The new life of Tjayda T. Jones lies waiting, neatly arranged and re-arranged on his bed in a second-floor apartment on Hillside Avenue in Hartford.
Bible. Resume. Clean clothes. Certificates of achievement. A book about driving laws. A Narcotics Anonymous manual. A photocopied magazine article: "How to Really Start Your Own Business." I also see his punch list of things he must do in a world that expects ex-inmates to make it without help.
Somewhere within all this are the components of the dream that nourishes him.
A hot dog cart of his own.
But first there is the ankle bracelet and GPS tracking device. A man will arrive in a few minutes to attach the bracelet to his leg for the next seven weeks. The mother of his two young sons is calling, too, anxious for Jones to resume life as a father.
Jones is a felon on parole, feeling his way through this first morning of life outside the Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in more than a year.
One of the thousands who leave Connecticut's jails every year, Jones is part of a legion of men who revolve in and out of prison, men on whom taxpayers spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to keep them locked up between arrest, conviction and the next release date.
When they get out, it is as if they don't exist.
Get up early enough, you might spot them climbing out of a Correction Department van in Hartford or Bridgeport or New Haven, their belongings in a clear plastic bag, with nowhere to go but a homeless shelter.
Tjayda Jones, burly, easy-going and 42, tells me that the revolving door, the anger and the mistakes are over for him. He's agreed to let me tag along now and then, to observe and write about this would-be transformation. It helps, he says, that he has twin toddlers to worry about, that the street is no longer an option.
"Patience, man," he replies when I ask if he is anxious.
When they get out we spend very little time worrying about these "other people," said Donald Henry, Jones' counselor, whose job it is to help him restart his life.
"We don't want them working for us. We don't want them for anything," he told me on the afternoon of Jones' first day out of prison last week.
Jones is lucky to have Henry, a savvy, street-smart veteran of Hartford who works for "The New Day," a small state-funded prisoner re-entry program run by the Puerto Rican Forum. Among other things, Jones gets counseling, a free 30-day bus pass and a room in an apartment.
"Now," Henry tells me, "everybody who comes out of jail is Steven Hayes."
Hayes is one of two men on parole accused of murdering a Cheshire family last summer. Not long ago, the mayor of New Haven accused Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the state of "dumping" prisoners on his city. Fair or not, this is the world where Jones must live.
The reality, though, isn't violent ex-cons but scores of men like Jones, who have years of nonviolent drug-related offenses and few prospects. Many are addicts for whom prison is like a stint in rehab, without the counseling.
Yet, for prisoners who are released into a supervised re-entry program, the news is promising. Researchers for the Department of Correction report that inmates entering a supervised program are far less likely to return to prison. Those without any supervision were about twice as likely to be convicted of another crime.
It has been a lifetime of bad choices and ruined opportunity for Jones, from dope dealing as a North End kid to ripping off a drug dealer last year. Now, pressing middle age, there is a shot at something else.
There's also this dream of selling hot dogs on the streets of Hartford.
"Maybe I had a choice," Jones told me while the man fit the monitoring device that must be worn on his ankle, even in the shower, as we watch "That 70's Show" on TV. "But I didn't have somebody to grab me and tell me, 'Hey.'"
"I messed up a lot," he said when we first met a month ago at Carl Robinson as he was waiting for a release date. "You have to change your way of thinking. I know what my old crowd is doing. They are out slinging drugs."
Jones has no job and no savings. He's got a resume, a list of employers who hire people with a criminal record and a willingness to do any kind of work.
"I have a new life today," he said. "I want a little hot dog truck."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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