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How one nonprofit is helping former inmates stay out of the prison system for good

Posted at 11:49 AM, Jan 24, 2020

Jesus Gonzalez has found himself in the cycle of the criminal justice system for much of his life.

"I stole to support my habit. I was a heroin addict, I smoked crack, I broke into houses, stolen stores, I robbed my family," he says." I've been incarcerated about six, seven, eight times."

“I started using drugs or experimenting with drugs real early … like about 14 maybe," Victoria Steele says.

She, like Gonzalez, knows the battle that can last much of a lifetime.

“I was in and out of prison after that for 33 years," she says.

According to numbers from Connecticut's Office of Policy Management, 60% of the state's inmates are arrested within three years of their release from prison.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it's estimated the amount of people arrested within three years of their release from prison is around 68%.

"Years of stuck in this underground world," Steele says. "It seemed like no one cared. So why change because the world doesn’t care?”

Steele and Gonzalez received help from Community Partners in Action. The Connecticut agency is one of the oldest nonprofits in the nation, dating back to the 1800s.

“They have nowhere to go for resource, so what do they do? They go to what they were doing before they went to prison. What happens? You do the same thing, you get the same results," says Virginia Lewis.

Lewis is the program manager of CPA's resettlement program and re-entry welcome center.

The agency helps thousands in the state every year.

“It’s challenging enough when you don’t have a place to live but when you’ve experienced the type of trauma that many of our clients have, and substance abuse, those are triggers for when you get out," says CPA’s Executive Director Beth Hines.

Community Partners in Action aims to help people both in prison and out of prison, to make sure they don't go back.

Its programs help with issues like finding housing and a job.

Former CPA client Stephanie Harris remembers an issue she faced when she left prison.

“If I can’t get a birth certificate and a social security card, I can’t get an ID. Well, if I can’t get an ID, then I can’t get a birth certificate and a social security card," Harris says.

Harris received help from CPA in 1992 after serving a five-year sentence. While incarcerated, she earned her diploma. She went on to receive her master’s degree in social work and now serves on CPA’s board.

“Options and choices is the difference between a person who breaks the law and a person who doesn’t," Harris says.

CPA now has a re-entry welcome center in Hartford's City Hall.

“When they come back they usually come directly from prison," Lewis says. “We try to have a warm welcoming handshake. We call it a ‘warm hand-off’ because we want them to feel like they are coming to a place where someone really cares what happens to them."

According to state numbers, Connecticut's prison population is at its lowest level since 1993.

Former inmates, like Steele, credit the help from programs like CPA in helping her turn her life around.

“I never thought I would be where I am today," She says.

She now owns her own car and home.

Gonzalez is a father of four who says he doesn't plan to enter prison again.

"Today I came to myself and asked myself, ‘what do I want to do?’ ” Gonzalez says. “Do you want to continue going through the prison doors, or do you want something better?”