“I just got released,” James says, closing the door to Project Fresh Start’s office behind him.
“Welcome home,” Project Fresh Start Coordinator Clifton Graves replies.
“He was told in jail to come see you guys. He has no IDs, he has nothing,” James’ wife says.
“Well, we’re here to serve.”
Such an exchange is typical in the offices of Project Fresh Start, New Haven’s prison reentry initiative. Every month, Fresh Start helps nearly 300 returning citizens (individuals who have been released from penal institutions) as they reenter society. The program, which former Mayor John DeStefano started eight years ago and Mayor Toni Harp revitalized, is run out of city hall.
“The top three issues that most people face coming out of prison are jobs, housing, and usually healthcare,” Graves explained.
To help returning citizens find housing, Fresh Start helps them through the rigorous housing screening process. For those seeking employment, Fresh Start keeps a list of employers that are open to hiring applicants with criminal records and provides job training.
Fresh Start helped Amenzo King, who was incarcerated on-and-off for over 20 years, create his own business; he plans to start his own hot dog stand next year. “I just can’t wait to get out there,” King said. When asked if he was positively affected by Fresh Start, King replied, “Big, big, big time. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”
Fresh Start also helps with what Graves called “the basic needs.” Like James, returning citizens often don’t have an ID or a bus pass upon release. Graves said this “creates a real handicap and disadvantage for folks:” “When you come home, and you try to get a job, the first thing they’re gonna ask you is, ‘can I see a picture ID?’”
Project Fresh Start waives the $10 ID fee for those have just been released, providing them with temporary IDs which last them one year. Graves said, “$10 may not be a lot for us, but for people who come through that door, it’s a lot. What we’re doing here is helping people as best we can, like James, like the other brothers who came here.”
While Project Fresh Start addresses immediate needs such as IDs, their main goal is to provide more long term support for their clients by helping with the pardon process. Pardons provide the opportunity for former prisoners to prove they are rehabilitated and to overcome the many societal barriers that exist for those with a criminal record. “When they get their record expunged, their whole life changes,” Graves explained.
To demonstrate the necessity of a pardon, Graves gives the example of one returning citizen who traveled for two hours round-trip to get to a job interview, only to lose the job because the employer found out about his criminal history. “Clearly he was qualified to do the job, to do the work… this is why pardons are so important,” Graves said.
There are two types of pardons: an expungement pardon, which erases one’s criminal record entirely, and a certificate of employability, which does not erase a criminal record but certifies that an individual is employable despite his or her record. A formerly-incarcerated person cannot seek an expungement pardon immediately out of prison, rather he or she must wait anywhere from 3-5 years depending on the crime they committed. King, for example, must wait two more years until he can apply for a pardon. “I’m just trying to stay on the right track so that I can expunge my record and live my life,” he explained.
Fresh Start supports returning citizens throughout the pardon process, which is lengthy, difficult, and sometimes disappointing. “We insist upon persistence,” Graves said. It can take anywhere from two months to one year, depending on the nature of the crime, to hear back from the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The application requires that the returning citizens explain the crimes for which they were convicted, the ways in which they have changed since the crime, and their reasons for seeking a pardon. In 2015, the Board received 1103 applications and granted just over 46%. Perhaps there would be more applicants if the cost of applying was not so high: individuals have to pay $50 to obtain their criminal records, $5-$25 (depending on town of residence) for fingerprinting, $1 per page for their police reports, and several dollars more to get their applications notarized.
Yet despite these barriers, the process in other states is even more arduous. “In Connecticut, even though we still complain about how this system could be better, it is a lot better than a lot of other states in the country where it’s much more difficult to get a pardon,” Graves said. He uses the example of New York, where returning citizens have to write to the Governor to get a pardon.
Whether it is through applying for a pardon or finding a job, Fresh Start, as its name suggests, is devoted to providing second chances. Sandra McKinnie, who works at Fresh Start, explained the belief system that motivates her work with the returning citizens: “We are all people. Folks are not the mistakes they have made.” She said that oftentimes convicts’ crimes do not mean that they are evil, but rather that they were raised in neighborhoods where drugs and poverty were inescapable.
McKinnie believes that once convicts have served their time, they should be able to lead lives no different from those of citizens that do not have a criminal record: “Once a person has done whatever it is they need to do by way of prescribed sentencing by the court, it is then our inherent responsibility as a community to try to surround these people with the necessary resources so that they can sustain free lives.”
This sense of “responsibility” guides McKinnie’s work. She also talked about the obligation she has to forgive the formerly incarcerated because, as she explained, “It takes no time to forgive when you’re a Christian. Your Savior forgives you. Who are you to not forgive?”
The faith component of Fresh Start, Graves explained, is crucial: “There’s an obligation, we think, for the faith-based communities to reach out to those coming home. They can help with the transition as well— not just with spiritual guidance, but also with providing that moral foundation.”
Donald Morris, an employee at Fresh Start, got involved because of his religious community; his father is a pastor who has long worked with the program. But Morris’s involvement with Fresh Start is especially significant for more deeply personal reasons. He, too, was once in prison; he can relate to the men who walk through Fresh Start’s doors, the men he now assists in the reentry process.
“I connect on the personal level. I have been homeless at one point. I know what it means to get out of jail and be told to go one place and then have them send you to another which then sends you to another which makes you want to go back to what your old ways was…I know what that struggle feels like,” Morris tells the Politic.
Morris is open about his past with the men he helps. He said it allows them to relax, trust him, and open up about their pasts.
Graves said of the Fresh Start team, “We’re very fortunate here we have a good balance of people who have been there, done that.” He believes that the diversity of the staff, a group of individuals who come from New Haven and know many of the men who walk through the office doors from their youth, makes Fresh Start unique.
This familiarity makes the office comfortable for all who enter: “No matter who comes through that door, we try to create an environment where folks feel welcome. Because that’s not the case everywhere they go. And they’ll tell you that. Even in this building, they would tell you that people don’t make them feel welcome.”
Some individuals make appointments before visiting the office, but most just wander in. Graves explained, “Sometimes they need a place to talk. We’re not therapists here, we’re not trained, but we have ears, we listen. Sometimes we have to give people tough love. Because people need that encouragement.”
Fresh Start is more than a government program that helps returning citizens navigate bureaucracy and find employment. It provides hope in a society that continues to punish formerly incarcerated men and women long after they have served their time. Graves concluded, “What drives us is the desire to provide help and hope, and try to guide folks through a system that can be challenging every step of the way.”
King is proof of Fresh Start’s success: “They changed my life. Now, I’m happy with myself. I’m happy that I’m moving along, doing something. Fresh Start showed me the way.”