It could have worked out so much worse for Leroy James Gardner.
The 44-year-old ex-offender was released by the federal government Friday with only his brown prison outfit on his back, no money in his pocket, no referrals for housing or counseling — and without his anxiety medication.
Kicked to the curb on Main Street in Hartford, steps from the federal courthouse that freed him, Gardner decided his only recourse was to walk to the Capitol and personally ask the governor for help.
When a security guard there told him that wasn't happening, Gardner decided to seek out judiciary committee Co-Chairman Michael Lawlor. The East Haven state representative was attending a legislative hearing on the death penalty that day. Folks from the state's correction, parole and probation divisions also happened to be in attendance.
"I said, 'Mr. Lawlor, I need your help. I was just released from prison. I don't have any money in my pocket. I don't have anywhere to stay. Help me,'" Gardner said. "He was, like, dumbfounded and said, 'What can we do for you?'"
Lawlor, reached Tuesday, seemed amused as he recalled the meeting. "He had a very good sense of timing, I tell you that," Lawlor said. "Someone told me there was a guy waiting outside for me in prison inmate garb with a box that said 'Gardner' on it."
A little leery about the visit from the bald, athletically built man fresh out the joint, Lawlor asked some of the correction people to walk out with him.
Where earlier Gardner had no assistance, now he was full bore into a mother lode of help — correction, probation and parole people.
Embarrassed by Gardner's appearance at the regal state office in front of the chairman of the judiciary of all people, they double-timed it in getting him a bed at the Open Hearth homeless shelter.
But it's not just housing that Gardner needs. The convicted bank robber, thief and recovering drug addict wants to rebuild his life — one he believes went downhill after he was sexually molested by a relative as a young boy in New Haven. Gardner also needs counseling and a job.
His story is fascinating; his life perpetually unstable. At a time when the federal government is investing more than $100 million in prison re-entry programs, Gardner's situation reveals the biggest flaw in re-entry legislation: There are no supervised programs or services for inmates who leave prison with no pending parole or probation. These so-called "end-of-sentence" inmates, correction authorities say, are at the highest risk to re-offend. Yet, there's no meaningful aftercare for them.
"That is the population with the greatest need. And it's a fairly large population," said Maureen Price-Boreland, executive director of the Community Partners in Action program, which works to re-integrate ex-offenders into society.
At least 30 percent of Connecticut's 19,000 inmates are released with no parole or probation. And although Gardner was released by the feds, and not the state, had he been in state custody, Gardner would have been left to fend for himself as well.
"My self-destructive nature wasn't controlling me this time," said Gardner, whose drug of choice was crack. "I didn't go out and get smashed or get high. No, I want to make it. I want to get it right this time. I just need a chance. I got a lot of marketable skills, man. I have a lot to offer. I'm bilingual and extremely fluent in both (English and Spanish). I'm highly computer-literate. I have excellent typing skills. I'm professional. I'm well-spoken."
The self-described "notorious jailhouse lawyer" also has been a habitual screw-up.
But guys who are labeled incorrigible sometimes want to get it right. Their circumstances, environment and lack of opportunity, however, lead them to revert to familiar form.
Sixty days before state prisoners are released on parole or probation, a case worker sits down with them and maps out an assessment and game plan for what they need — housing, job training, substance-abuse counseling, mental health issues, etc., said Bill Carbone, executive director of the judicial branch's court support services, which oversees the state's probation services.
A case manager then works with the ex-offender through re-entry to make sure the game plan is carried out. A similar program and follow-up needs to be established for state and federal inmates released with no probation or parole. Scott Chin, chief United States probation officer, did not return calls for comment Tuesday.
Just imagine the headlines if Gardner had walked to the governor's office in prison garb, but with bad intentions — and did something stupid.
Of course, if that did happen, within weeks you'd see new laws providing re-entry programs for inmates released free and clear from federal and state pens.
"At the end of the day, it's really about public safety, because you could almost guarantee that someone's going to re-offend if you set it up like this," Lawlor said of Gardner's haphazard release.
The other unnerving thing about Gardner's story is that he should never have been imprisoned last August for violating parole. He was under dual jurisdiction — the feds and the state — but had been reporting solely to the feds for the previous 27 months. The feds and the state didn't communicate, so the state thought Gardner was AWOL.
The state later conceded that it messed up, Lawlor said. So, here was a guy diligently looking for work when I first met him last summer. He gets re-imprisoned wrongfully — then, when he's ultimately transferred to the feds again, gets unceremoniously dumped onto the streets.
Tomorrow, I'm going to be the master of ceremonies at an Overcomer's Breakfast at the downtown convention center. It's a yearly event run by Open Hearth to motivate those who are down, but not yet out.
They should set a plate for Leroy Gardner.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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