Wondering What Happened To A Hartford Ex-Con Who Had A Dream
December 26, 2008
I wasn't looking for Tjayda Jones at the Christmas party for kids with parents in jail.
But his cellphone numbers no longer work and his old counselors have no idea of his whereabouts, so I figured it couldn't hurt.
On a snowy Sunday afternoon in Hartford, while most were hunkered down or shoveling out, I found ex-cons, children of cons, and volunteers gathering in a musty church basement.
Jones wasn't there, of course.
Plenty of readers won't be surprised. A 42-year-old career offender fails to live up to the hot dog cart dream the naive columnist writes about. Who couldn't see that coming?
Well I did and I didn't. When we met shortly before his release last spring, I was taken with this dream of middle-age redemption: Felon gets out, buys a hot dog cart and lives a clean life.
Offenders who get out of jail and get a helping hand are far more likely to stay out of prison in the future. An ongoing state-funded study out of Central Connecticut State University has found that ex-cons who go through a period of transitional supervision are more likely to succeed than those who are merely released.
The state Department of Correction believes there's something to this and is funding a handful of groups, including the New Day program in Hartford, that offer a managed re-entry. It doesn't take much to figure out that ex-offenders who stay out of prison cost us less.
Jones got of prison and moved into a state-funded group home run by New Day. Thanks to some attention from my columns, he raised some money that he planned to use to buy a hot dog cart. It's still in a bank account, managed by the folks at New Day.
But once he got out, Jones couldn't find a job. More accurately, he wasn't willing to accept the meager offers that come the way of a former felon.
I may be a sucker, but Jones is an engaging longshot-of -a-story. I met a librarian, high school kids, salesmen, executives and ex-cons, to name a few, who were equally touched by the moxie of a guy who thinks redemption is still possible.
A man, from Australia of all places, wrote me recently, curious about what was up with Jones. "Is there any further update on how he is doing?" Paul Fletcher wrote. "I hope he is doing well."
I have no idea. I haven't been able to find Jones for months.
I was supposed to meet him one day a few months ago to give him a ride to a job interview. He never showed. Perhaps his girlfriend — the mother of two of his kids — convinced him to move to New York City. Maybe he's among the lost faces in the city — no job, no real home and no future. Maybe he really is working somewhere.
The truth is, there are places that hire ex-felons. One, a warehouse I know, requires a lengthy bus ride and then a long walk. There are counseling and job training programs. There are "transitional" apartments for an offender re-entering society.
"You run into so many barriers to getting a job. Some of them, they don't know how to overcome that. What you've got to do is keep trying," Luis Vera, a case manager with New Day, told me.
"There are opportunities out there," said Vera, a former homicide detective. "They are going to have to learn that it is not going to be that easy for them."
In the church basement, while Santa handed out gifts, I talked to a man just out of prison.
"I have to accept the fact that people aren't going to hire me," said Nephtaly Alvarado, released a few months ago after seven years in jail. "There's going to be some rejection."
Alvarado and I spoke about how easy it would be to jump back into the old drug-dealing routine: You're walking along the street, and the old buddies pull up and open the car door — you're back in the life.
I wonder if that is Jones' fate.
But then there's that hot dog cart. It could still happen.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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