After 20 years behind bars, a woman gets a car donation through a new charity for ex-prisoners: “I’m in awe”
When Alisha Disotell arrived at the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections’ Baton Rouge facility, she expected to speak with the crowd that had gathered in the parking lot about her experience reintegrating into society after two decades behind bars.
Instead of giving a speech, she was gifted a car.
Disotell — who walked free in June after Gov. John Bel Edwards commuted her 30-year sentence — on Thursday became the first recipient of the Freedom Rides vehicle charity for the formerly incarcerated.
Founded in July 2020 by ex-inmate Ben Castro, the nonprofit Freedom Rides provides vehicles to people on parole to alleviate some of the hardships that come with re-entering society after years in prison.
By working with social workers, the organization helps people transitioning out of incarceration to save money earned through work-release for a car, insurance, licensing, and other related fees.
Castro, who was released from Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility in 2018, said the idea for Freedom Rides came to him during his incarceration while earning a degree in business from Ashland University.
He needed to write a thesis on a business that would serve his community, which at the time was the community at Elayn Hunt.
He thought back to a re-entry class he had taken with roughly 100 other inmates in which the instructor asked the group how many held a Louisiana driver’s license.
Castro was shocked when only three people — including himself — raised their hands.
“That’s when I found out about the culture of ‘riding dirty,’” he said. “These guys who grew up in the hood, they don’t want to go to a state police headquarters or the DMV because they’re worried about getting in trouble, so they just drive without a license, drive without registration, without insurance.
“The minute they get out, they’re doing that again, and they’re violating their parole.”
For the recently freed, having a way to get around is a crucial part of reintegration, he explained. It offers stability to hold down a job and fend for themselves in a region with a less-than-reliable public transportation system.
Advocates of the program say it could also reduce recidivism.
Those first few years of freedom are vital when it comes to determining whether or not someone will re-offend, LDPSC Secretary Jimmy Le Blanc noted. And without dependable transportation, he said “my worry is that they’re going to go back to that same environment and end up right back with us.”
The process to pick inmates for the program is highly selective: Only those who have attended numerous prison-led programs and kept a clean record while behind bars are eligible to be considered. Once selected, the responsibility falls to the car’s new owner to pay for all insurance, registration, and repair costs.
The act of simply owning a vehicle is in itself a reintegration exercise, Castro said.
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Disotell’s car — a used Nissan Altima — was purchased with money raised by Freedom Riders and Securus Technologies, a prison communications firm. It was presented Thursday in partnership with LDPS, which arranged the press conference where officials surprised her with the car.
Castro said he would love to have Freedom Rides give away scores of vehicles this year but expects 16 would be a more realistic target with fundraising challenges and the used car shortage that’s arisen due to the pandemic.
But seeing Disotell get the keys to her own car — her first-ever — makes him eager to keep the momentum going.
“She was arrested as a teenager,” Castro said. “It took 20 years for her to get her pardon, and she came out and hit the ground running. She achieved everything she could while incarcerated.”
Disotell was 18 when she killed 46-year-old Drexelle McBride in 2002. At trial, Disotell claimed self-defense, saying McBride tried to rape her. In 2004, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to three decades in prison.
During her time behind bars, prison officials said Disotell worked hard to turn her life around, taking advantage of every program offered and even earning her undergraduate degree in communications and business administration from Ashland University.
She got involved in her prison’s reentry programs and became a mentor for other incarcerated women.
Disotell said she wanted to learn everything she could about what she needed to do to help herself so that she could help others in the same situation.
“I always said I needed to get a license because that’s one of the main things that people need once they get out,” she said. “If you don’t have transportation, you’re subjected to having to walk, to having to figure out the bus system, Lyft.”
The odds are stacked against ex-inmates trying to regain their footing post-release, she said.
“We need help,” Disotell said. “We need resources. There are people who have changed their lives and who want to make a difference, but they need people … reaching back.”
Disotell, who earned a driver’s license in July, has kept busy since her release, working three jobs to save up for a car so she would no longer have to make the unsafe walk back to her apartment after night shifts at Mike Anderson’s seafood restaurant.
Now that she has a car, she said she plans to put those savings towards buying a home.
For Castro, Disotell’s gratitude affirmed the importance of his organization’s mission.
“I’ve been married, I’ve had children, but this is right up there,” Castro said. “Today we found someone who really deserved it and needed it.”
Donations to the organization can be made at freedomrides.org.