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Work Gives Them Hope

March 28, 2008

Convicted killer James Ghant entered prison as a teenager and left a man of almost 40 with virtually no work history other than a series of prison jobs: housekeeper, construction, clothing manufacturer.

Armed with a typed resume and serving the last of his sentence at a halfway house in Bridgeport, he embarked last year on the first real job search of his adult life. He filled out dozens of applications and waited.

"It was that whole process, 'I call you, you don't have to call me' type of thing," said Ghant, 38.

A breakthrough came in an unlikely form - a paint roller.

In October, Ghant, a Stamford native, joined a three-man crew of ex-offenders in a painting and moving company launched with the help of a Bridgeport-based nonprofit.

"It's pretty amazing the fact they took that kind of risk with us, but I think they also saw the potential we had," Ghant said after priming a wall inside a Victorian house in Hartford's West End on a recent March day.

Perched on a back hallway stair, Ghant was lost in the up and down monotony of the roller. His co-workers, two former drug dealers, Robert Hernandez and Julio Aviles, were equally quiet, by turns sanding and spackling; the men say they've learned patience as painters, a job they've discovered entails waiting, then waiting some more.

"It's just a beautiful thing that this is happening to me," Aviles said. "I couldn't find a job when I got home."

Modeled after a similar initiative in San Francisco, Fresh Coat LLC is an ideal business for ex-convicts, with its low barrier for entry and minimal start-up costs, allowing inmates to circumvent more restrictive mainstream job application processes, experts say.

The hope is that they will someday start their own businesses.

Similar ventures have recently sprouted in other cities, including Los Angeles, where former gang members are employed at a nonprofit silk screen company, Homeboy Industries, which last year reported $1.1 million in revenue.

As business start-ups go, Fresh Coat has had an unremarkable initial run - it has done a meager $20,000 of work. Before taxes, the men get paid $10 an hour to start, with the potential to make as much as $20 an hour, and they work a minimum of 20 hours a week, often more.

If successful in their mission, businesses like Fresh Coat might address a conundrum that prison officials, policy experts and legislators have grappled with for decades - how to pave a smooth path for the thousands released from prison each year.

"I did some ignorant things in my youth, and I paid for it. I hope that doesn't hinder me in my life today," said Ghant, who was sentenced in 1989 to 30 years in prison on a murder conviction. He now mentors at-risk youths.

According to court documents, Ghant killed a man named James Rossi on June 2, 1988, in Stamford, walking up to the driver's side of the car and shooting him.

Ghant alleges that Rossi was robbing Ghant and his friends, who had been involved in selling cocaine, but Ghant maintains that he was not the shooter.

Ghant was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but because of good-time credits he will end up serving 19 years when he is released this fall. He has served the last year of his sentence at the Maple Street halfway house in Bridgeport.

As for employers who may reject him on the basis of his record, Ghant is not bitter. He's determined to create a life so he can stand on his own.

"I really wanted to have some money in my pocket," Ghant said, describing his first weeks at the halfway house. "I wanted to stop asking people for handouts, so to speak, so that's when it really just got to me. I was like, 'I can't keep doing this' because I was feeling so useless, you know, like 'What's the point here?' "

With prison systems bloated and expensive, no one is eager to see ex-cons like Ghant end up inmates again, at a cost of $30,000 or more a year.

But, experts and advocates ask, if no one is willing to hire ex-offenders, even for low-wage jobs that offer no advancement, how can men like Ghant avoid the fate of the nearly 50 percent of ex-offenders nationwide who end up reincarcerated?

"We're trying to create a context where work goes beyond a paycheck," said Steve Lanza, the executive director of Family Re-Entry, the Bridgeport nonprofit that helped to launch Fresh Coat. "What we're doing is more than a job. Work is a powerful medium for creating and substantiating change."

Initial findings of a continuing Yale University study show that, within three months, just 6 percent of ex-offenders who participate in Fresh Coat's umbrella program, Fresh Start, are convicted again. Other studies have shown that, in general, former inmates are convicted again at a rate of 40 percent within a year of release.

"It's better to have somebody employed than not employed," said Maurice Emsellem, co-policy director of the New City York-based National Employment Law Project. "There are construction jobs. ... You can't write off huge occupations and industries from people who happen to have certain records if that record does not relate to the qualifications for the job."

Cities from San Francisco to Boston have eliminated the portion of municipal job applications that requires candidates to disclose a criminal record early in the application process.

But such initiatives do not guarantee that ex-offenders will get hired once a background check is run later in the process.

Obtaining a private-sector job appears equally difficult. For example, 60 percent of employers in Los Angeles responded in a survey that they would "probably not" or "definitely not" hire a candidate with a criminal record, according to New Way of Life Re-entry Project, a Los Angeles based nonprofit.

Fresh Coat's challenge is to become competitive in the industry without the connections it has traded on so far. Most clients to date have hired the company because they are somehow connected to the staff at Family Re-Entry and support what the group is trying to accomplish.

The men have been supervised by Mitch DePino, director of business development for Family Re-entry, who for years ran his own painting company.

"They take pride in their work, and they do it at a reasonable cost," said Addie P. Williams, the director of human resources at Somerset Capital Group Ltd., an investment company in Bridgeport where the men have painted and moved furniture.

Williams said she was not bothered to learn that Ghant, by all accounts a hard worker and a polite and polished man, had a conviction for murder. "Those are two things you don't find a lot of anymore."

During the past year, Ghant, who also works a second job operating a forklift nights at BJ's Wholesale Club in Fairfield, has saved nearly $10,000, he said.

In September, when he is scheduled to be released with no probation or parole hanging over his head, he will probably have a nice nest egg.

"I'm pretty strong-willed," he said when asked whether he is worried about being drawn back to the streets. "Very strong-willed. It wasn't a question of 'Was I going back that way?' I knew I had to persevere despite my present situation."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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