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Former Offenders Boxed In

Stan Simpson

August 09, 2008

I was trying to reach Leroy Gardner and because he hadn't returned a call in a couple of days, I was getting concerned.

I met Gardner at the Mark Twain library several weeks ago. I was working on a column about the closing of the Hartford branch library. Gardner, 44, a bald, fit, eloquent man, was working the computer, trying to find a job.

He handed me a copy of his resume. He was seeking a "bilingual certified medical secretary position" that could utilize his "extensive Spanish skills and medical administrative experience."

His resume described him as someone with "strong interpersonal skills with ability to easily establish rapport and trust with patients."

Gardner showed me a book of theological essays in which one of his writings was published.

The guy was bright, polite, had technology and office management skills and was eager to work. The problem is that Gardner is an ex-offender. He didn't go into detail, just matter-of-factly stated, "I come off a lot of repeated incarcerations because of my substance abuse problem and I've had some serious charges. But I'm highly skilled."

The federal government had released him in July after he served a 10-year stint for armed robbery.

After spending some time in a halfway house, Gardner found refuge in a homeless shelter. He called me a few weeks ago, saying his situation was dire.

As a black man, no matter how eloquent, with an extensive criminal history, Gardner is going to have serious challenges trying to find someone to hire him. But it's not just repeat offenders who find themselves ostracized in the job market.

Responding to the recidivism problem, the city of New Haven in September is expected to eliminate that ominous box on a job application that asks a prospect whether they've ever been convicted. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano told me Friday that if he's going to ask city employers to give ex-offenders a chance at redemption, then city hall, too, should set an example.

Boston, Cambridge, Baltimore, San Francisco, Minneapolis and St. Paul no longer include the question on their applications.

Don't misunderstand here: A person's criminal history is important. But so, too, are their present mind-set and plans for being a productive citizen in the future. These ex-inmates are being shunted from potential jobs before they have an opportunity to tell their story.

I've heard a number of ex-offenders or their families complain that they want a chance to make good, but too often they can't get past that box on the job application.

"It really limits the possibility of them being hired," said Jackie Caron, founder of the Connecticut Pardon Team, which works to expunge the criminal record of those ex-offenders who have established a track record of staying out of trouble and being stellar citizens. "A lot of times, employers just look at the fact that they were convicted and don't bother to ask them what the situation was."

Some ex-offenders don't bother to check the conviction box, Caron said, only to be fired later for lying.

It's a frustrating existence. At some point, when inmates pay their debt and have owned up to their misdeeds, they've earned a shot at redemption.

I called the state Department of Correction Friday to see whether they had any more information on Leroy James Gardner.

A man with his name and age was sent to MacDougall Walker prison in Suffield a few days ago on a parole violation.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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