Keeping A Promise: Parole Project Client Finds His Greater Purpose

At age 27, Eldridge Stewart was sent to the Louisiana State Penitenitary for his involvement in a crime that took a life. Angola, as it is known, seemed worlds away from his familiar New Orleans surroundings. “I was consumed by the toxic mindset,” he said, “that violence was the answer to most problems.” But during the next two plus decades, looking deep within himself, he found ways to break through that mindset and heal his soul.

Eldridge was sentenced to life without parole in 2001, agreeing to a plea deal minutes before his trial was to begin. In the judge’s chambers, his victim’s mother told him to “go to Angola and do something with yourself.” In a transformative moment of remorse and reconciliation, he offered his apology to her, which she accepted.

Eldridge often contemplated that moment as he acclimated to life behind bars – her words echoing like a mantra when challenges arose. Having made a promise to himself and those he had hurt, he adopted an unwavering dedication to personal growth and supporting others in need. “As a man of my word, I started trying to do better,” he recalled. “I wanted to take every chance I could to improve myself and make a positive impact on someone’s life.”

Wasting little time, Eldridge began to make changes. He grew to become a leader in his prison community, eventually holding positions such as reentry mentor, GED tutor, and lead concrete finishing instructor at Angola. He volunteered with programs such as the Lifer’s Association, Leadership Builders prison ministry, and PAWS (Prisoners Assisting Warriors Service), which trains service dogs for military veterans.

Eldridge also began applying the lessons from his classes to understand and reshape himself. In particular, he was greatly impacted by the Trauma Healing class, which provided insight into how the human brain processes information and reacts to experiences. The class also allowed him to recognize trauma in his own life, process it healthily, and recognize how trauma could impact or be impacted by different circumstances.

Those deep personal changes, which Eldridge admits took some time and significant soul searching, was a stark contrast to the brash and confrontational personality he initially held when he entered Angola. He was different, and that difference was recognized when he received a unanimous commutation recommendation which the governor signed in early 2023 that gave him an opportunity for parole. “This understanding didn’t come to me overnight,” he said in a letter written to a surviving victim ahead of his parole hearing, “it took years of intervention, classes, and a solid commitment to change to open my eyes.” On November 30, 2023, Eldridge was granted parole and walked out of the gates of Angola the next day. With his old “toxic mindset” no longer steering his life, Eldridge looked to the future with optimism, gratitude, and hope as he rode to Parole Project’s office for the first time.

One of Eldridge’s first goals during his reentry was to find a stable job and build a career. He leaned on Parole Project’s Employment Enhancement Program to identify opportunities and prepare for the workforce. Just two months after his release, he took the first step toward achieving that goal.

Eldridge is currently a heavy equipment operator at a concrete contractor in Walker, Louisiana. He drives four-ton dump trucks for the company, moving mounds of materials across the plant each day. Eldridge believes he has fallen into a spot meant for him. “I genuinely love getting up and driving to work at 5:30 in the morning. It feels so good to be a tax-paying citizen,” he said with a hint of shock at the joy he now experiences. “My coworkers have been very supportive. I can’t think of one bad experience I’ve had.”

He is also exceedingly grateful for James Nolan, owner of Tri-Parish Sand and Gravel, and his wife, Gail Nolan, for the chance they extended to him. “Mr. Nolan came up to me one day and we began talking about my journey and our shared Christian faith,” Eldridge said.

After taking the first step, Eldridge said his focus is on serving others. He plans to teach others how to adopt healthy coping strategies and find paths to healing from traumatic experiences. Inspired by the lessons he learned at Angola, his goal is to break cycles of trauma similar to those that fueled the “toxicity” of his youth.

For decades, Eldridge has tried to live up to the challenge his victim’s mother gave to him and worked to keep his promise to pursue perpetual improvement. “Every positive thing I’ve done … was because of your words in the judge’s chambers,” he shared in his 2023 letter to her. “I know ‘me getting my life together’ didn’t stop a minute of your pain. But I want you to know that the pain I caused … sparked something in me that made me turn myself in, plead guilty, and fueled my complete transformation.”