As you plan for your release from prison, make sure you have some form of identification: a voter registration card, a birth certificate or social security card, and — the following is implied — a standard salutation by which you’ll present yourself.
This is what I learn when I first open the “Pre-Release Guide to New Haven Community Resources,” an unassumingly slim pamphlet for soon-to-be ex-offenders. Beyond ways to self-identify, the booklet addresses the ex-offender’s concerns of education, family and child support, health care, mental health, substance abuse, legal assistance, housing, and employment. It’s printed biannually by the New Haven Reentry Roundtable, a city-orchestrated collaborative through which community activists, social service providers, and ex-offenders work to ease the trauma that prisoners experience upon re-entering society. At the non-denominational Christian Church on the Rock, a conventional building that doesn’t aspire to transcendence, Roundtable members assemble monthly to discuss the implications of a conviction record on life after prison.
This Tuesday morning in October, “we’re going to start by doing some introductions. I’m Amy Meek. I’m the reentry coordinator for the city of New Haven, and I’m one of the co-chairs of the New Haven Reentry Roundtable,” Meek says at what becomes the head of the granite-countered table. Offering an example of the preface she expects to hear from everyone else in the room, Meek distinguishes herself from those dressed in muted business casual with her orange J. Crew-esque ensemble. In her brief address to the congregation, her wide-set eyebrows raised, she has omitted the following: I’m a 2009 graduate of Yale Law School. When McDonalds denies your application in light of your conviction, I’m there for you.
As is Tirzah Kemp, a poised and impeccably groomed woman sitting to Meek’s left. She introduces herself as “the community grant organizer. I work with Amy and the reentry initiative for the city of New Haven.” Hours later, in the privacy of Meek’s City Hall office, when Meek whispers to Kemp behind the screen of a manila folder, Kemp reveals, “Oh … and then I’m also an ex-offender.” I was a single mother, ignorant of the criminal justice system and scared to lose my child. My conviction for assault in the second-degree, which dates from 1999, was the result of an abusive relationship with my boyfriend, and the start of a new path in my life.
Further along the table, from a round, mousy woman, comes another introduction: “Beatrice Codianni, managing editor of Reentry Central and formerly incarcerated person,” which I prefer to the term ex-offender. I suffered discrimination by the press for my involvement with the Connecticut chapter of the Latin Kings, and I struggled to find a job when my time in prison was done. Now that I’m settled, I’d like to advocate especially on behalf of incarcerated mothers.
From a bald man with an elite bearing, seated several heads down the table, there emerges yet another voice: “Good morning, I’m Dwight Dickerson. I’m with TriCord,” a nonprofit organization my wife Loretta and I founded to mentor the ex-offender community and their families. They won’t let me volunteer with the pre-orientation program ‘cuz of my criminal record, but that was 16 years ago, and, after that, I worked as a machinist and went to Yale, where I got a B.A. in Sociology.
And from beside the table — around which some seats are still unoccupied, because the prospect of sitting in the middle of the room seems to intimidate Roundtable members less forthcoming than Kemp, Dickerson, or Codianni — I state my name and affiliation: “Nicole Levy, Yale undergraduate.” I’m a reporter. A few months ago at Yale, I met the charismatic Timothy Rinaldi, a spirited Roundtable member who has introduced himself today as “New Haven citizen and ex-offender.” When I saw the community activist feeding his pet squirrel, Wigwam, from a jar of Skippy peanut butter, I asked him for his story. I never expected the rapport we’ve enjoyed to spread as smoothly over my life as it has, or that Rinaldi would invite me here, to Amy Meek’s Roundtable. And I, for one, am willing to give everything and everyone a chance.
Members of the Roundtable agree that easing the reentry process for the ex-offender would benefit him and his community. These days, in Roundtable member and ex-offender Virginia Downing’s words, “When you get out of jail, you are going in the wilderness. You’re lost. You don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know where to start. You’re just dropped in the middle of the floor … and you’re told okay, you’re a wild stallion now, go run.” The ex-offender can run to, if he knows his options, an emergency shelter, sober house, or transitional housing facility. The stain on his record rules out longer-term public housing. If the ex-offender has no training, education, employment history, or skills, his job prospects are dismal; if he is qualified for the job, he may be overlooked for an interview because the prospective employer assumes that derogatory stereotypes of a formerly criminal applicant are true. Without means of accruing a respectable income, the ex-offender will likely resort to crime. According to a 2010 study conducted by the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, of the 16,241 sentenced offenders who were followed for three years after release from a state correctional facility in 2005, more than half were convicted for a new offense. With an estimated 7,000 ex-offenders reentering their communities from Connecticut prisons this year, and with as many as 52,000 ex-offenders on parole, recidivism has been and will continue to be no small problem. It is a matter of community safety and expense: for one prisoner’s board, citizens pay $30,000 per year, money that otherwise could be spent to train and place ex-offenders in employment.
The ex-offender — and, by extension, his community — need plans drafted before his release, a support structure upon his discharge, and an array of reentry programs from which to choose. The New Haven Reentry Roundtable has printed those resources in a catalogue biannually since July 2009; Amy Meek herself regularly updates the guide’s content on the website of the city of New Haven. The Roundtable first convened in 2008 under the supervision of Meek’s predecessor and fellow law school alumna, Deborah Marcuse, and former state representative William Dyson. Sponsored by the city of New Haven’s Prison Reentry Initiative, the Roundtable is one among similar collaborative groups in Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury, Willimantic, and New London to publish such pamphlets.
At the meeting I attend on October 19, members of the New Haven Roundtable take a survey that orders, in terms of significance, the issues covered in the “Pre-Release Guide”; it’s a dry way of parceling what is inherently a dramatic subject. “We know a fair amount about reentry in general,” says James Kwak, one among five Yale Law students organizing a Community Reentry Clinic under the direction of Professor Jeff Selbin. “We know a little bit about what’s going on in Connecticut,” he continues at an earnest, academic pitch. “Today, we wanted to get input from all of you ….”
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Tirzah Kemp, community grant organizer for New Haven’s Reentry Initiative and former battered girlfriend, is the first among the ex-offenders in attendance to chime in: “How do we educate employers?” she says. “And rather than make them feel as though we’re working against them and making them hire ex-offenders … how do we educate them to look beyond the record?”
Kemp, whose closely cropped hair complements her freckle-dusted face, has a complex relationship to her conviction record. It recalls a time in her life when she finally resisted her boyfriend’s violence, only to endure more beatings and find herself in want of the courage to leave. But it’s also the reason she attended the court-mandated counseling sessions that inspired her to dump her abuser, and the grounds on which she was hired for her current job as organizer. As an ideological if not active feminist, I take vicarious pride in her independence.
Kemp’s résumé will tell you that, as a single mother of two boys — one seven years old, the other only six months — she was briefly employed as a caterer, and later graduated from the program at STRIVE New Haven, a nonprofit agency that conducts job skills training workshops. “My parents” — her father, the abusive hotel developer, and her mother, the real estate agent, raised their three children as Jehovah’s Witnesses in a beach-side house in Milford — “always taught me work ethic, so I really believed in what they were teaching,” Kemp tells me at Mayor John DeStefano’s office, one week after the Roundtable meeting. After volunteering at STRIVE, she began to work for the organization full-time and climbed her way up the ranks to a managerial position.
Kemp explains that her career in coordinating social activist nonprofits “kind of found me, I think because of my felony. Being compassionate and wanting to help people,” and possessing a countenance that I find positively regal “made for other employers to start kind of noticing the work I do … And that’s how I met Amy.” The Mayor’s staff trusted Meek’s judgment, and she knew she wanted to hire someone who would be empathetic to her clients. After Kemp’s six years at STRIVE, Meek managed to lure her away from that institution.
Just before leaving, Kemp helped the city’s Prison Reentry Initiative select, in consultation with Roundtable members, seven proposals from the 12 New Haven-based community organizations that applied to win reentry grants, six worth $5,000, and one $8,650. “If I can just take seven of the 200-plus agencies that are in New Haven and get them to play nice and work together … that would speak volumes,” she says of her ongoing ambitions.
Kemp’s job with the city, which she began in August, is a special funds position, and there is no guarantee that she can continue when those funds are depleted. Clutching a BlackBerry and sporting a designer necklace, she can now provide more than what her children need, but she fears that “in two years, I’m back to square one again.”
At the mayor’s office, where she works in a small, white, but vibrantly decorated cubicle, Kemp says her co-workers respect her opinion, and her felony goes unmentioned. She insists that it’s but one of the many facets of her identity, like her mixed heritage, Caucasian and black. Yet her conviction has, nonetheless, come to define her: “Without my experience, I don’t know what I would have to offer my community,” she admits, stroking the rim of the Diet Pepsi can in her hand, conflicted as to how I — the presumably innocent and upright Yalie — will construe her statement. It seems “inevitable that life is going to change once you’re convicted,” she reflects; you’re never allowed to forget your mistakes, whether or not a reporter can see them in the constellation of freckles on your face.
Nonetheless, Kemp is living proof of New Haven’s efforts to ease the burden of memory. In February 2009, the city’s Board of Aldermen approved a “ban the box” ordinance, striking the criminal history question from city job applications and stipulating that city contractors and vendors follow suit. With criminal background checks relegated to the end of the hiring process, candidates ideally can compete for jobs based on their qualifications and experience. When Kemp reveals her identity as an ex-offender to her clients, their stunned response is “Wow! You’re working for the city?” she says. “And ‘ban the box’ — well, evidently it works!” Kemp says, laughing triumphantly at what has proven to be her own good fortune.
Kemp stands apart from the majority of ex-offenders who participate in the Roundtable coalition. Most, Amy Meek explains, attend a couple of times as a stage of the reentry process. “People come out and they want to tell their story, and they want to kind of be around people who are thinking about these issues,” Meek says. When they gain employment, invest their time in education, and settle into the community, they collect commitments that override the priority of the Roundtable’s monthly meetings.
As an example of someone who’s used the coalition as a stepping stone back into the community, Meek cites Joseph Savenelli; Savenelli spent 25 years of his life incarcerated for murdering his wife with a butcher knife (in what he says was self-defense) and later joined the Army under an assumed alias, but today, he sits for classes at Gateway Community College and is working to regain his real estate broker’s license.
I understand why the Roundtable would be attractive to those like Savenelli: for ex-offenders with records as potentially damning as his, Roundtable meetings may be the only place to leverage the resources needed to move on. What perplexes me, though, is the nature and motive of those ex-offenders who stay. Why do some choose to bear the stigma of the “ex-offender” designation for life, while most hope it fades from everyone’s memory? “I think some of it is wanting to be a leader in some way,” Amy Meek muses, “having that kind of natural ability as well as an interest in being someone who gets up at a meeting and says I’m an ex-offender,” without shame.
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Like Kemp, Beatrice Codianni, managing editor of online resource Reentry Central and former Latin Queen, is a regular at the Roundtable. At the October meeting, she is the next to speak and declares that she would like to see the Roundtable “reach out to the federal system, too.” There are “people who have been out there for maybe a year or so and still need help … because you get out of prison and it takes a while for you to acclimate yourself,” she says. “So I’d like to see more community outreach to give formerly incarcerated people a voice.” Codianni insists on the term “formerly incarcerated person,” rather then ex-offender, because, as she explains, some people who are innocent plead guilty and go to prison without having committed any offense.
Codianni found her seat and her voice at the Roundtable after 15 years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, where she served a sentence for racketeering. At the time of her conviction, when she was affiliated with the Connecticut Chapter of the street gang the Latin Kings, she says she was infamously “crucified by the press.” One article posited her persona as either “Mother Teresa or Dragon Lady?”
When we meet, Codianni is wearing a tan cable-knit sweater and a festive turtleneck decorated with fall leaves and pumpkins — an inappropriate outfit for the saint or the fiend. She tells me, in reference to the charges for which she was incarcerated, that she had simply “wanted to help the kids.” It was in the spring of 1992: after seeing how the gang had helped her eldest son give up the heroin habit she herself had struggled with years before, Codianni wrote Pedro Millan, the co-founder of the Latin Kings chapter in Connecticut, proposing to help create constructive alternatives for young gang members. She was soon after absorbed into the Latino association as the “Director of Charter Programs,” organizing canned food drives, high school equivalency diploma classes, neighborhood clean-ups, workshops on drug abuse and AIDS, and a youth counseling program. Though she tried to reform the organization, the press and the courts condemned her for committing some unjustifiable mistakes: she was charged with taking drug money and conspiring to kill another King. At her trial, Codianni pled out to reduce her sentence. She claims she was innocent, but having read about the evidence against her, I find truth elusive. What’s clear is that “once you plead out, you have that record. That damns you for life,” she says. “Even when your sentence is over, you’re still sentenced. People look at you differently,” she says, meditatively stroking her chin.
Upon her release, Codianni lived with one of her three sons and her daughter-in-law, and she applied for a slew of jobs. Nobody called back; she became depressed, until she started attending the Roundtable. Nervous about approaching Meek and the Mayor’s office, she was surprised to discover she was accepted. “This is why we’re here,” she says of the Roundtable. “We’re here to help people be reaccepted.” Whereas some ex-offenders still feel as if their inmate numbers identify them, Meek’s recognition made Codianni feel human again.
Besides attending the Roundtable, Codianni now works as the managing editor of Reentry Central, a national news website for professionals in the field of ex-offender reentry — “the only national resource center that’s not run by the government,” she informs me. Subscription fees generate her salary.
Through her work, Codianni champions lessening the severity of sentences for non-violent offenders, many of whom are women. When I ask her whether she maintains contact with her fellow inmates at the women’s prison, she tells me that’s illegal and winks conspicuously. “I’m fortunate that I didn’t have younger children,” she reflects on her own experience. During her days in prison, Codianni was a first-hand witness to heart-breaking visitation days, to infants parted from their mothers’ arms and put up for foster care. Tears pool in the corners of her eyes as she relives the memory.
Over the last few months, Codianni has done a lot of outreach work for the Roundtable, distributing fliers in Fair Haven and actively recruiting new members for the coalition. “She puts her money where her mouth is in terms of volunteering,” Meek says. While the mentoring program Codianni envisions is still taking definitive form, she counsels formerly incarcerated women like herself informally.
The issue of mentoring strikes a dissonance among ex-offenders at the Roundtable, especially between Codianni and Dwight Dickerson. “I think some people look at me and say, ‘Old, white lady, what do you know?’” Codianni conjectures contentiously, insisting she doesn’t want to offend Dickerson but nonetheless expressing frustration that he’s refused her offer to assist with his new mentoring program. “Age, race, gender should not be an issue,” Codianni preaches. Notably, she omits the factor of gang allegiances. Meek rationally justifies Dickerson’s hesitance in recruiting Codianni: “If you have a particular kind of vision of what you’re working on and you really want to own it,” she says, “it can be hard to compromise.”
The friction between Codianni and Dickerson suggests to me that while society may judge ex-offenders, they invariably judge one another — if not based on their “age, race, gender,” or the nature of their convictions, then the lives they led before incarceration.
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Next to speak at the October Roundtable meeting, Dwight Dickerson — founder of the nonprofit mentoring organization TriCord and former something-he-will-not-reveal — has plenty else to share: “In my case, I’m an ex-offender, been out for 14 years, went to Yale, and went to apply for a part-time job. More than 13 years as a machinist, didn’t get the job because of my offense,” he says. He believes employers and the Department of Corrections should be “educated.” “We need not just to change the mindset of the employers, but we need to change the mindset of the institution,” he insists. When I telephone him later to arrange for an interview in person, Dickerson says his wife, Loretta, will have to attend too. This condition sets off a few alarms in my head, but I disregard the suspicion that he may be a sex offender.
I meet the Dickersons on Yale’s campus that Saturday to discuss the stigma he’s felt as a black ex-offender since his release in 1996. On the subject of his conviction and incarceration, Dickerson says, “I can be angry about what happened and be one of those victims. Or I can be angry and use it in a positive way.” He credits his wife, his pastor, Church on the Rock, and his family for the immense progress he has made.
Dickerson has come a long way from his childhood in the South Bronx, where he grew up playing the trumpet in the drum corps, and where, after dropping out of college when his mother passed away, he started using drugs. He is today — with his sleekly shaved head, gold chain, and intellectual metal frames, and Loretta styling a head wrap with an ethnic print and a Coach bag in her hand — “a posterboy for success.” “I don’t mind that because my wife and I have worked hard,” he says.
When Dickerson was first released from jail, he spent a couple of months in a reentry program called Project M.O.R.E. and then learned to fix copier machines at a program called C-Tech. The industry was not hiring minorities, Dickerson claims, so he got a job at the Moroso factory in Guilford, where he started training to be a machinist. He was later hired by GKN Aerospace and then Sikorsky Aircraft.
It has only been in the last year that his record has returned to hover ominously above him. He asks how I knew it was exactly 21 years after dropping the music major at Howard University that he enrolled in Yale’s Eli Whitney scholars program. When I assure him that I’ve simply read an article on the Yale website, and I’m not a stalker — at which comment the Dickersons both smile — he relaxes. He tells me that after he pursued a bachelor’s degree in Sociology at Yale, due to his interest in urban studies and his mother’s example as a family health worker, he sought another job to pay off his son’s college student loans and interviewed for a temporary job as a machinist. When he was asked whether he had ever been charged with a felony, he said yes, it happened over 15 years ago, but he refused — he righteously insists that it was a matter of principle — to reveal what that crime was. “Why is that so important? Why are you so worried about what happened 16 years ago? I didn’t get the job,” he says.
It disturbs Dickerson that his application to volunteer with the Roundtable’s new pre-release orientation program at the Whalley Avenue facility has been denied, due to the nature of his conviction. He blames what he terms the “archaic” mindset of officials at the Department of Corrections. “What’s sad about it — it goes to show you, no matter how successful you can be, if they want to use that, they will,” he says. “It’s amazing that even with a Yale degree, that you still have people who want to judge you not for your achievements.” He remains suspicious of service providers at the Roundtable who have no experience in the criminal justice system themselves. Despite the discrimination he feels is aimed against him, he vows he will “continue to do what my heart tells me to do.”
That would be TriCord, a program for ex-offenders that began as a series of stress management and parenting workshops Loretta instructed and that emphasizes the importance of the three elements of education, support, and mentorship. The couple has recruited successful ex-offenders and other volunteers as new mentors, with whom they can closely match their clients. Their first 10-week mentoring program starts in February, at the Emergency Shelter in New Haven. “We’re looking to become a vital entity for social change in New Haven,” he says. “We’re very excited.”
Like Kemp, Dickerson has framed his conviction as a catalyst for positive change in the lives of those he counsels and his own: “Accepting responsibility for issues was a motivation for me to change; [change] was not just a word but an action,” he admits. Like Codianni, he still seems insecure, as if he still has something to prove and something he’d like to say but can’t.
Dickerson’s silence about his conviction somehow disturbs me. He insists that his past is irrelevant, and though I want to agree, though I want so much to give him the benefit of a slate wiped blank, I cannot stop myself from looking up the Connecticut State Sex Offender Registry, which is accessible to any citizen with an Internet connection. The answer — yes or no — is there. Does it matter?
There are, as former state representative William Dyson points out at the October meeting, a lot of topics that even members of the Roundtable refrain from putting on the table. This would seem to defeat the purpose of what is primarily a sounding board for different, sometimes irreconcilable, agendas in the effort to ease inmate reentry. Among the issues that members evade is the nature of sex crimes, which Dyson believes vary from the minor and consensual to the unacceptable. “When you’re talking about criminal offenses, there are some that are terrible and inexcusable, but I think there are lot of grey issues people need to be educated about,” he says. There is a tension in Dyson’s statement that defies resolution: is the ex-offender with any conviction equal to all other members of the Roundtable, such that frank and direct dialogue can prosper at the forum, or is he classified by his crime on a shadow gradient from bad to worse, so that civilian society is inclined to receive at least those ex-offenders with the slightest records?
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At the meeting, Timothy Rinaldi, mentor to ex-offenders who once attended a substance abuse treatment program called Grant Street Partnership and former drug addict, asks, “Will an ex-offender like me be able to volunteer for the information session at Whalley Avenue?” This is the same program from which Dickerson’s application was denied.
Although Rinaldi has experienced discrimination on the basis of his imprisonment for drug abuse and possession — most memorably when he applied to be an assessor of winterization projects at the Waterbury community resource center Now Incorporated — he disagrees with Dickerson: “The nature of the crime should always be taken into consideration when the employer is considering taking a risk in hiring an ex-offender, as much as somebody’s work experience and skill level, if not more,” he says.
In the past few months, I have thought of Timothy Rinaldi as just Tim, because we schedule regular coffee dates like the friends that we’ve become. When we meet over tea and mocha to discuss the Roundtable in particular, Tim and I reminisce about the time he saw me on the street, ill to the point of incoherence but walking myself to Yale Health Services anyway; he courteously escorted me there — to ensure I didn’t collapse before I arrived.
Tim and I connect through our vaguely Beat hypotheses about life: we are mystics, consumed by the notion that people enter our lives for a reason. Partake of their presence and their knowledge while you can.
With his shoulder-length hair in a ponytail, his piercing blue eyes, and arrow nose, Tim is a man of diverse passions, which include philosophy, meditation, the martial art of wing chun, and slam poetry. These days, he works shifts at New Haven’s “Edge of the Woods” health food emporium, hires himself out for home improvement jobs, and hustles live music at Connecticut entertainment venues. In his spare time, he mentors ex-offenders formerly enrolled in the same Grant Street Partnership program he attended for three months as a condition of his release. “I give them my attention by explaining what resources are available, sharing my experience, strength, and hope with them, maybe sharing a meal,” he says. “Some people ask for meditation instruction,” he explains, carefully weighing every one of his words. He’s grateful that the New Haven Reentry Roundtable exists as a forum where he may speak on behalf of the ex-offender and where the “goal is to help in lowering the recidivism rate and empowering ex-offenders,” he says. Tim has suggested the Roundtable invest its funds in a model similar to sober housing, or a staffing agency that would screen ex-offenders on behalf of potential employers.
Overall, he sees the time he spent in prison as having had a positive effect on his life. “I’ve gotten the most self-discovery having been removed from society to take a look at myself,” Tim says, and he is committed to helping others like him far into the future. He believes it’s his responsibility to help ex-offenders see the way out of their destructive pattern. “If you look at an inmate [who suffers from] trauma, lack of education, poverty, criminal behavior, unsupportive family dynamics, then you have a multi-headed dragon,” he says. We pause to admire his evocative image. “Incarceration is not the solution to a lot of those issues. I think even referring to this group in the community as ex-offenders is kind of a defeating title,” Tim says. “I think human being is more accurate — with a multi-headed dragon’s worth of issues.”
Though I’ve ignored Codianni’s comment on the offensiveness of the term “ex-offender,” Tim’s words strike me deeply because I hadn’t intended to alienate my friend. I feel myself blushing in shame at the thought that, although I’ve considered myself relatively unbiased, my language has betrayed my unconscious prejudice. Does Tim think less of me for it? I stop asking questions. But Tim goes on:
“I believe that if somebody breaks the law, they should be treated punitively, but I think that they will continue to repeat those mistakes if there isn’t an approach that involves diverse treatment,” he says. “It would be awesome if there were some group of people who would finally be able to catch ex-offenders’ attentions in those first three days” after their release. “Don’t give them just a pamphlet, or a calendar … many people can read English, but it doesn’t help them,” he explains. They need guidance. They need men and women to meet with them again and again, and they need to meet with one another at forums like the Roundtable, whether or not they begin on an equal footing in respect to their pasts.
Tim and I meet at a Chinese restaurant the night before I go home for winter break. We discuss his ambitious plans for the future, which include building a school for the children of Haiti. He knows a native who lives in New Haven and sells trinkets carved on the island.
“I have a present for you,” Tim says, grinning. He reveals a wooden figurine of the Hindu god Ganesha, revered as the Remover of Obstacles.
“For all those hard times,” he explains. For all those dragons I might face. Given to sweeping statements and idealism, Tim tells me that by joining him at the table, I’ve reaffirmed his faith in humanity.
The New Haven Reentry Roundtable coalition, to which all those who sit around the table swear allegiance in spite of their different histories and missions, is in some ways as idealistic a concept as the notion that broad institutional support for ex-offender rehabilitation can someday dispel interest, as a matter of curiosity and necessity, in the nature of individuals’ crimes. I know Tim’s crime. But I will forever think of him as a dragon slayer.