on stupidity," he said. "This program really shows you what being a man is about. It's chasing the prison dorm by dorm."
Transforming with love
John Thomas came up with the idea for peer mentorship classes where prisoners could teach other inmates a regimented way of life rooted in the seven core values he learned in the Armed Forces: respect, loyalty, duty, honor, integrity, personal courage and selfless service to others.
Shortly after graduating high school, Thomas joined the Army and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat soldier between 2003 and 2005. He survived two Humvee explosions and was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
He came to Hunt prison in 2013 after being sentenced to 12 years for an attempted rape in Lafayette. Investigators tied Thomas to a pair of unsolved 2006 rapes in Delaware after police took his DNA samples from the Louisiana case. He got 37 years for the sexual assaults in Delaware.
Shortly after he arrived at Hunt, Thomas attended a spiritual retreat in the prison chapel and said he broke free from the "demonic spirits" manifesting within.
God gave him the vision to help other prisoners break free from their trauma, he said. "Only God could change someone that was as bad as me."
The two-year program is designed to teach participants to become mentors and take leadership roles. Each of the participants live together in the same quarters and group leaders often hold members accountable for violating prison rules.
According to prison officials, 65 former troubled offenders involved in the program are now prison trusties in the prison, and 71 former offenders have gone at least a year without a rule infraction.
Thomas is now the program coordinator and has watched his brainchild grow from tier to tier and a groundbreaking mix of veterans and non-veteran inmates working together in brotherhood.
"There are vets dorms and vets programs in other prisons, but none that are doing the things that we're doing," he said. "What's unique about us is we take troubled non-veteran guys from restrictive housing and we bring them in our program. We show them how to live by our example. We sleep right next to them."
Sergent, 28, now mentors to a wide range of young inmates; he's earned a handful of certifications and he's a representative on an inmate advisory council. He also created a program that teaches anger management, substance abuse training and general awareness.
He has hopes he may be getting out of prison one day, and he thanks the veterans program for his transformation.
"For the veterans program to work, they had to take non-veterans too and teach them the discipline, the duty, respect and honor. Everything," he said. "John told me, 'You can reach out and touch others that I can't touch because you come from that lifestyle. By me changing you, now you're able to do that for them.'"
Lawton Searcy, who has overseen all of Hunt Correctional's faith-based programs since 2014, played a key role in working with Thomas to get the veterans program up and running. He helped with the research and provided resources, then spent three years convincing one of the former wardens to greenlight the effort. Now there's a waiting list of over 80 prisoners waiting to get a bed in the vet's dorm.
At Thursday night's banquet, a tear came to Searcy's eye as he looked out over the cafeteria filled with prisoners in the program.
"I remember how a lot of these young men came in here: emaciated by drugs, brain fog, no sense of purpose or direction. Then a few months to a year or two later, you see that same individual. He's got a big smile on his face, a spring in his step, he's put on weight. They are actually happy — even being incarcerated — because they have found peace with their past and that gives them hope for the future. This is the most awesome thing I've ever been involved in."
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