This is Part II of the “Good News” series from Smart on Crime Louisiana, highlighting stories of formerly incarcerated individuals and their second chances at freedom following the 2017 passage of Louisiana’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Read Part I on Louis Gipson.
The road to restoration can seem endless for a man incarcerated for over three decades. A foolish, juvenile mistake turns deadly, and suddenly you’re saddled with life in prison without parole. Some men succumb to the isolated, sometimes despondent nature of incarceration, while others look for hope.
Rick Sheppard is the latter.
The Arkansas native stole an 18-wheeler with his friend as a teenager, ending up in Bossier City, Louisiana. Trying to find bus fare to return across state lines, the pair broke into a stranger’s house. When the home owner caught them, a deadly tussle ensued, and Sheppard went to prison for first degree murder.
“What I did was wrong,” Sheppard says. “But I wasn’t unredeemable.”
Determined to better himself while locked up, Sheppard wrote letters to his former principal to get books to further his studies and complete his GED. He also requested to become a prison orderly, soaking up knowledge and training from wherever he could.
Sheppard even participated in the famed Angola Rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary, risking injury by riding bulls for the chance to be outside in the fresh air, see people from society and renew his sense of hope of one day gaining freedom.
While incarcerated, Sheppard began exchanging letters with Donna Miller, who runs the Humble Hearts Association, a very successful prison ministry. After three years of letters back and forth, Miller attended a church service put on by the Bayou Blue Assembly of God at Angola. By chance, she ran into Sheppard in the prison yard while at the service.
“I feel like God has us right where we’re supposed to be,” Miller says.
Miller’s husband, Joe, an electrician in Des Allemands, Louisiana, was at first skeptical of the entire situation, but he ultimately trusted his wife’s judgement.
“Donna’s a believer in people, and she met Rick seven or eight years ago, and they hit it off really well,” Joe says. “My wife is an excellent judge of character.”
After four years of getting to know Sheppard, Donna believed in his changed heart, and convinced her husband that the couple needed to sponsor Sheppard upon his release.
Since Sheppard finally walked out of prison on February 14, 2019, the Millers have surrounded him with support, helping him in the process of securing two jobs in construction and at a restaurant.
“Our family is very tight-knit, and Rick is a part of our family now and will be forever because he’s just an amazing guy,” Donna Miller says.
Sheppard has jumped headlong into life on the outside, enjoying skating “like back in 1984,” fishing and Donkey Kong video games. However, a major adjustment has been learning to deal with the social anxiety he’s experienced since departing prison. This type of social anxiety is common among formerly incarcerated individuals and stems from the fear that people think they cannot change. Sheppard is working every day to prove this notion wrong.
Louisiana’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative is allowing individuals like Sheppard to have a chance at redemption, something all Louisianans should wholeheartedly support.
While he knows some people are skeptical about the rehabilitation process working inside of correctional facilities, Sheppard prides himself on being a living example of undergoing a radical transformation in prison – proof that even at their lowest points, people deserve a second chance.