An unmarked burgundy van turned off Whalley Avenue and rolled slowly into a secluded parking lot. There was nothing about it that gave away its function, except perhaps the steel mesh behind the black tinted windows.
Nor were its passengers dressed in orange jumpsuits. Escorted by two uniformed marshals, three men in baggy heather-gray sweat suits stepped out of the van. With slow and weary steps, each man walked toward the lobby, clutching everything he owns. The first had a stuffed envelope, the second carried a cardboard box and leaned on a wooden cane and the third held a 944-page secondhand hardcover about Abraham Lincoln.
Just before 8 a.m. this brisk Tuesday in New Haven, these three, driven here from the Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers an hour north, breathed the fresh air as free men for the first time in years.
It was people like these — about 30 of them every week — that raised community concerns and sparked a showdown between city and state officials over the past year. When prisoners are released in Connecticut, the state Department of Correction transports them to the jail nearest to their destination. The second-busiest drop-off site (behind only Hartford) is the Whalley Avenue jail, less than a mile away from Yale’s central campus.
With dozens of former inmates — who may or may not have anywhere to go — turning up on the city’s doorstep weekly, the neighborhood protested. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. accused the state of “dumping” ex-cons in New Haven, burdening the city’s social services and contributing to its violent crime. Gov. M. Jodi Rell shot back: New Haven was trying to “dump” its crime problems on the state of Connecticut, she said.
After weeks of political sparring between the former campaign rivals (Rell beat out DeStefano’s 2006 gubernatorial bid), DeStefano met with Department of Correction Commissioner Theresa Lantz last March to come up with a new plan to smooth prisoners’ transition back into society. Since then, the state has adjusted its protocol in response to New Haven’s concerns.
“We do not dump people,” said Brian Garnett, a spokesman for the Department of Correction. “When someone finishes a sentence, we will take them to the closest corrections center to their home. We will drop them off.”
Instead of just cutting them loose at the curb, since last spring, corrections officers bring the ex-convicts into the lobby, where they wait until someone comes to pick them up or they can arrange other means of transportation. The city has received no complaints since the change was made, New Haven Community Services Administrator Kica Matos said.
“When prisoners are dropped off, they are taken inside the jail so that transportation and so on can be coordinated for them,” City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said. “So they’re not wandering on Whalley Avenue.”
Three days of observing the process found that though the prisoners are no longer being left on the sidewalk, they sometimes walk right back outside.
STEPPING ONTO THE CURB
Indeed, the routine is different now, noticed the man with the book about Lincoln. He is David Martinsen, 45, and he would know. He’s been convicted 10 times on charges including breach of peace, public indecency, carrying a dangerous weapon and possessing narcotics, according to court records.
His most recent sentence, three years for burglary, ended Feb. 24. He was woken up at 3:30 a.m, but he hadn’t slept anyway — he said he was too anxious. At 8 a.m., he waited inside the lobby of the Whalley Avenue jail for the banks to open and for the rising sun to warm up the 23-degree morning.
“It’s cold outside,” he said, “but it’s way better than being in there.”
The first man he arrived with left soon after. He said he was headed home to Waterbury but declined to take a ride with the corrections officers. Instead they gave him a bus fare token. He took his envelope, which held a check to be cashed, and headed to the Shaw’s grocery store across the street.
The second ex-con, the one with the cane, waited until a man he recognized showed up for him.
“Do I have to sign you out?” the man asked. “No,” the guard answered: “He’s free.” The two left together.
Martinsen also took a bus token, but he waited another half-hour, while two inmates started mopping the floor around his feet.
When the banks open, Martinsen said he plans to cash a check, grab a cup of coffee and ride a bus to Union Station. He has never lived in New Haven, but he wanted to come to here “because everything is so central,” he said — from the jail, it’s a straight-shot to the bank, the bus, the train station and New York. From there, he said, he’ll catch a train to Albany, where his sisters live.
They are the only family he has left, now that he and his wife are divorced and his kids are gone.
Still, Martinsen considers himself lucky. He was able to make these arrangements for himself, and he has somewhere he can go to. Others, he said, are not that fortunate: Many end up in halfway houses, homeless shelters or even back behind bars.
The chief concern about how prisoners are released into law-abiding society is preventing them from relapsing, Garnett said. Almost 40 percent of prisoners released in Connecticut are convicted again, according to the Department of Correction. To prevent that, the department tries to provide them with support starting weeks before their release in order to help ease their transition.
For example, they helped Eddie Rodriguez, 24, obtain new documents — a driver’s license, birth certificate and Social Security card. After serving 15 months in the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in Enfield, Rodriguez was released Thursday and transferred to the Whalley Avenue jail. From there he left on a shuttle to Waterbury, where his 8-year-old son was waiting. The rest of his family is in his native Puerto Rico, where he hopes to return when he makes enough money as a construction worker.
Like Martinsen, Rodriguez is a repeat offender. But now he has a fresh start and a probation officer, and he said he hopes not to return again.
“The corrections system can no longer afford people coming back time after time after time,” Garnett said. “The worst thing we can do is just shoo them out the front gate and wish them luck.”
But that was exactly what was happening last year, DeStefano and community leaders charged at the time. Now that the Department of Correction brings them inside first, if no one comes to pick them up, Garnett said the corrections officers are even supposed to take the prisoner home themselves.
But changing the rules doesn’t always mean changing reality. When the prisoners say they’re leaving, there’s not much the corrections officers can do except ask if they have a place to go or give them a bus token.
Jose Rivera, also released Thursday, asked the corrections officers in the lobby of the jail to call his family and tell them to pick him up at the McDonald’s across the street, where they would take him home to nearby Seymour. Then he walked out, carrying his possessions in a cardboard box. Half an hour later, he was still waiting outside on the street.
“I’ve been in 18 months and had enough,” he said. “I don’t want to wait in there.”
Chris Blais, 27, also walked right back outside when he was released at the New Haven jail Friday after serving three months in the Bergin Correctional Institution in Storrs for criminal mischief. Unlike Rodriguez, instead of taking the Department of Correction’s shuttle to his hometown of Waterbury, Blais took a bus pass, walked outside and went down Whalley Avenue toward the New Haven Green. He said it doesn’t make much of a difference whether they bring him inside first or leave him at the curb, as they did the other five times he has been released.
Bringing the ex-cons inside until they get picked up or find some other transportation is better than leaving them on the sidewalk, said John Massari, director of residential services for Project MORE, a New Haven nonprofit that helps with prisoner re-entry. But by the time the prisoners get out of the van on the day of their release, it may be too little, too late.
“It’s a help,” he said. “Maybe it means they’re not out walking around. But it doesn’t really take care of a lot of the issues these people have.”