Each January, we often prepare ourselves for new beginnings and fresh starts, whether it pertains to personal goals like weight loss or business goals like expanding your customer base. Each new year, we make resolutions and form support groups to help us reach our goals. It just seems like the thing to do when the calendar signifies the start of something new.
But what if the signal to your new beginning and fresh start was the opening of the cold, steely bars in front of you? What if your personal goal was to not return to the only life you knew before finding yourself locked up behind those bars? What if you had to achieve these monumental life changes all by yourself, with no family or friends to help you?
That is often what life is like for those who are released from incarceration with the intention of re-entering society with a new outlook on life.
Louisiana has an incarceration rate of approximately 1,094 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities). One out of every three people behind bars today is held in a county (parish) or city jail.
Louisiana’s women imprisonment rate (82 per 100,000 female residents) is higher than the imprisonment rate of the United States (63 per 100,000 female residents) as of June 2019. Louisiana’s population of incarcerated women was 1,244 at the end of 2021, according to the Crime and Justice Institute.
As these women are released and try to re-enter society, they are faced with many struggles and battles as they attempt to navigate a new way of life. In most cases, they’ll be nearly alone — they’ll have no job, no place to live, no support plan, and very few programs to assist them. Over 70 percent of incarcerated women nationwide are reported having young children. Without housing and a job, being granted visitation or custody to their children is extremely difficult.
Formerly incarcerated women often cite housing as one of the greatest barriers to reentry, especially when it comes to transitional housing. Differing from other housing programs, transitional housing is typically short-term with the intention of helping residents integrate back into the community. With services such as life skills and mental health assistance, this kind of support is supposed to be there until residents can secure long-term housing.
Here in Terrebonne and Lafourche, finding all-female transitional housing was impossible until recently. Thanks to one woman’s personal experience, life struggle and determination that no one needs to travel that journey alone, Dianne’s House opened its doors in September 2022.
We Inspire LA, founded by Latoya Walters, is “a nonprofit created with the intent of providing transitional housing to those who need a helping hand. This could be those re-entering society post-incarceration, individuals who don’t meet income or credit requirements to obtain permanent housing, or those who have fallen on hard times due to addictions.”
Latoya was placed on this journey many years ago when she herself hit rock bottom and was arrested for her third DWI. Struggling with alcoholism, she served six days in jail alongside other women whose stories weren’t that different from her own.
Raised by her grandparents after her young mother left, Latoya faced many struggles growing up. “I had friends, but I was teased to no end,” Latoya shared. “I was so soft. When I was younger, I realized how much innocence I really had because I wasn’t exposed to a lot. I was spoiled rotten. My grandparents gave me everything I wanted.”
Eventually, Latoya’s mother returned to her life, but she really didn’t feel the connection to her mom or to her new brother. So when she turned 18, Latoya joined the Army. A series of events including her grandmother being diagnosed with cancer brought Latoya back home. At 20 years old, she welcomed her own first child into the world. Her grandparents stepped up to help raise the baby and help the new mother to find her way. Not long after that, right after her grandmother passed, she welcomed her second child.
“Things were just so different the second time,” shared Latoya tearfully. “I didn’t have my grandmother to help me. My son, he had no father-figure like my daughter did. I was all alone. So I had to figure out ways to make it.”
“I had to cope with losing my grandmother, having this new child that I didn’t know what to do with or how to care for him,” she explained. “I have to take care of all these bills and all these people and I don’t know anything about myself. I don’t really know anything about this world. I went into a true survival mode on a whole different level. I was eventually caught stealing.”
That hard lesson brought Latoya to school, and she began studying to become a phlebotomist. She also fell in love and in 2013, welcomed another child. This relationship made her realize that there was more to it than just loving one another. You have to also love yourself. Latoya began searching for ways to continue to better herself, to start the journey to being the person she was called to be.
“I started working at the hospital,” she recalled. “The people that came into the hospital began to share their stories and help me to start growing up and seeing things from a different perspective. I was changing. I started listening to motivation videos. I started to lose the weight I had gained during pregnancy. I had a tummy tuck and started getting all this attention I had never experienced before… but I was still drinking.”
From 2017 to 2018, Latoya had three DWI arrests. On her third arrest, she was unable to bond out, and spent six days in jail. “That was the first time I had ever felt my freedom being taken from me. Six days away from my children. Six days away from my grandfather, who I was caring for. And I broke down. I had hit bottom. But May 26, 2018 was my rebirth day. I have been sober since that day. That day I asked God, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’ and he said ‘Serve.’”
And from that day, Latoya has not looked back.
Always open and transparent with her story, Latoya is now a motivational speaker for those in our community facing similar challenges. The mother of three strives to help others by taking accountability for her past and helping others to find their way.
“I made my decision in 2018 to start over. I started a tshirt business to earn money. But 2019 was my hardest year,” Latoya explained. “My first year fully sober was the lowest I’ve been. I had to detach myself from being a mother, and find myself during that time. It was the biggest transformation of my life. I was being truly forged in 2019. I was learning to love me. I am accepting of Toya. I’ve kinda figured out what God wants me to do, and I’m enjoying doing it.”
As chance would have it, Latoya joined the Rotary of Downtown Houma. One meeting, a guest speaker, Hester Serrano, spoke to the club about re-entry.
“I go back to those six days in jail,” recalled Latoya. “I asked those women why they continue to come back in [jail]? And they said, environment. A lot of them want to change, but they have to go right back to the thing that had them doing what got them there in the first place. A lot of them don’t have the strength to stay afloat themselves. I realized that women were my ministry – that I was going to open a transitional house for women.”
With the help of people in the community, We Inspire LA was created. Through that organization, Dianne’s House was opened in November 2022 and welcomed its first resident in December 2022.
Dianne’s House is a four bedroom, two bathroom home that has the capacity to accommodate up to eight women at a time. The goal is to assist women with low income to no income, whatever the circumstances are that brought them to that place. Mostly, the women will come from having been released from incarceration, often on probation or parole.
“That’s my walk,” explained Latoya, “I want to help them change their mindset. I want to be able to provide housing for them where they aren’t so easily triggered to go back to survival mode. I want to give them a certain level of trust; I don’t want nothing from you. God has given me everything in abundance. I just want them to realize and to understand that they are worthy and that they have somebody that loves them, that doesn’t need, want or desire anything from them. And from there, I want to help them with job placement. I want to help them with mental health and getting counseling. I want to help. I have the first lady in the home now. She has a DCFS case and I’ve never dealt with someone who didn’t have their kids. Even if she wants to be a mother right now, she can’t. I want to continue to keep her lifted and help her to get those children back, to be able to be a part of their lives. I just want to be that light to people.”
To be considered for Dianne’s House, an individual must fill out a packet that explains their past and what would be expected of them in the future. The goal is to welcome those women who are ready to accept the change they need to make in their lives, who desire the help. The women are welcomed into the home with healthcare packages, toiletries, clothing,
and transportation options. The home has a full kitchen, and they are assisted with emergency food stamps to help purchase food. Assistance is provided in getting signed up for health care. The Workforce Commission helps with employment opportunities for those with little to no education and no work history.
Latoya plans to carefully fill the home this year with women who desire to take their place back in society. She will continue to move mountains to make sure she can continue to serve and give back to our community:
“In a short amount of time, I have touched so many people from so many walks of life. My group and my tribe of people have diversified more in these few months than in 37 years of living. I’m no longer ashamed. I’m no longer confused in the sense of why all of that had to happen. I’ve realized that I am here to serve and I’m here to love and to be loved, and I’m here to inspire.”