“Eight months was enough for me.”
Hugh M. Edwards Jr., 40, a resident of Ansonia, Conn., was not always the world-renown celebrity photographer or Yale University dining hall chef that he is now. Twenty-five years ago, he was just a teenager who had finished a brief stint in jail.
“I’m an ex-offender — I’m a five-time convicted felon in the early ’80s,” he said. “I’ve made mistakes, and I had [an] opportunity to have a second chance.”
After leaving prison, Edwards entered a New Haven job training program that focused on reintegrating him back into society and getting him, among other things, a food-service job.
That program is long gone, he said. But the spirit of the program and of others, like mental health support and affordable housing, is what legislators and community agencies across the country hope to capture in order to help the one in 31 American adults who have been in jail or on parole or probation.
In New Haven, prison reentry — the reintegration of former prisoners into society — has been a major focus of legislators and residents over the past year. After all, the effects of the problem hit close to home: the July 2007 Cheshire home invasion and triple homicide committed by two repeat offenders, the three February shootings in New Haven by youth with criminal records and the December 2007 announcement by Community Services Administrator Kica Matos that 25 prisoners are released, “dumped” to some, into the city each week.
Although the protests and community activity on prison reentry that riddled New Haven shortly after the “dumping” announcement by Matos have dissipated, city officials and legislators have been working on the problem — quietly.
In August, City Hall created a prison reentry initiative that includes efforts to “Ban the Box” — or remove question 5a, which asks for felony and misdemeanor status, from all city employment applications. The initiative that will be spearheaded by three city officials, including Matos and City Hall Legislative Assistant Laoise King, and one recent Yale Law School graduate, Deborah Marcuse ’97 LAW ’08, paid by Yale. The group plans to announce its plan soon.
Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who announced Monday that he will run for a ninth term next fall, said this week that if re-elected, he will continue working on providing support services for released prisoners.
Meanwhile, local advocacy and charitable groups hope that their respective prison reentry initiatives — which tend to focus on individualized support providing former inmates with access to a wide range of social services from getting a job to regaining parental rights — will reduce prison populations as well as incidents of recidivism that occurs both in Hew Haven and across the country.
“It’s overwhelming,” said National Association for the Advancement of Colored People New Haven Chapter President James Rawlings on the prison reentry problem. “It’s probably one of the top two or three issues in our urban center.”
Yet just a few years ago, the now visible push for prison reentry reform in Connecticut and New Haven was not even on the radar, legislators and prison reentry experts agree. But the overflowing population of prisoners and the tightening state budgets across the nation are forcing politicians to find ways to curb crime other than having judges issue long jail sentences.
“Everyone is doing reentry now,” said Warren Kimbro, president of prison reentry support services provider Project MORE on Grand Avenue. “Reentry is the fashion with everyone these days, yet reentry has been an issue for years. Now all of a sudden, we’re all doing it. There must be something happening.”
‘NOW EVERYONE’S CARING’
When Kimbro, a former Black Panther Party member and an expert on New Haven prison reentry issues, was in prison for murder, from Jan. 1972 to 1974, the state legislature included progressive comprehensive programs in Connecticut’s corrections department. He worked as a student at Eastern Connecticut State College while in prison, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree.
For a time, when Kimbro started as executive director of Project MORE in 1983, he said, the state Department of Corrections and Judicial Department would send many prisoners to New Haven to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society with the help of Project MORE. Both state departments started contracts with group in 1980s, which have lasted until now.
But in the 1990s, more conservative DOC commissioners came in, weakening the department’s support programs, he said.
“No one has cared for ex-offenders for years,” he said. “Now everyone’s caring for ex-offenders.”
Generally, the national philosophy of incarcerating more and for longer periods of time that started in the 1980s is now being questioned by legislators and state executives. Before, the “tough on crime” — too tough, state officials say now — mentality of the state and federal governments, trickled down to the city level, forcing local governments to oblige and face the consequences, including complaints from residents and the release of inmates that are potential dangerous.
“What you have is state and federal policy dictating what is happening in the cities,” said Andrew Clark, director of Central Connecticut State University’s Institute for the Study of Crime and Justice, a criminal justice research institute.
East Haven State Rep. Michael Lawlor, co-chair of the state judiciary committee, said nationally, there had been a steady prisoner population buildup that has came to the public attention over the last several years.
And when there’s public attention, there is administrative “crisis management.”
“The administration[s] [are] trying to deal with the numbers problem. There’s too many inmates for them to deal with,” he said.
In Connecticut, according to Lawlor, there are 19,500 inmates in the Connecticut prisons system, though only 18,500 prison beds.
‘THE ONES HELD ACCOUNTABLE’
Lawlor said Republican budget cuts in the 2000s also contributed to the push for comprehensive reentry support.
In 2000, then Gov. John Rowland issued an overall across-the-state budget cut of about 10 percent that led to many layoffs of probation and parole officers as well as cuts in halfway houses. The prison population naturally increased, Lawlor said, since released prisoners had less support than before. This trend led Rowland to rehire the officers and alleviate cuts to reentry and alternative incarceration programs.
As the state prison population increased at a rate 50 percent faster than the national average until 2003, according to reports published in 2004, the number reached a then-record peak of 19,121 inmates.
In order to fix the problem, the government brought in the help of the national Council of State Governments. The group encouraged a focus on prison reentry programs, among other initiatives. With the group’s advice, the legislature temporarily lowered the prison population, although the numbers have since increased.
The most recent wave of interest in prisoner reentry arose in 2007. That July, two men on parole invaded a home in Cheshire and murdered three. And in March 2008, in New Britain, a criminal with multiple felonies shot two women, killing one and wounding the other.
The crisis management in this case was a parole shut-down, ordered by Rell in September 2007. Meanwhile, she pushed for three-strikes legislation, which would have mandated a minimum life sentence with parole after 30 years to criminals who have committed a third felony, regardless of the crimes. The prison population shot up, Lawlor said.
As the population ballooned, Rell reinstituted parole and probation programs and worked with Democratic legislators to refocus on prison reentry and alternative incarceration programs.
On the federal level, Congress passed the Second Chance Act, signed into law in April, which prison reentry experts called the largest federal push for prison reentry solutions yet. It grants up to $65 million across the country to state and local governments to develop prison reentry initiatives and authorizes a $15 million reentry program for community and faith-based organizations for reentry support services. Still, some critics say more funds are needed.
Tony Fabelo, director of research for CSG’s Justice Center, a think tank focused on strategies to improve public safety, said the bill provides a good “template” for a “national conversation” on prison reform and reentry.
But Clark was a bit more cynical in his analysis of federal and state work.
“Policy makers, if elected officials, generally don’t have the long-term, really intricate solutions to the mess we have created,” Clark said. “Yet they are forced to be the ones held accountable.”
The areas most affected by prison reentry are the poor neighborhoods of major cities. In New Haven, those neighborhoods are Newhallville, Fair Haven and the Hill.
“Public safety in those areas tends to be damaged,” Terrence Dunworth, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., said. “The people that come out of prison tend to come from and go back there. They have poor education, no job prospects, not enough money, often don’t have places to live. There’s a natural tendency to reoffend.”
The Justice Policy Center, a national criminal justice think tank, currently works with 15 cities across the nation, including Hartford but not New Haven, to analyze and map prison reentry issues in those communities.
According to U.S. congressional records, nearly two-thirds of released state prisoners are expected to be rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years of release.
Edwards said although he grew up in a “good home,” he felt “peer pressure” to commit crimes from the Newhallville teenagers living around him.
“With my friends, the group of people that I was with, that was the thing to do,” he said. “Rob somebody, breaking into a house, not to go to school.”
When he was in high school, Edwards joined a gang.
He was never “fully involved,” he said, but he became “almost a career criminal.” He stole. He took drugs. He dropped out of high school in 1983. That year, he was arrested and sent to prison.
Recently, city officials have taken a vested interest in focusing on specifically local prison reentry by creating the initiative.
But the nascent initiative may not have the teeth required to create large impact in the city, some experts claim, because it lacks the funds to create better, more effective programs.
“Money is necessary help cure problems” with prison reentry, Kimbro said.
City Hall Spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said the city’s goal is to start with the aspects of the reentry plan that do not cost anything to taxpayers. The city is working on securing grants for funding additional programs, that will be determined by the funds.
In addition to “Ban the Box” and the resource book, city officials said they plan to hold a workshop with local businesses and employers to encourage them to work with and support former inmates. The date has not yet been determined.
Despite the initiative, city officials affirm that the problem is more a state issue and that the city government serves as a broker for state efforts.
“The city is not in a position to manage a population that is not under its control,” New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said. “This is largely a state and judiciary issue that we have to work with them on.”
Meanwhile, other local organizations are offering solutions.
The New Haven NAACP is trying quietly to work out a prison reentry program of its own, with help of area businesses. The group plans to work with businesses to form employment and social support for former inmates, Rawlings said.
Edwards said he is working with Rawlings “in the trenches” in order to get individual residents excited about the program. Edwards, the head of the NAACP’s reentry program, has worked on the initiative for about five months.
So far, NAACP has not approached any city, state or federal government agency for support.
“We will broaden our traction if we need to,” Rawlings said.
All politicians and prison reentry experts interviewed agreed that the most effective way to lower crime and increase public safety across the nation is for community groups and federal, state and local government agencies to work together. It’s a challenge though.
“I think the hardest thing is to get people to work together,” DeStefano said. “I hope we can come up with some better solution [through] cooperative efforts.”
Many experts point to the long stretches of time and effort that are required to create collaborations as reasons for the lack of them across the nation.
Yet some experts said it may be difficult to form the alliances because many agencies believe they can lead and fix it themselves.
“There’s a competition to be the one to solve the problem,” said Douglas Rae, Yale professor of management and Chief Administrator for former Mayor John Daniels’ administration. “[Competition] makes it difficult for people to play and coordinate together.”
Despite the difficulties groups face in working together, national experts said, all groups with prison reentry programs so far have taken a comprehensive approach.
Often in these comprehensive programs, legislators and prison reentry experts said, there is a case manager who tends to each inmate, determining the core of their needs and directing the inmates to various mental health, job training, affordable housing or social service providers for help.
But one resource may still not be tapped. According to congressional research, prisoner families are often underutilized in reentry strategies, no matter how comprehensive.
Experts agree that job programs, mental health support services and other social service programs can each separately help former inmates readjust to society if the inmate has a problem that the individual agency can address.
But although it makes logical sense then to have all of these services work together for inmates, experts said, there have been no studies completed that give evidence that comprehensive programs are more effective than the more specialized programs, which used to be more common.
“The hope is that [comprehensive programs] will turn things around,” Dunworth said.
Fabelo agreed: “Once you do [comprehensive programs], will [the situation] get better? That’s the question you’re asking, and we do not know. But you can argue that it will definitely not get better under the present system that we have. … We know it’s not going to get better if we don’t do something different.”
Edwards said he is helping to create comprehensive prison reentry reform because most inmates want to enter back into society.
“They’re ready to have a change in their lives,” he said.
In 2003, he received his high school diploma. Rell recently pardoned him.
“I did it for my family, my kids,” Edwards said. “I didn’t want to feel like I was a criminal. My family is all I have, and I’m trying to raise my kids to understand that. I didn’t want to carry it no more.”
After leaving jail in 1983, his mother signed him up for a job training program. Using the skills he learned there (“How to dress for success,” he said.), he earned a job at Burger King.
“Looking back, the job training program,” he said, “kind of helped me a lot to realize. I didn’t want to be in a cell. It just was not me.”