By Wayne Jebian
Minnie Gonzalez, the Democrat state representative from Hartford’s 3rd District, is visibly frustrated. When she talks about the life challenges facing ex-offenders upon release from Connecticut prisons, the anger in her voice speaks volumes about the experiences of her constituents, her neighbors in Hartford, and her own family. “Listen, I’m a mother. I know about this,” she says.
“They come out, they start looking for a job, they can’t find a job,” Gonzalez says, describing what she has witnessed for too many years with people released from incarceration. “Sometimes they can’t find training. What do you think they’re gonna do? They will go back to the corner and sell drugs, because one way or another, they have to survive.”
Gonzalez is skeptical the state Department of Correction is doing enough and thinks it should do more. “In my community, when people get out of jail, they call me and they say, ‘Can you help me get a job?’ Did they get any training when they were on the inside? Nothing,” she said.
Change in Mission
The Department of Correction, however, insists it has changed its perspective from a focus on incarceration to treatment and rehabilitation. “Around six or seven years ago, the Department of Correction changed its mission,” said Brian Garnett, its director of external affairs. “We previously had been doing an incarceration model, if you will, where we basically locked people down; we incapacitated them.” Now, Garnett said, the department assesses the needs of each inmate upon arrival and attempts to provide GED training, drug treatment and other forms of rehabilitation like parenting and anger management courses.
Garnett said that the department takes a global perspective on inmate rehabilitation and that it has improved coordination with post-release services like housing and job placement. “We spend about $40 million per year on our community-based efforts,” he said. “Much of that is halfway houses. We believe very strongly that it is not the best practice, not to, on the last day of their incarceration, swing the gate open, shuffle you out the front door and say, ‘good luck’.”
It is also possible that job, housing and rehabilitation programs are not evenly distributed throughout the state. “Can more be done?” asked Garnett. “Obviously more can be done. This is a daunting task.” If Gonzalez’ experiences represent that of one family in Hartford, it might be instructive to look at Bridgeport.
There, business owner John Santa is a rare creature: an employer willing to hire ex-convicts. “It’s with enlightened self interest that any of us consider hiring an ex-offender,” he said, “because 95% of people who go to prison get out of prison. When they are in prison, they are $36,000 wards of the state of Connecticut. When they get out of prison, they could be taxpayers to the state of Connecticut.”
For many years Santa hired ex-inmates at Santa Energy Corporation of Bridgeport, where he used to be president. To hear him speak, Santa has a higher opinion of many ex-cons than of officials in past administrations who took a, “trauma/jail, throw-away-the-key, feed ’em bread and water and to hell with ’em” view of inmates, Santa said, with former Gov. (and federal inmate) John “Rowland being the most egregious of them.”
Santa also works with a group called Malta Prison Volunteers of CT, which works with nonprofits such as Career Resources and the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport Inc. to provide an array of post-release services. Santa and Gonzalez agree that taxpayers would be better served if the state Department of Correction improved and expanded inmate job training programs. “My opinion is that they should start while they are locked up, when they’ve got the time,” said Gonzalez.
Governor Dannel Malloy and those currently overseeing the Department of Correction seem to be seeing eye-to-eye with Minnie Gonzalez says Santa. “Right now we’ve got tremendous political alignment on this matter,” said Santa. “You start out with a governor who’s nobody’s fool. His wife has worked for many years for social services in inner-city Stamford. He has been the mayor of a town with a lot of inner-city issues. He knows what can happen when incarceration is not handled properly. He is very much of a mind to make this better.”
Help They Need
Organizations like Malta Prison Volunteers and Career Resources of Bridgeport have their supporters. Jose Santo, who is enrolled with the Malta Prison Volunteers Project of CT, says in a video for Malta, when he first got out of prison after seven years at the age of 24 he had no plan besides “hanging out with my boys … and I went back to prison.”
The second time around Santo learned his lesson but needed outside help to succeed. “I’m older. I know my wife and children want me to go on a different road,” he said in the video. “To have a job when you get out of prison is to have a gift. When you learn the skill, you don’t know what else to do and you don’t want to go back to what you used to do.”
“We work with ex-offenders, especially within the Latino population,” said Judy Leon of Proyecto Nueva Vida, an initiative within the Council of Churches. “I help them get all the things they need when you first get out of jail in order to start working and getting around. I help obtain their IDs, their birth certificates from Puerto Rico, social security cards, bus passes, cosmetics and toiletries when we have that.”
“We deal with people who return to the community through work-release programs,” said Dan Braccio of the Council of Churches. “Within those programs, there are group meetings kind of on the [Alcoholics Anonymous] basis or [Narcotics Anonymous] basis that would work with sobriety and teaching people prevention procedures, that kind of thing.”
Scott Wilderman, president of Career Resources, described Strive, one of his organization’s job programs: “It’s an attitudinal program. It’s a boot camp approach to finding a job, lets put it that way. They have to show on time; they have to show up with the right attitude; they have to show up with a suit and tie on each day for almost three weeks. It’s very intense.” Wilderman claims a placement rate of nearly 70 percent for ex-offenders.
Correction Department spokesman Garnett said that the net result of all these programs is to reduce recidivism, which shrinks the overall prison population and lowers costs. “The good news, however, is that our prison population, which was almost at 20,000 in 2008, is now down to 16,000. That’s 4,000 people. We’ve closed three correctional facilities because our population is down.”
- Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, Inc.: Proyecta Nueva Vida
- Department of Correction
- Hartford Public Library Ex-Offender Services
- Malta Prison Volunteers of America
- Network of Care
- United Way 211
The Prodigal Product of Malta Prison Volunteers of CT is explained below in this video:
Images courtesy Malta Project video.