The First 72+, a New Orleans-based nonprofit focused on addressing recidivism, unveiled a new transitional house for formerly incarcerated men in a Monday (Sept. 18) ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Ben Smith Welcome Home Center, located across from the Orleans Parish Central Lockup on Perdido, will provide a safe home and resources to returning citizens who aim to become productive members of society. 

“This center is going to be a warm hug and a soft landing for those who are on their journey home from incarceration,” said Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson. “And this is a vital resource to support them during a critical point in their lives.”

The new 3,200-square-foot house is located next door to the First 72+’s original transitional house is currently home to five formerly incarcerated men. The new transitional home will house eight formerly incarcerated men. Residents in both houses are given rent-free housing for up to 90 days as well as free meals, groceries and clothing during their time in the transitional homes. 

In addition to Huston, a number of officials attended the grand opening of the transitional house, including U.S. Rep. Troy Carter Sr., City Councilmember Helena Moreno and Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Marcus O. DeLarge.

“We’re going to see you through everything to make sure that this building is the one that you’re comfortable in and not that one [Orleans Parish Jail],” Carter said during the ceremony. 

Louisiana has among the highest rates of incarceration in the world. And African Americans in the state are disproportionately imprisoned at a rate far higher than white counterparts. The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections found in 2022 that almost a third of those released from correctional facilities reoffended.

The Ben Smith Welcome Home Center can hold up to eight residents in its bedrooms, pictured here on Monday, September 18, 2023. Credit: Khalil Gillon/Verite News

That is where the First 72+ comes in. The nonprofit currently helps between 200 to 250 people a year, a WDSU article notes. The organization provides wraparound services to those in their transitional house, such as helping obtain public benefits or state identification. The nonprofit also provides resources to those who want to become entrepreneurs. The nonprofit will also help those that want to start a business. 

The new transitional house is named after Ben Smith Jr., who founded First 72+ in 2014 with the goal of helping other formerly incarcerated people navigate their way through the difficulties of transitioning back into society.

Smith grew up in New Orleans’ Desire neighborhood. He attended Southern University in Baton Rouge and helped found a political group that provided staffing to canvass his neighborhood’s public housing development projects. 

In 1990, Smith was arrested for drug possession and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola where he served 13 years of his sentence before being released in 2003. After his incarceration, Smith dedicated his time to help those who had difficulty transitioning back into society like he did. 

Smith died in 2020 at the age of 69 after a battle with cancer. The new transitional house and welcome home center serves as a testament of Smith’s work over the years and the legacy he left behind, Moreno said.

“When the First 72+ started, it was really Ben and his van. He would go to the front gates of Angola, sometimes in the middle of the night, and pick up returning citizens,” Moreno said. “I want you to think about the type of compassion and care it took for Ben to be there in his van, waiting for someone he likely barely knew but he knew he wanted to help them.” 

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Khalil Gillon is a New Orleans native from Algiers. He attended Thomas Jefferson High School and is a graduate of Louisiana State University in political journalism. Passionate about politics, Gillon ran...