I'm with Tjayda T. Jones and we are off to the Goodwin Branch of the Hartford Public Library, a place that fortunately doesn't charge admission or require bus fare.
When you are fresh out of jail, broke and job hunting — as Jones is — it's the kind of hopeful and air-conditioned space worth seeking out. Here, nobody asks if you have a felony record before you try to borrow a book or a DVD.
I met Jones a few months ago when he was in prison on drug charges, awaiting parole after a year in jail, his latest incarceration in a lifetime of bad choices. This middle-aged man's simple vision for redemption — selling hot dogs on the streets of Hartford — was one I just can't cynically dismiss, unlike some who wrote to comment about my bleeding-heart naivete when I wrote about Jones last month.
Our mission is a simple one: find a computer with Internet access and sign up for a free e-mail account. Jones has been telling me how he wants to apply for jobs online, but they keep asking for his e-mail address.
He's never had one.
Jones is a big, shambling man who moves slowly as we cross New Britain Avenue. He tells me about the suit he acquired at a Parkville thrift shop earlier in the day. There was only one piece of clothing in the store, a suit, that fit him. A sign of good luck, maybe.
"Charcoal gray," he says, adding that he picked up a couple of ties and a pair of too-small brown shoes. "So when I go to an interview and I've got to look sharp."
I like the way he is thinking, even if he couldn't find a dress shirt to fit his size-50 frame. A project for another day, I think.
Life, or rebuilding one, is a series of small steps — forward and back — on this ex-con's path to a hot dog cart dream.
I saw the alternative back at Jones' apartment, which he shares with two other recently paroled men. One of these guys had cut off his Department of Correction ankle bracelet, which tracks his movements, leaving it on his bed and taking off for parts unknown: another ex-con moving through the dismal, predictable cycle of failed lives and prison.
Jones tells me he can't accept this. I'm along to see if it's possible.
The experts tell me it is.
Stephen Cox, a professor of criminology at Central Connecticut State University who studies the re-entry of prisoners into the community, explained that the first six months out of jail are critical.
"If somebody getting out of prison has stable housing, a job to go to, and if they have substance abuse needs and we address that," Cox said, "they are less likely to get re-arrested."
Another expert of sorts, Frank Kosowicz, who has hired more than a dozen ex-convicts for his construction business over the years, wrote to me after my column about Jones.
"The attitude of the ex-con is most important," he wrote. "The ones that have been successful don't keep one foot in their old life. If they don't make a clean break, they don't succeed."
"If he makes the effort, there are guys like me out there," Kosowicz said when I called him. "Not everybody is against those guys."
Jones' old life didn't leave much time for going to the library. He dropped out of Weaver High School ages ago. When we get inside the library he tells me he had rarely used a computer during his 42 years.
"I just sold drugs and took stuff," he explains when I ask how that could be.
He's never sent an e-mail. He tells me he has never heard of Google, when I am trying to explain something called "gmail," where anyone can set up a free e-mail box, even somebody with a record.
We convince a friendly librarian to let us use a computer, even though Jones doesn't have a library card. After a while, including a few minutes learning how to click a mouse, Jones has an e-mail address for the first time.
"I want something different in my life," Jones says to me later when I tell him that people have told me that people his age, with his record, don't change. "Everybody can change."
An e-mail address, perhaps, is a beginning.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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