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After 20 years behind bars, woman gets a car through new charity for ex-prisoners: 'I'm in awe'

Alisha Disotell, whose 30-year prison sentence was recently commuted by Gov. John Bel Edwards, reacts Thursday, December 2, 2021, in disbelief despite sitting behind the steering wheel, after learning that she is the recipient of a road-ready Nissan Altima from the non-profit Freedom Rides with financial support also from corrections technology company Securus Technologies. This was the first-ever surprise car reveal for Freedom Rides, a nonprofit organization that provides transportation to those transitioning out of incarceration. (photo by Travis Spradling)

By Elyse Carmosino - TheAdvocate.com

December 3, 2021

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 at the Thursday gathering, she was gifted a car.

Disotell — who walked free in June after Gov. John Bel Edwards commuted her 30-year sentence — 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.

For the recently freed, having a way to get around is a crucial part of reintegration, Castro said. 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 reoffend, 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.”

Disotell’s car — a used Nissan Altima — was purchased with money raised by Freedom Riders and Securus Technologies, a prison communications firm. The vehicle 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.

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.

She 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 drivers 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.

“I’m in awe right now,” she marveled. “I’m like, is this really happening to me?”

For Castro, Disotell’s gratitude affirmed 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.