Lost & Found
Family ReEntry provides help and hope to people who may otherwise be lost to a criminal system that focuses more on punishment than prevention and redemption
Every year for over a decade some of Greenwich’s wealthiest and most notable people gather at a backcountry estate along the Byram River for one of the biggest, yet least known, benefits in town. The cause: a program called Family ReEntry. To understand the party’s real impact, one needs to step back some twenty-five miles.
If ever a neighborhood could be said to look sullen, it would be downtown Bridgeport on a cold winter morning. Smoke billows from the stacks that dominate the city skyline, while dilapidated storefronts waiting to be pulled down testify to a boom that came and went with hardly a hello. A thin orange tabby runs across a busy city street. Inside a house on Catherine Street, under the shuttered steeple of the Bread of Heaven Church, Sean Parsons, fifty-one, scrapes paint off a wainscot molding.
Two kinds of cravings rule Sean’s life. The good kind send him biking here, the latest of several rehabilitation projects run by Fresh Start Enterprises, every morning before sunrise to be first on the job. The bad kind make him call his Fresh Start mentors late at night, asking for reasons not to fall back into his heroin addiction.
“What I know best is how to use,” he says. “It’s abnormal for me to be clean and sober.” White, with a graying handlebar moustache, shaved head and an intensity that hangs over him like gunpowder smoke, Sean sits in a storefront office in downtown Bridgeport explaining how Fresh Start brought needed change to a life of larceny and petty theft centered around his next bag of heroin.
Around the table, three black men nod their heads. Even if they aren’t all former addicts themselves, they understand all-too-well the unremitting pull of the criminal life. “Right is good, but it won’t get you what you need,” notes Jodelle Georges, a burly, fast-talking twenty-nine-year-old and former drug dealer. “Wrong is bad, but it will get you what you need. You’d love to do the right thing, but it gets you nowhere.”
Chris Barnes, forty-four, did seventeen years in federal custody for two conspiracy charges, drug possession and murder. The murder rap was based on hearsay, he says, and with his frank and tender straight-ahead stare it’s hard disbelieving him. He’s about as likely looking a killer as Kenny Rogers. He never used drugs himself, he says, never smoked or drank. He saw his father do enough drinking to convince him it was a bad idea.
“I was in the street, in the hood,” he explains. “I grew up in Father Panik Village. You know Father Panik?” He laughs; there aren’t too many neighborhoods in the world demolished with fewer mourners than that rat-infested Bridgeport slum. “I got caught up in it.”
After doing his time, Chris wanted to build a new life, “to be a better father to my daughter, a better son to my mother, and a better man for my future wife.” It was then a friend took him to Fresh Start, where mentoring, housing opportunities and work opportunities like the project on Catherine Street are offered to people like him, Jodelle and Sean fresh out of jail.
When Soloman Friday, forty-five, starts talking in his low, calm voice, the room gets quiet. It’s not from fear, though the burly, dreadlocked Soloman was known as an “enforcer” in his time on the street.
“In Stamford I had a pretty big reputation as far as violence, stuff like that,” he admits. “If you had a problem, I was the one to come to.” Now he enjoys a different kind of respect, as someone who has emerged from his time at Fresh Start in a better place. After years of battling drug addiction and anger issues, he’s majoring in human services at Housatonic Community College. In his spare time he counsels children about staying away from the world that sucked him in.
“I lost touch with reality,” he says. “Fresh Start helped me get back in touch with reality. I was able to pay bills, catch up on a lot of things, and be with my family. Things a normal person would take for granted.”
A Holistic Approach
Fresh Start is just one piece of Family ReEntry, which began in 1984 as an outreach program to help released prisoners in the greater Bridgeport area and has become, as of 2011, a $3.6 million operation helping redirect the lives of more than 2,000 prisoners, ex-prisoners, and those at risk of becoming felons, including children in abusive households. There is also dedicated funding for a separate program focused on women in prison, run by the Center for Women and Families of Eastern Fairfield County (see “focus on Women,” page 76.)
Family ReEntry’s service spectrum comprises a multitude of needs. A core focus is preventing domestic violence, with Family ReEntry offering various education and therapy-based programs for both arrested and convicted abusers based on the seriousness of the charges involved. “Explore” offers a twenty-six-week program for convicted male offenders; harder cases are offered “EVOLVE,” fifty-two weeks of intensive group counseling as a final option before imprisonment.
There are also mentoring programs for young people at risk of entering a life of crime. The Champions Mentoring Program provides mentors to Bridgeport children ages six to fifteen, in association with city schools and the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of southwestern Connecticut. Transitions Mentoring Program for Youth in Prison matches young inmates with adult mentors who meet with them once a week, providing counseling and reentry assistance.
Cutbacks have affected Family ReEntry of late; an anti-gang program had to be shut down when funding for it from the state was stopped. But other programming services have expanded according to need.
“As we have grown, so has the understanding we need to work comprehensively and holistically,” says Family ReEntry’s executive director, A. Stephen Lanza. “You have to get away from the Band-Aid approach. These things need more depth.”
Family ReEntry started small, “a good idea with a good heart” says Sally Schenk, a longtime volunteer member from Stamford and recent president of its board of directors. From the beginning, she explains, it was support from Greenwich that gave the organization legs.
“It began with Beth and Prescott Bush,” she notes, referring to George H. W. Bush’s brother and sister-in-law who lived in Greenwich until shortly before Pres’s death last year. “The Bushes were always interested in this topic, and started a donor base in town.”
Joan Warburg became the Bushes’ key recruit, agreeing to host a benefit for Family ReEntry beginning in 1999. “The Bushes asked her to host it, and Joan said sure,” Sally recalls. “God bless her! That made all the difference.”
Asked about being Family ReEntry’s “fairy godmother,” Joan just chuckles: “I like to say that I provided the hall.”
The “hall,” the Warburg estate also known as Bydale, is a scenic expanse of lawn and garden spread out over forty-two acres in northwest Greenwich. The first year’s event proved serendipitous.
“They wanted to have a Gershwin benefit,” Joan remembers. “They didn’t realize Gershwin was a great friend of my husband, and even wrote some music here at the house. When I told them that, they got very excited.”
Every fall since that time Bydale has been the site of a Family ReEntry benefit, except for 2001 after 9/11. Four hundred came in 2010, the biggest turnout yet. The organization itself has also grown, from a $285,000 program mostly raised privately to one with more than ten times that funding, 75 percent of it from public sources.
“Each year, we reach out more and more,” Joan says. “I tell them as long as I’m here, they’ll have a home here every September.”
The Greenwich connection with Family ReEntry extends beyond the three founding donors. Schenk notes half of the current board of directors are from Greenwich, even if Family ReEntry programming tends to flow to places like Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford.
That’s not the only challenge people face raising funds or awareness for the cause. Brittany Miller, a Greenwich administrative worker who volunteered to help coordinate invitations for last year’s event at the Warburg estate, notes some hesitancy from local donor prospects.
“This is not Haiti or the ASPCA; this is people who have come out of jail and are trying to change their lives,” she notes. “It’s funny, everyone is all about saving the seal or the sea lion, but the Great White, no one wants to save it.”
Last year’s Bydale event faced this attitude head-on, with a special presentation of a play called “The Castle.” Originally produced Off-Broadway, “The Castle” features members of a New York program similar to Fresh Start, who dramatically present their first-person stories of what got them in and out of jail. It was described by those who saw it as breathtakingly memorable.
Phil Lochner, a board member from north Greenwich, remembers how silent it got during that show: “At one point, I turned around and the people who had been serving the lunch were all standing there watching the performance.”
“We’ve talked about producing something like that ourselves,” Lanza says. “Unfortunately there is no shortage of these stories.”
Proof That It Works
About half of Connecticut’s prison population (14,000 as of last July) is inside for nonviolent offenses, the most frequent charge being violation of parole. Still, even violent offenders can seldom be kept behind bars for life, making rehabilitation an issue of societal self-interest as well as compassion. “It’s a cycle of despair we need to deal with,” says Greenwich board member Mary Waldron. “Human beings are being thrown away.”
For Lanza, the ReEntry image of as a “hug-a-thug” is not only unfortunate but wrong. “It’s not about sympathy,” he says. “It’s about accountability, responsibility, respect, and compassion.”
Brian Garnett, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, calls Family ReEntry and other like-minded groups in the state “a critical component” in the state’s approach to rehabilitation.
Theresa Lantz, Department of Cor-rections commissioner for six years until 2009, is one of Family ReEntry’s biggest promoters.
“Ninety-five percent of offenders are going to be discharged into the com-munity, and you don’t want them discharged with nothing,” she says. “Family ReEntry understands how to determine and define a person’s risk and what inhibits them from becoming law-abiding. Through their work, they have had an impact on reducing recidivism.”
A few years ago, the organization paid Yale University over $100,000 a year for a multiyear study to show just what the effect of Family ReEntry is on its population of former convicts, “ex-offenders” or “clients” in Family ReEntry parlance. The result, Lanza says, was that the ex-cons who went through Family ReEntry were 54 percent less likely to return to jail than felons in-state not using the service.
There are other statistics Family ReEntry activists quote when discussing their cause. “The attitude used to be to throw them in prison and don’t think about it anymore,” says Diane C. Jones, a board member from Riverside. “But the states are bankrupting themselves. These people in jail are costing us money.”
According to the state Department of Corrections, the average cost of keeping a prisoner works out to be $39,000 a year, with the average sentence running two years. At Family ReEntry, the average client cost is $4,000 a year, according to Lanza.
The new president of the Family ReEntry Board of Directors, Bill Galvin of central Greenwich, likens the effort of explaining his mission to that of a person explaining cancer to someone with no experience of it.
“The difference here is some people say they did something wrong, so they’re in jail for good reason,” he notes. “There’s very little understanding about the scope of the problem, and not any understanding your tax dollars are being used to warehouse people who could be productive members of society.”
Just how productive depends on a lot of things, including the opportunities they can provide to their clients. It’s not meant to be permanent, just something to tide them over their first few months out of jail, when the chances of a relapse are highest. “The idea is they make some money and move on,” says Randy Braren, director of Fresh Start Enterprises.
But moving on isn’t always an easy proposition. Sean Parsons is one who worries about whether there will be enough work to keep him busy, and away from his bad habits.
Braren is discussing ideas for a more substantial operation with Jeff Grant, a board member from Greenwich who left a successful career in law for classes at Union Theological Seminary and a full-bodied focus on helping others that found its natural outlet with Family ReEntry. He talks about reshaping Fresh Start Enterprises around a more “sustainable” business model. “We want to aim for a few big jobs, rather than a lot of small ones,” he says.
Like a lot of Family ReEntry folks, from the Bushes to Joan Warburg to Sally Schenk, Grant has a way of making things happen. The first time he came to Bridgeport, he was surprised to see that a park near the Fresh Start office was a garbage-strewn, weed-choked lot. “I got on the phone right then and called Steve Lanza,” he recalls. “I said let’s make something out of this.”
After the owner agreed to lease the lot to Fresh Start for a dollar a year for ten years, a team went to work cleaning it up and planting a serenity garden. Grant even gave the park its own Facebook page, considering it a worthy symbol of what Family ReEntry is about.
Soloman Friday was one of the workers on the project. “People from the neighborhood were coming over, thanking us for doing it,” he recalls with a wistful smile. “I got more satisfaction from it, because it was something I helped to complete. I wasn’t trying to get anything out of it. It was just altogether a really good thing.”