Parole board day at the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution and Omar Johnson walks in and slouches down in a chair.
Johnson, with distinctive braids, looks down and avoids the probing eyes of the three parole board members he is facing. Johnson is 21 and near the end of a five-year bid for selling narcotics.
"I feel everybody is entitled to a second chance," Johnson said. "Or rather, another chance since I got a second chance."
I spent a day recently listening as Johnson and a dozen others came up before the parole board. As we close in on three years since the horrific Cheshire murders — after which our entire parole process came under scrutiny — I wanted to see how things were working.
In the anxious months after the Petit family killings in 2007, the board halted all parole hearings for violent offenders, creating a bottleneck of 1,500 cases. The hearings resumed two years ago with more detailed information about inmates provided to board members, among other changes. The backlog is now only a few hundred cases.
"Everybody wants to tell you what you want to hear," board Chairman Robert Farr told me. The board grinds through more than 250 cases a month. "You have to figure out the ones who are B.S.-ing you. Our goal is to select the people who are least likely to re-offend."
Substance abuse and a breakdown in the family always seem to be part of the story.
Wayne Doucette, arrested dozens of times, told the board he was ready to whip a lifelong alcohol problem. A teenage daughter, he told them, "doesn't even know who I am." Doucette hasn't done much to prove he's serious. Denied.
Board members look carefully over Chris Santiago's file. They've got his arrest record, police reports, a pre-sentencing investigation, court transcripts, reports about family problems growing up and assessments that project his likelihood of success. All this is part of changes made after Cheshire, to make sure that the parole board knows more about the felons it considers.
Santiago was arrested for carrying a loaded handgun on the streets of Hartford. He tells the board that he moved around his neighborhood selling drugs while high on "weed and angel dust."
"You want to be cool, like everybody. I made a lot of mistakes," Santiago explains. His mother sits in one of the chairs set aside for family members. Santiago, 22, tells the board about his 19-month-old son.
"I've got somebody out there that needs me right now."
Santiago is in drug treatment. He's working on his GED and has taken the requisite prison classes on anger management and staying sober. It's important to get him in a transition program with the proper counseling — instead of just releasing him. Board members approve his May parole, but he must go into mental health and substance abuse treatment.
The odds aren't great: About 80 percent of offenders under 24 are arrested again within three years.
About 37 percent of all inmates who are released return to prison again with a new sentence, according to an ongoing state study.
But among inmates who are paroled and placed in re-entry programs, the figure drops to just under 25 percent.
"The biggest frustration right now is the job market," Farr told me. "Only about 30 percent of people are employed in work-release halfway houses. For people who want to change their lives, the best thing that can happen is that they get a job."
I listen to other stories: A young man with a loving family who became a big-time dope dealer. A computer technician fed his OxyContin addiction by stealing laptops. He and his wife hug, in tears, after the board grants parole for June 25.
Johnson, the Bridgeport sloucher, showed why the interview means everything. After a rocky start, the 21-year-old surprises: Sure, there's a dope dealer, but also a kid who dreams.
Board members would like to see him paroled into a re-entry program instead of merely released at the end of his sentence.
Johnson talked about becoming a long-haul trucker and what he's learned since his arrest at 16.
He talked about leaving his old neighborhood, his GED class and about lining up a job as a custodian buffing floors.
"I could make this floor here sparkle," he told the board.
Omar Johnson will be paroled in December.
Board members breathe deep and move on to the next case.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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