february banners no text7

The Thing About Winter

“The thing about winter is, when you’re not in it, you have a perception of how cold it is. But then, when you actually get in the cold, and you’re freezing your butt off, you don’t even remember what that perception was. For a second, you’re like, ‘take me back.’”

At 5:30 a.m. on February 24, 2014, Scott Lewis took his first step as a civilian in more than twenty years. Ejected from a bus on the side of the road next to the New Haven Correctional Center on Whalley Avenue, he had only one set of clothes, which he was wearing, and a box of legal papers. He’d spent the majority of his time in prison toiling to get out: teaching himself the law, representing himself for nineteen years, methodically plodding though appeal after rejected appeal in order to shed his inmate number (137682) and escape from the 120-year sentence he’d been handed down for a crime he never committed.

When Scott took that first breath outside after the bus doors puffed open and he stepped onto the sidewalk, the air rushed hard at him. Most of his fellow citizens were asleep, including his sister Marlo, scheduled to pick him up in three hours. He had no cell phone, no access to a phone booth—or the coins needed to activate it—and no coat.

The bus chugged away. The sun would rise in an hour. His arms, carrying the box of legal papers, started to tremble.

HOMECOMING

Twenty-four years earlier, on October 11, 1990, former New Haven alderman Ricardo Turner and his lover were murdered in bed following a cocaine-related heist. At the time, neighborhood dealers Scott Lewis and Stefon Morant owed ten thousand dollars to a local kingpin whose business depended on his partnership with a dirty cop, Detective Vincent Raucci. By 1995, Raucci had gathered several witness statements implicating Scott and Stefon in the double murder, and the men were sentenced to 120 and seventy years, respectively. An FBI investigation into the corrupt cop soon revealed that he’d blackmailed the witnesses into falsely placing them at the scene of the crime. The complete FBI file is dated January 24, 1997—less than two years after the men were incarcerated—but it would take eighteen years before both men were released for the crimes they didn’t commit.

Some of the events that occurred during that time: Scott and Stefon turned twenty-five, then thirty, then forty-five. Scott’s younger daughter Jesilinett learned to write her name in cursive, dropped out of high school, and became a certified medical assistant. Stefon’s twin sons, Christian and Julian, learned how to toss a baseball back and forth, then how to drive. Scott’s youngest son, Tamaje, started kindergarten and eventually served a three-year drug possession sentence after being arrested and tried as an adult at the age of fifteen. Scott and Stefon became grandparents. Stefon’s father died, then his brother. His elementary school girlfriend wrote him a letter, and they got married. Scott taught himself to write appeals, which seven state judges rejected.

“All I wanted was to be able to put on a belt,” remembers Stefon. “Think about it: twenty-one years, not being able to wear a belt with your pants.”

In 2009, then-Yale Law School professor Brett Dignam learned about the case through a judge with whom Scott had filed for writ of habeas corpus. Aided by a small team of her law students, she began working to secure his release. Finally, in 2014, a federal judge granted Scott habeas corpus, ruling that Connecticut had withheld evidence of his innocence and thereby violated his constitutional rights. (According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 160 wrongfully convicted people were exonerated in both 2015 and 2016.) When Scott stepped off the bus into the February air, he was a free but not-yet-exonerated man with only the clothes on his back and the GPS device strapped to his ankle.

When someone is wrongfully imprisoned, all their resources go towards one thing: getting out. But reentry into society is not the same as reintegration. What happens after getting out? Besides arduous logistics (Do you have a bed to sleep in? How do you get an ID?), navigating the emotional saga of release is a colossal task. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has published a twenty-two-page handbook for released prisoners. It concludes with a “Rebuilding Your Relationships” section, which advises prisoners to “begin by appreciating the small things,” and bear in mind that loved ones have aged in their absence. But what is that supposed to look like? Where on earth do you start?

Scott’s first goal as a returning civilian was to avoid freezing to death on the sidewalk. He followed a line of people into the jail, saw a counselor he knew, and managed to borrow his phone. His call woke his sister Marlo, who rushed out of bed to pick him up. “Turn left,” her GPS said as they pulled out of the parking lot. Scott was floored. While he knew technology had changed since the nineteen-nineties, he hadn’t accounted for his sister’s talking car.

Even during those first hours—his reunion with Marlo, his mother, and then his children—Scott tried to figure out how he was going to move out of Marlo’s house. Without independence, he still felt imprisoned.

“Everyone was happy, everyone was celebrating, but I was isolated in my own mind, strategizing. What’s my next move? How am I going to get up in the morning? What am I going to wear?” he remembered.

Those first sixty days were excruciating. Even with a loving family and a place to stay, Scott felt trapped, reliant on others for food, cash, and transportation. He had one pair of shoes (work boots), and his only clothes smelled like the cobwebbed basement where they’d been stored during his twenty-year absence. He and his two twenty-something sons, Scottie Jr. and Tamaje, spent weeks driving around in the same little car, applying for the same jobs. Eventually, Scottie Jr. was hired, rendering Scott immobile once again.

“I really understood how people could come out of prison, have family support, and still break down and go back to what they were doing before,” Scott said. That’s exactly what happened to his son Tamaje, who had been released from prison a week before his father, and ended up back in jail for a few months in 2016.

LOVE

Stefon Morant, Scott’s co-defendant, was released from prison in August 2015, a year and a half after Scott, after serving for over two decades. Since his release, he’s bounced around from seasonal work to unemployment to a brief stint as a warehouse dockworker, which he had to quit because of his knees. When his job sweeping floors for the city came to a close in October, he felt nervous about being unemployed again.

Unlike Scott, who was officially exonerated in August, Stefon still has the murder felony on his record. (Rather than getting off on an early release, his sentence was cut to the shortest possible time, which he’d already served, minus a couple of years for good behavior. Also unlike Scott, Stefon had not aggressively represented himself or caught the attention of the Yale Law School clinic.) Still, he’s in good spirits. A large man who often smiles so big that his eyes disappear, Stefon says it’s tough to stay depressed for long, thanks largely to the Christian faith he discovered in prison. Remembering his homecoming, he gazes at the ceiling.

“Everyone was happy, everyone was celebrating, but I was isolated in my own mind, strategizing. What’s my next move? How am I going to get up in the morning? What am I going to wear?” he remembered.

“The first day was joy, of course,” he said. “It couldn’t have been any other feeling. It was an answered prayer from God.”

When the judge ruled that he’d get out, the courtroom was full of Morants—his mother, siblings, and cousins—who erupted in celebratory tears. His wife Kimberly said that, aside from the births of her three children, it was the happiest day of her life. At the moment of his release, she met him on the corner outside the New Haven Correctional Center, where Scott stood the previous winter, and asked where he wanted to go.

“All I wanted was to be able to put on a belt,” remembers Stefon. “Think about it: twenty-one years, not being able to wear a belt with your pants.”

So straight to Marshalls they went, where they bought a belt, a pair of pants, and some slippers. Eighty minutes of freedom, and one goal already accomplished.

His wife helped mitigate the struggles he faced coming home. Kimberly had a house, a steady income, and a life with space carved out for him. It was easy to slip into. While Scott was worried about how long he’d have to live at his sister’s, Stefon moved right into his wife’s house.

When Kimberly and Stefon first dated, they were in elementary school. After breaking up as preteens, they remained friends. When Stefon went to prison, social circles they shared always maintained his innocence. She sometimes wondered how he was doing, as she grew up, got married and had three children. After her first husband’s death in 2007, she reached out to the still-incarcerated Stefon as a penpal. By 2008 they’d started a romance and by 2009 they were married. His faith in the face of a seemingly insurmountable sentence attracted her. Devotion like that, she said, was what she sought in a partner. She always hoped but never fully imagined they’d be able to live as a couple on the outside. Then, last July, they celebrated their marriage with both of their families and a traditional wedding party. Stefon was dressed in black and white. It was the happiest day of his life.

A committed romantic relationship eventually blossomed in Scott’s new life, too. A few years into his incarceration, Scott’s mother told him offhandedly that a young woman had come into her hair salon. The woman knew Scott and believed that he was innocent, and the case had inspired her to go to law school to get him out. This was years before Dignam’s legal team had picked up Scott’s case. He needed all the help he could get, and he couldn’t believe his mother didn’t remember the woman’s name. Without knowing who she was, Scott thought of her often while slogging through legal work behind bars. He wondered whether she’d ever come back to the salon, whether his mother would ever remember her name, whether a young woman would ever appear with the key to his freedom.

About a month after he came home, Scott reached out to an old friend, Rachel Bidon, with whom “there’d always been an unspoken attraction” during his former marriage. She was with someone at the time, but they went for lunch anyway. Scott wore parachute pants and a sparkling gold shirt, the only “going-out” outfit he still had from the nineteen-nineties.

As they aired old feelings, she mentioned that she once wanted to be a lawyer, and in the midst of studying for the LSATs visited his mother’s salon to tell her that Scott had inspired her studies. Scott was dumbstruck. “When does that happen?” he said, shaking his head. “I looked at her and said, ‘You’re the one I’m looking for.’” They were married five months later. Their daughter, Harper-Rose, is now eleven months old.

Scott has been out for three years. He’s practicing real estate with Pike International, and he’s just a couple of steps away from obtaining his broker’s license. He loves talking about the clients that he has made homeowners. He wears a crisp white button-down and shiny black loafers to work. His wedding ring gleams on his left hand. He gestures like a politician while he talks, as if he is building something for you in the air.

“Who knows?” he says. “Maybe someday I’ll be mayor of New Haven.”

LOST LETTERS

Scott Lewis’ twenty-six-year-old daughter, Jesilinett Vasquez, can’t remember interacting with her father before he went to prison. But, save for a short break when she was seventeen, they exchanged letters nearly twice a week throughout his entire incarceration. She knew what he looked like from photos, but she never visited and they rarely spoke on the phone. He existed primarily within the words he wrote to her. The notes ran long—usually several lined pages, front and back. This was their medium, which rendered Scott not so different from a diary that wrote back. Jesilinett says she’s always felt comfortable telling her dad almost anything: aspirations, school stresses, relationship woes. Stuff she’d never tell her mom.

She grew up fantasizing about an old-fashioned father-daughter relationship. She wished he’d helped her with math homework she struggled with, given her boyfriend a hard time, or seen her off to prom. She wished he’d been there when she dropped out of high school because she was pregnant, and when her children Lanie and Xavier were born. She wondered if he’d ever dance with her at her wedding.

Then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t in prison anymore. She had plans to meet him at her grandmother’s house. But, unsure of how it would go, she almost bailed on the meet-up altogether. She couldn’t remember ever touching him before. What should she expect? Would it be better to keep their relationship encapsulated in its past state, without real-time verbal confusion to muddle it? But shortly after Scott opened the door to embrace her, Jesilinett realized she had nothing to fear. She and her father embraced and talked, and it felt natural. Their on-paper rapport carried into conversation. She left brimming with optimism and gratitude. Her father was home. Really home. A couple of weeks later, she brought her kids to a family birthday party, and they met their grandfather. Again, it felt as though things were cohering well, if a little surreally.

Her boyfriend had met her father before she did, because they were in prison together. He told her Scott talked a big game about “becoming a father” after getting out. But despite the first few happy reunions, Jesilinett began to feel like he wasn’t making good on his word. She rarely heard from him, and she wanted him to take greater initiative to be a part her life. She couldn’t get rid of the fear that maybe he wasn’t the father she’d been waiting for, that maybe he wasn’t much of a father at all.

The first thing one notices about Scott Lewis are his high cheekbones and soft, brown eyes. These are also the first things one notices about Jesilinett (who, although twenty-six, looks like she might be sixteen). Her four-year-old, Xavier, has them, too.

Jesilinett and her kids live in West Haven in a single-family home. She said she couldn’t bring much in the move, so she got rid of the collection of letters she’d gotten from her dad while he was in prison.

Sitting in her kitchen, Jesilinett described how she’s felt since her dad came home. “It hurts,” she said.

Lanie, tugging at her mother’s jeans to show her a drawing, floated away, then returned with a paper towel roll. She wordlessly handed it to Jesilinett, who took a sheet to wipe her eyes. “I just wish he was more like a father. I wish he knew them,” she said, pointing towards the kids.

“I know him,” said Lanie, crossing her arms. “He picked me up. We played a game.”

“Yeah? What do you call him? What’s his name?” Jesilinett asked.

Lanie pursed her lips. She looked at her feet.

“Exactly.”

Fifteen-minute phone calls once a week or less constituted Scott’s relationship with his sons, beginning when they were in preschool. Early on, he said, he stopped allowing his kids to visit. The humiliation of getting stripped, searched, and bossed around—and watching his kids go through metal detectors, get reprimanded for moving the wrong way or attempting to do anything other than hold his hand across a table—“triggered [him] psychologically.” And, unlike Jeslinett, Scott’s sons didn’t strike up a written correspondence.

Before he came home, Scott took his reunion with his children for granted. He thought it “would be a given; that it was natural, biological,” but he found that his kids had grown up without him in their lives and didn’t need him.

A few months after Scott’s release, Scottie Jr. told his father as much. He didn’t feel any particular emotional connection to his father, and as a then-twenty-six-year-old man with two kids of his own, he wasn’t seeking guidance from a stranger who’d been removed from society since 1995.

“We’re biologically father and son, but in terms of everyday living, you really don’t know me,” Scott recalled his son saying. “You don’t know who I am.”

Five months after his release, Jesilinett learned her dad was engaged to Rachel when an acquaintance mentioned it offhandedly in a Stop & Shop. She had no idea her father had been seeing someone.

Incensed, she texted her sister Liz, who didn’t know either. They agreed: How did their father have the time to meet someone and get to know her, but not the time to mend and foster relationships with the family he already had? In his hurry to make up for lost time—reconnect with a lost love, assemble a life, and participate in a linear, traditional fatherhood—he had left them behind.

“He wasn’t only moving on. The whole thing felt like he was rubbing it in our faces,” Jesilinett said.

Jesilinett “went off on him” over text. She told her father that she worried about the marriage. It seemed naïve not to acknowledge that Scott, who’d been wrongfully imprisoned for twenty years, stood to gain a great deal of money as compensation from the state. Was he sure that this woman’s motives were pure?

Rachel, Scott’s fiancée, saw the messages and grew angry. When Harper-Rose was born about a year ago, Jesilinett decided to go see the family, but her relationship with Rachel remained sour. Jesilinett left the hospital in tears. Her dad had a new daughter and a new life with a woman who couldn’t stand her.

“He says he knew her before, that she helps him, gives him a house, that she loves him…” Jesilinett trailed off, waving her hand above her kitchen table.

“Blah, blah, blah,” her daughter Lanie finished.

HOW TO BE A FATHER

Scott and Stefon attribute most of their post-prison successes to the new relationships they’ve forged, but both have struggled to connect with their now-adult children. Like Jesilinett, Stefon’s son Julian Sobin questioned his dad’s new relationship with Kimberly, and he considered skipping last year’s wedding party. He cried at the ceremony because it was an emotional day: wonderful, sure, but also difficult. He didn’t know Kimberly and, frankly, he hardly knew Stefon. He resented that his dad wasn’t trying harder to make things work with what he already had.

“It’s not like my mom wanted him back or anything,” Julian said. “But he has four kids with two women. Part of me was like, why does he have to join this new family? Why couldn’t he make things work with a family he already had?”

“Part of me was like, why does he have to join this new family? Why couldn’t he make things work with a family he already had?”

To her three kids, now all high school–aged  or older, Kimberly said Stefon’s been a fantastic stepfather. Julian, however, thinks his dad doesn’t really know how to be a parent. When Julian becomes a parent, he says he hopes to emulate his mother: someone who was always there, who “would give the shirt off her back” and worked tirelessly for him and his twin brother Christian.

Even though Julian knows his father didn’t commit the murders for which he went to prison, he’s always harbored resentment.

“If he’d been a good parent at the time—focusing on his kids or helping my mom, and not on getting involved in sketchy stuff—he would never have ended up in prison to begin with,” he explained.

For a while, Julian thought about joining his local police force. During the preliminary stages at the training academy, they asked if he was related to anyone who’d been convicted of a crime, and he knew he’d have to bring up Stefon. He did, but also mentioned that he barely knew and almost never thought about his father, having been raised by his mother and grandparents. By any emotional measure, they were his parents.

Christian feels that distance even more strongly—which is ironic, Julian said, since Christian has so much in common with Stefon. They look alike, laugh alike, and exhibit the same rebellious streak. Growing up, Julian occasionally worried about Christian; he didn’t want him to end up like their dad.

The twins talked on the phone with Stefon occasionally and visited every so often, but they didn’t like going to the prison. There were so many rules about how you could interact, and they were never sure how to make conversation. When they got older and had more control over their schedules, they went less regularly. Sometimes, if peers asked why his dad was never around, Julian would lie, saying he was away on business or always working. He was embarrassed. His friends’ parents weren’t in prison.

But when on a road trip with friends, Julian got the call that his dad would be free and began to sob. “The tears just started coming. I didn’t even know it was happening,” he said. “I just started imagining all the things he could be there for—if I ever get married, have kids.”

Julian didn’t know what to expect from their relationship after the release. The first time they met, he mostly felt shock, and that didn’t go away for a while. Now, he told me, they’re more like friends than father and son. He is reluctant to schedule time with his dad, who rarely takes the initiative. Sometimes, they go to the gym together, where they make small talk about girls or sports and work out alongside each other.

In December, after Julian graduated from Southern Connecticut State University, Stefon took him out for a drink. On the drive over, Julian told his dad that he didn’t feel like they knew each other, that he was angry, and that he wished his dad felt more like a father. Stefon listened sympathetically, and Julian thought things might change. But after a few months, he said, they haven’t.

“They all come back from prison having found Jesus, which is cool, fine,” Julian added. “So I get a lot of Bible verse texts. But not a lot of ‘Hey, how are you? How’s your life?’ texts.”

IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME

Unlike his half-sister Jesilinett, Tamaje—Scott’s youngest child from before prison—has a single early memory of his dad. He must have been around four, which puts Scottie Jr. around six. They were at Toys “R” Us, and Scott told them they could each pick out one thing. Tamaje impulsively grabbed a piece of candy, but later wished he’d followed Scottie’s lead and picked out a Hot Wheels car.

A week after his most recent prison release, he sat at the kitchen table with his fiancée. Tamaje, like his father and Stefon, credits her, who visited him in prison every day for the last year, with helping him get straight and giving him a place to come home.

To an extent, he thinks having his father around might have kept him out of trouble—he went to prison for the first time for drug possession when he was fifteen—but he also doesn’t care to linger on hypotheticals.

Now, Tamaje is feeling more optimistic about the future. Before, it seemed impossible to get a job and easy to go back to the street. But this time, his dad’s around and has a steady income, and he’s offered Tamaje a part-time position at Pike. He says he never felt his relationship with Scott was strained, because he never knew what he was missing. Now, he’s looking forward to building a personal and professional bond.

“Maybe it’s because I’ve been in myself,” he said. “But I get it. I don’t hold anything against him. He lost a lot of his life.”

Last March, Jesilinett turned twenty-six. Scott took her to IHOP in the morning.

“Just to have breakfast together, for the first time ever,” she said, her voice cracking a little, “that was so special to me.”

Like Tamaje, she sometimes wonders whether things would have gone more smoothly if Scott had been around while she was growing up. He motivates her unlike anyone else, she says. After several starts and stops over seven years, she finally got her GED this summer, partially as a result of his prodding. Maybe that would have happened sooner had he been home.

So, there at IHOP, they talked about her study schedule, her aspirations for a medical career, her life as a mother. They discovered that neither of them even likes breakfast food. It’s something they share, along with their high cheekbones, youthful brown eyes, and a tendency to get cold, both indoors and out.

“Like, all the time,” said Jesilinett, reaching for her jacket over their unfinished pancakes.

“Me too,” said Scott. “Have I told you about my first day out of prison?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *