In New Haven, Connecticut, Amenzo King has a dream. He wants to own his own hot dog stand.
It may sound humble, but for King this dream is a big one. He’s been in and out of prison for over 20 years, but now, through the reentry program Fresh Start, he feels success is on the horizon.
“They changed my life,” King said in an article in The Politic by reporter Molly Shapiro. “Now I’m happy with myself. I’m happy that I’m moving along, doing something. Fresh Start showed me the way.”
Project Fresh Start, a program founded by former New Haven mayor John DeStefano and revitalized by current mayor Toni Harp, focuses on helping former prisoners successfully navigate reentry. The program helps with basic needs. Coordinator Clifton Graves says that the top three issues that most people face coming out of prison are “jobs, housing and usually health care,” according to the article.
Many people do not have ID or a bus pass upon release. The program provides returning citizens with temporary IDs, waiving the $10 ID fee for those recently released. “Ten dollars may not be a lot for us, but for people who come through that door, it’s a lot,” Graves said. “What we’re doing here is helping people as best we can.”
Fresh Start’s other main goal is helping with the pardon process. The staff say pardons provide opportunities for former prisoners that they may not have with a past criminal conviction hanging over them.
In Connecticut, there are two types of pardons: expungement pardons and certificates of employability. The first completely erases a person’s criminal record, while the second certifies that despite their record, the person is employable.
“When they get their record expunged, their whole life changes,” Graves said.
In 2015, Connecticut’s Board of Pardons and Paroles received 1,103 applications, and granted nearly half. According to the article, the application costs are prohibitive for many people. In Connecticut, it costs $50 for an individual to obtain their criminal record, $5-$25 for fingerprinting, $1 per page for police reports, and several more dollars for notarizing the applications.
“In Connecticut, even though we still complain about how this system could be better, it is a lot better than a lot of other states in the country, where it’s much more difficult to get a pardon,” Graves said.
Graves believes that the diversity of the Fresh Start staff, who come from New Haven and know many of the people who walk into the office, makes the program unique. No matter who comes through the door, he said, they try to create an environment where folks feel welcomed.
Donald Morris, an employee of the program, got involved through his religious community. His involvement is also personal. He was once in prison.
“I connect on the personal level. I have been homeless at one point,” he said, adding that he knows what it’s like to be sent from place to place once a person gets out. “I know what that struggle feels like.”
Sandra McKinnie, who works for the program, said that they are devoted to providing second chances. “We are all people. Folks are not the mistakes we have made,” she says.
Once people have served their time, McKinnie believes they should be able to lead their lives no different from those who have no criminal history.
“It is … our inherent responsibility as a community to try to surround these people with the necessary resources so that they can sustain free lives,” McKinnie said.