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Activists seek more help with substance abuse and job placement for those behind bars

By ADAM BULGER, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

September 20, 2007

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, the Connecticut legislature held a special session to discuss the state's criminal justice program in light of the brutal July triple murder in Cheshire. Lawmakers explored the state's ability to share information between law enforcement agencies, and considered proposals about three-strikes laws and increased prison construction. An important voice, advocates say, was missing from the discussion.

"The people who are not part of this dialogue are the people who know something about what it would really take to prevent people coming out of jail from re-offending," Peter Goselin, coordinator of the Connecticut chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said. "Those are people who have been through that process."

An ad hoc collection of social justice groups, spearheaded by three-month-old ex-offender rights organization the Clean Slate Committee, spoke on behalf of the currently and formerly incarcerated at a press conference on Sept. 11 outside the Legislative Office Building. A part of Connecticut drug policy reform organization A Better Way Foundation, Clean Slate aims to change the way the state treats former offenders.

"They're talking about building more prisons, they're talking about GPS tracking, they're talking about electronic bracelets," says Clean Slate's David Samuels said. "Nowhere in that conversation is there any talk about rehabilitating inmates while they're incarcerated."

Connecticut offers tax incentives to companies that hire former convicts and employment services for the formerly incarcerated. Samuels believes they're ineffective. "The policies on the books that supposedly address the issues of discrimination against ex-offenders have no teeth," Samuels said. "There's nothing on the books that provides ex-offenders with the legal avenue of taking an employer to court."

While a handful of Connecticut businesses hire former offenders, nothing legally compels private sector employers to consider former offenders for work. One state legislator noted that when former felons compete in the job market against non-felons, the former felons lose out, perpetuating a cycle of incarceration.

"We have 400 ex-offenders coming into Hartford a month. There are scant services for them and very little housing," State Representative Art Feltman said. "People bounce around and look for work, and get turned down for work because of their criminal records, and everyone is surprised when they end up back in jail. No one should be surprised given how few options they have."

Several former convicts I spoke with had employment problems stemming from their criminal records. Hartford resident Stanley Johnson, 41, who was released from prison in 1992 after serving 18 months of a three-year sentence on drug charges, was recently fired from a job because of his criminal record.

"On the job application, it asked if you've had a felony within the last five years," Johnson said. "I hadn't had one within five years, I applied for the position. Once they realized I had a felony, they let me go."

Johnson said the recent incident was part of a long pattern of employment issues. "I've been back and forth, see-sawing between jobs just because of my background and felonies," Johnson said.

Jeff Sherman, 49, of Bristol, was released in 2002 after serving 11 months for drug charges. At that time, he re-started his house-painting business. While many of his former clients signed on with him again, many were wary of hiring him again because of his criminal background.

"Some people looked at me and figured once a drug addict, always a drug addict. I'm self-employed, but if I went in somewhere and filled out an application, I'm sure it would hold me back," Sherman said.

Under the tenure of current commissioner Theresa Lantz, the Connecticut Department of Correction adopted what's called a re-entry model of corrections, which emphasizes job readiness for convicts.

"Basically, their discharge planning starts the second they get in. They know day one what they're going to need once they leave here so that they won't come back here," DOC representative Stacy Smith said.

Samuels contends that inmates with release dates are often denied access to those programs, in favor of inmates serving life sentences. As a result, Samuels said, many released prisoners encounter difficulties with jobs, putting their parole in jeopardy. "When a person goes to see a [parole officer], the one thing they're going to hear is, 'Find a job or else,'" Samuels said.

James Hanton, 44, of Bridgeport, said that while he was on parole, employment concerns were placed ahead of treating his substance-abuse issues.

"I got into some issues with the director of the halfway house. His issue was work, work, work. My thing was that I had to get into some outpatient treatment, because being clean in prison and being clean out in the world are two different things," Hanton said.

Smith said prisoners are allowed into drug treatment and job-readiness programs based on their records. "Individual histories determine what programs people qualify for," Smith said.

Samuels said the criteria are flawed, claiming that people with release dates, the people who could benefit the most from those programs, are often excluded from them. Hanton, who was imprisoned for a robbery he committed to feed his addiction, was able to get into the tier-two program after a protracted legal battle.

"The Attorney General's office was sitting there, trying to defend their position on this. Basically, the court was going to make a decision in their favor until I said to the judge, 'Listen, I'm right around the corner from parole. Do you want to be my next victim?'" Hanton said. "That's how I got through to him, and he ordered the treatment."

Samuels and his allies characterize Connecticut's justice system as a criminal factory, a system that intentionally or not encourages recidivism. Barbara Fair of New Haven-based criminal justice reform group People Against Injustice and others worry that in the wake of the Cheshire murders, things will get worse for former offenders.

"Because of their knee-jerk reaction to what happened in Cheshire, the people on parole are going to have to pay," Fair said. "All the persistent offenders are going to have to pay dearly."

Fair's son was released from prison the morning of the press conference. She's already seen firsthand how the state has begun cracking down on former offenders.

"Already, my son's parole officer told him he had to be on a bracelet for 90 days, with a 9 o'clock curfew. Which is ridiculous," Fair said. "Like my son said, 'If I'm going to commit a crime, and I know I have to be in the house by nine, I'm going to do it before nine.'"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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