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Ex-Con Still Holding On To His Dream

Rick Green

December 25, 2009

I hadn't seen the ex-con with the hot dog cart dream since late last winter, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

Tjayda Jones is thinner, more determined and hasn't given up.

A year and a half ago, his story sounded so inspirational: a con approaching middle age, with a lifetime of drug dealing, gets out of jail and declares he's done with that life. Jones was going to sell hot dogs.

He still hasn't. But reality is often not so tidy in the world of ex-offenders trying to re-enter a society that's had enough of them. It's difficult to get a job or rent an apartment. Four out of 10 male ex-offenders have an 8th-grade education at best. That's why it's a revolving door for so many of these guys.

That, and the fact that they commit crimes again.

"I hold on, that's what I do," Jones told me when we spoke last winter. I didn't fully grasp the importance of those words, months ago.

An ongoing state study has found that, without support, most ex-offenders don't hold on. More than two-thirds of them are re-arrested. About 56 percent are incarcerated again at an average cost to Connecticut taxpayers of $32,686 per year. That's pretty much been Jones' story for the past couple of hazy decades.

But here's where Jones takes a different turn.

This 43-year-old ex-con has beaten the odds quite convincingly since he left prison for Hartford back in the summer of 2008. I liked the hot dog cart idea, but the real reason for his success could be the simple reason Jones has often repeated to me: "I'm tired of that life."

The statistics from the Department of Correction lend some credibility. The older guys, inmates who get out over the age of 40, are significantly less likely to be re-arrested. Like Jones and a lot of us over 40, they're tired of "running a fast life."

Jones called me up because he was back in Hartford for a short visit and he said he wanted to remind me of our deal. Funny that he was reminding me that we had a contract, of sorts.

"There's a story we still have to finish," Jones said on the phone, hinting that I'd moved on from his frustrating narrative and he wasn't very happy about it. He wasn't totally wrong.

He'd left Hartford in disarray infuriating his counselors in a state-funded program for ex-offenders following a woman to New York. Before long, Jones was living in a hallway and then out on his own.

Jones ended up, on his own, in a counseling and job-training program run by Goodwill Industries in New York. An addict, he lives in a sober house in Brooklyn where he must regularly submit to a urine test and works cleaning a public building in Brooklyn. He goes to a counseling and job-training program other days.

None of this is very tidy. He's fathered another child since he's been out. There's still no steady job by my 9-to-5 standards. A hot dog cart seems more than a long way off but he's busy five days a week. He keeps a routine.

"I've been out. I ain't been locked up," Jones tells me, sensing my skepticism. "I know it seems like a long haul."

For a guy who told me he can't remember the last time he was out of jail this long this really could be some kind of achievement.

"I just want you to know I'm doing what I set out to do," Jones tells me as we sit in his sister's apartment in East Hartford. He pulls some documents out of a shoulder bag where he keeps his papers. "I've got my vendor's license."

He's got a plan to stay in New York and set up one of those ubiquitous sidewalk tables where guys sell scarves, belts, hats and other items. He tells me about a friend with a table who is helping him learn the business and who is willing to work with him.

It's not a hot dog cart, but with a little luck he might get something going. If he holds on.

"All I want to do is get started with my life," Jones told me.

How does a 43-year-old ex-con make a change? He holds on.

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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