Keyi Cui, Staff Illustrator

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a project run by the city of New Haven’s Prison Reentry Department is continuing to provide resources for formerly incarcerated residents to reintegrate into the New Haven community.

Project Fresh Start, alongside the Prison Reentry Department, works with groups like the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project to provide opportunities for returning residents, and decrease the rate of reoffense after release. According to Department Director Carlos Sosa-Lombardo, Project Fresh Start works towards this by helping participants navigate the pardon process.

“Project Fresh Start has been providing education support, helping participants navigate through the different requirements of the pardon application,” Sosa-Lombardo said. “We hope to remove barriers by helping returning residents get their records expunged.”

Criminal records can lead to high financial and professional barriers for formerly incarcerated individuals, resulting in a lower quality of life and increased rate of reoffense. A recent study by the Connecticut Office of Policy Management found that out of the 10,390 offenders released from state facilities during 2017, 32 percent returned to prison within 12 months.

In addition to fewer employment opportunities, current state law prevents residents with certain criminal records from accessing a wide range of services including professional and occupational licenses, federal student aid and social insurance programs.

In June, the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles stopped accepting paper applications for pardons, requiring that all documents and forms be submitted online instead. Project Fresh Start reacted by shifting online as well, hoping to help residents navigate the complex reintegration process.

Eligible formerly incarcerated residents can attend weekly Zoom workshops led by Yale students which help residents work towards removing past offenses from their criminal records. The Zoom sessions can be found on the department’s Facebook page.

“A pardon is something a lot of people don’t even know exists,” Daniel Inojosa ’23, an organizer with Project Fresh Start, said. “A lot of people in Connecticut are eligible but don’t know it.”

Inojosa kicked off a workshop held on Wednesday, explaining that formerly incarcerated residents become eligible for pardons three years after the date of misdemeanor convictions and five years after felony convictions. Pardon seekers cannot have pending or open cases, such as parking tickets, and must also wait until after parole or probation periods to apply.

Sosa-Lombardo noted that though the pandemic initially limited the project’s impact, demand has held strong since Fresh Start shifted online.

“Since June, we have helped around 30 people through one-on-one support,” Sosa-Lombardo told the News. “Our main priorities are to ensure that people have tangible support upon release from incarceration.”

The pardon application can be overwhelming for applicants to face alone, according to workshop facilitator Maddie Whoriskey ’23. In addition to filling out detailed forms on employment history and substance abuse, applicants must pay $85 to access their state police criminal history report and often need to apply for current driver’s licenses and GEDs.

For successful applicants, past convictions are wiped clean and can no longer prevent residents from obtaining promotions and job opportunities.

“Right now, having a criminal record makes it so hard to get promotions, retirement and even vote,” Whoriskey said. She added that many attending Fresh Start’s workshops are “trying to prove to themselves, their families and their employers that they are not just an ex-convict.”

Project Fresh Start holds weekly virtual workshops from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Isaac Yu |

Isaac Yu writes about transportation, traffic safety and urban planning in New Haven. He is also a production and design staffer for the News. Hailing from Garland, Texas, he is a Berkeley College first-year majoring in English and Urban Studies.