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Kelly Orians has helped bring freedom and wellbeing to dozens of people who have struggled with the judicial system – and it is all thanks to her unlikely relationship with two men who had spent nearly half a century in prison
Kelly grew up in a family that was impacted by incarceration. She is all too familiar with the predatory price of phone calls, the random and unexpected lockdowns that prevent visitation, the court dates and continuances that drag on for years, and the lengthy parole supervision that follows, making real freedom seem nearly impossible.
Additionally, her home of Louisiana is the world’s prison capital, imprisoning more of its people per capita than any of its U.S. counterparts. The state’s incarceration rate is nearly five times that of Iran, 13 times China’s, and 20 times Germany’s.
Because of her upbringing, Orian has managed an astonishing career in advocating for prisoner’s rights with The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL). Additionally, she has managed the statewide campaign to End Life Without Parole Sentencing for Juveniles (JLWOP).
“When I first started working in the Louisiana prison system I learned my most important lesson: that even though my family struggled, we still enjoyed incredible privileges compared to people of color from low income communities who have family in prisons and jails,” Kelly explained. “It wasn’t my family’s experience with incarceration that motivated me to pursue this work, it was what was so dramatically different about ours.”
Kelly worked on the legal team that secured the release of the first two people in the country under the US Supreme Court ruling Graham v. Florida, which declared JLWOP sentences unconstitutional in non-homicide cases. After nearly half a century in jail, the two men named Bob and Josh were released in the middle of the night from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
She met them at the gate, drove them home, and with a brave heart, personally guided them through their transition back into everyday life.
“The moment Bob and Josh stepped out of the prison van and crossed the threshold of the front gate is one I will absolutely never forget. I remember every detail of that night. I remember thinking ‘We won! We did it. We finally won.’ Then, about 30 minutes later, on the long ride back down highway 66 from Angola, Bob turned to me and asked, ‘where do I get my medications tomorrow?’ It occurred to me then that although we had won their release from prison, we had not even begun the fight to ensure they would never have to go back to prison. We had not yet done anything to ensure they would have the opportunity to live with dignity and respect.”
It was during these very exciting (albeit uncertain) weeks that Kelly launched her first “communal loan fund” which raised and dispersed zero interest loans to assist her clients with meeting the demands of their reentry process.