Another Bid

in Snapshots

When Dan Jusino addresses you, he repeats your name at least twice, once toward the beginning, and again at the end. “Juan, come talk to Lara here. Come over, Juan,” Jusino calls to Juan Figueroa, a small 35-year-old with jet-black hair. Other than his tan work boots, he wears all black. When asked what his first impression of Jusino, his boss, was, Figueora immediately responds in a soft-spoken voice: “Intimidating.” Two nearby workers nod in agreement. Jusino believes in honesty and has a strict “no-bullshit” policy. He’s not afraid to tell his employees when they’re not working hard enough—or tell me when I’ve asked the wrong question. This delicate balance of power and intimacy serves Jusino well with the population he works with: recently released prisoners.

New Haven suffers from a dearth of resources for former prisoners and a high recidivism rate. After release, prisoners are generally dropped off in front of the Whalley Avenue jail and must find their own way from there. Often, they have no form of identification or home. Many return to crime, leading to a recidivism rate of sixty-five percent, much steeper than the nationwide rate of forty percent, according to Jusino.

The New Haven Prison Reentry Initiative coordinates the efforts of various government nonprofits to lower the city’s recidivism rate. Emerge, the program Jusino directs, is its newest member. Since its founding a year ago, Emerge has helped former prisoners through the often lonely and unwieldy process of reintegration.

Photo by Ivonne Padilla

At Emerge, reentrants are employed at ten dollars an hour in construction jobs. The occupation primarily attracts males, but Jusino has considered opening a bakery to bring women into the program. Participants take online classes to become proficient in math and reading at the tenth and eleventh grade levels. Reentrants also attend weekly discussions called “Real Talk,” to discuss topics like mental health, addiction, or childhood trauma. Jusino, an ex-offender himself, leads the group each Friday morning aiming to understand how each individual landed behind bars, and how he can keep himself from being sent back.

Alden Woodcock is responsible for interviewing each candidate and determining his potential to thrive at Emerge. A clean-shaven, young white man who dons large square glasses and smiles often, Woodcock said he looks for reentrants who are committed to their own success in the program. “The first question I ask everyone I interview for this job is, ‘Do you have another bid in you?’” Woodcock said. “And if they hesitate, then they’re not in the program. The ones that say, ‘I’m done. I need this,’ those are the guys that I’m excited to work with.”

Emerge is designed to act as an individualized bridge program between prison and permanent employment. It was launched in 2010 under the umbrella of a city initiative called Empower New Haven before becoming independent in 2012. The program was modeled after San Francisco’s Delancey Street Foundation, which has rehabilitated ex-convicts, drug addicts, and the homeless for over forty years. The foundation currently operates a café and restaurant, catering and limousine services, a landscaping business, and a moving and trucking company, each staffed by reentrants and people who have struggled with substance abuse. A portion of the profits helps cover housing, food, and clothing costs for the employees.

Emerge tries to fill a void in New Haven with its combination of employment, education, and character-building. This personalized model mandates that each individual carry a performance journal on the job to jot down notes about the day’s work. They turn it over to Woodcock, who reads each journal to follow each reentrant’s progress and interviews each reentrant to talk about how he has progressed and how he can continue to improve. Since its inception, the program has seen a twelve percent recidivism rate among its participants, a significant drop from the statewide average of sixty-nine percent.

Emerge’s construction teams work on projects in six New Haven neighborhoods. Employees work three days a week for a total of twenty-five hours per week. Jusino limits the number of work hours to remind reentrants that this should be a stepping-stone, not a permanent job. “It gives them incentive to leave us,” he said. Some find jobs in construction similar to their work at Emerge, while others go into completely different industries. Several Emerge employees have found permanent employment with the administration at Emerge.

Jusino recruits many participants through parole and probation officers, but most participants find out about the program through word-of-mouth. The crew members wear bright orange vests that advertise “Emerge” in bold lettering across the back, with C.O.R.E. just below it, signifying “Community Offender Re-entry Experience.” Jusino credits visibility as the main recruitment tactic. Most importantly, they work in neighborhoods that have some of the highest incarceration rates in the state, neighborhoods many Emerge members have at some point called home.

For Roger Johnson, a soft-spoken thirty-three-year-old, a friend’s orange vests worked. Johnson, who served a fourteen-year sentence for committing manslaughter, was released and then saw federal agents round up a group of his friends. They were being incarcerated again for alleged drug-dealing and murder. “That was a sign that I needed to get serious about changing my life, or I was going to end up in the same boat as my friends,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t firmly rooted. I was dibbling and dabbling, moving to and fro. I needed structure.” This convinced him to follow his friend’s lead and join Emerge.

He has now been at Emerge for eighteen months, where he supervises a twelve-man work crew. Each work crew is supervised by a reentrant, who serves as both a role model and a leader, to promote a healthier relationship with authority. “They can hang out, they can be boys on the street,” Jusino said. “But here, this is work. He’s a supervisor. He’s my enforcer.”

Photo by Ivonne Padilla

Yet some important distinctions remain between this program and conventional work settings. Jusino recognizes that offering the men temporary employment is not enough to get reentrants on their feet for good. In order to improve full-time opportunities, one day each week is dedicated to academic education, until participants test at tenth- or eleventh-grade reading and math levels. Once they do so, they can have those hours back for work, creating a financial incentive to complete the education component of the program. Since October 2012, Emerge has used Khan Academy, a nonprofit education website created in 2006 by MIT and Harvard Business School graduate Salman Khan. There are no teachers, since Jusino said they unintentionally made reentrants feel belittled in the past. Instead, each reentrant works with a facilitator from Emerge. The facilitator serves as a coach, motivator, and support system, which has led to dramatic results: in some cases, Jusino says, individuals have advanced one grade level in just twenty-four hours of coursework.

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“Real Talk,” the third component of the program, encourages reentrants to work through problems from their past and present through discussion groups. For Jusino, a goal of these talks is for reentrants to shed what he refers to as “angry black man face.” He says, “It served us well in our communities. It kept us alive in the hood, in the yard. But where we’re headed, it no longer serves us well.”

Reentrants work through unresolved childhood traumas that continue to affect their behavior. Over twenty-five percent of the men have struggled with substance abuse that has never been addressed, and many, including Jusino himself, have struggled with mental health issues. “Two months ago, these guys were sitting in the yard,” Jusino tells me. “And now, they’re beginning to talk about abuse, and more importantly, how to stop it here, how to not perpetrate it on their children. That’s the magic.”

Anthony Torres, a quiet 22-year-old with soft eyes, came to Emerge four months ago. For him, Real Talk also presents an opportunity to work through problems with his co-workers. Upon arriving at Emerge, he immediately clashed with another reentrant. But he has learned how to sort out conflicts. “We’re grown ups, we can talk stuff out to reach a better outcome,” Torres says. “Our communication has now grown a lot, and he’s actually a pretty good guy. We just hadn’t gotten to know each other.”

Emerge only reaches sixty men per year, and both Jusino and Woodcock are uncertain if their resources can effectively support a larger program. The small size fosters a strong sense of community, as the men help one another in the field and at the table during “Real Talk.” But the success of the program depends on each reentrant’s commitment. Jusino cites Darius Jones as one of the organization’s success stories, calling him Emerge’s “poster child.” He first arrived at Emerge when it began three years ago after learning about it through his parole officer. After going through Emerge, Jones received a degree in business administration from Gateway Community College, and became the organization’s bookkeeper.

Sitting in the office in a neat brown polo shirt, tapping away at his computer, Jones tells me that the police gave him a lot of trouble where he grew up, in Wallingford, Connecticut.

I’m surprised when Jusino interrupts: “That’s easy to blame them. What was your role, what was your fifty percent? I can’t change that police officer. That’s as useless as sitting in a rocking chair and hoping to get to Manhattan. It ain’t happening.” Then he asks, “The only thing you can change is who?”

“Myself.”

“That’s right. Don’t ever forget that.”

Reentrants are taught to carry this attitude out of the program and into the rest of their lives. But however often Jusino and the staff repeat the words, they remain difficult to practice. Though Emerge ensures that former prisoners are no longer abandoned at the door of the Whalley Avenue jail, and helps them gain skills and a community, individuals face the ongoing challenge of making their way in the world.

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