Hard road from prison to self-sufficiency

Bennie Gray Jr.
Bennie Gray Jr. Courtesy Connecticut Department of Correction

Bennie Gray Jr., a 34-year-old man who has been incarcerated since he was 18, says he has paid for his crimes and is ready to come home.

In a Nov. 11 letter to The Day from the Enfield Correctional Institution, where he is beginning the 17th year of a 23-year prison sentence for the 1997 shooting death of DeJohn Strong in New London, Gray wrote that he has "reached the point where the punishment I was given has achieved its purpose."

Gray's family has hired Seymour attorney Ralph C. Crozier to apply for an early release based on his young age at conviction. Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings require that states give those sentenced to long prison terms for crimes committed as juveniles a "meaningful opportunity" to be released early. Connecticut lawmakers failed to pass a bill on juvenile resentencings during the last session, and the state's Sentencing Commission has resurrected the proposal for the upcoming legislative session. In the meantime, the courts will handle each case individually.

Gray's motion for a sentence modification is pending in New London Superior Court and is on the docket for Friday. If his attorney succeeds, he says, Gray could be eligible for parole as early as February. Otherwise, his maximum release date is in 2019.

Those who work with prisoners after they are released into the community say Gray would face many challenges, since he was so young when he was removed from society and has been locked up for so long.

Debra Phillips from the prison ministry program at Shiloh Baptist Church in New London said her 28-year-old son, who was incarcerated for two years, is "having a hard time getting his feet back on the ground."

"I would say their readjustment, if you can call it that, to society from the DOC environment, which is very limited, is a shock for them," Phillips said. "The question is, 'How do I move on, and will somebody give me a break?'"

Getting a job is a major hurdle for convicts, particularly in a tight employment market. Housing is expensive. And for Gray, who has missed out on years of rapid advances in technology, there will be a big learning curve.

"I know a man who had been in prison for 10 years," said Winston Taylor, facilitator of the prison ministry at Shiloh. Upon his release, the man discovered that most companies accept applications online.

"He didn't know anything about computer skills," Taylor said. "That was a struggle for him right there."

Convincing an employer to take a chance on a convicted felon is not easy, Taylor said, though he added that certain employers, including McDonald's and Applebee's, are willing to give former inmates a chance. Being accepted socially also can be difficult.

"They find even though they did their time, that society will continue to hold their criminal record against them," Taylor said. "People will still try them all over again."

A group of Gray's relatives and a friend from high school attended Gray's last court appearance and said he would have support on the outside, which Taylor says is "huge." Some former inmates have nowhere to go and end up at shelters, where they are exposed to substance abuse and other behaviors that can lead them to reoffend.

Taylor said that despite the odds, he knows of success stories, including Kwan Jenkins, who was released last year following a 10-year sentence for carrying a pistol without a permit, first-degree robbery and conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery. Jenkins, who participated in Shiloh's mentor program while still incarcerated, has found work, gotten married and has begun to serve as a mentor to others.

Taylor's advice to prisoners looking for a new start is to "keep at it."

"You have to be hungry for success," Taylor said. "If a couple of doors slam on you, keep knocking and don't give up. Be humble and willing to ask for help."

Homecoming king

Gray was a standout football player at New London High School. He was devastated by his parents' divorce and gravitated toward the streets, he said in a recent statement submitted to the court. His grades started slipping, and in 11th grade, he fathered a daughter, despite being "just a kid myself." He says he didn't want to let go of his own dreams, but felt like he had to take care of his daughter. Selling drugs made sense to him, he said in the letter.

"I blamed my parents, so I acted out, and I continued to act out until it landed me in prison," Gray wrote. "I went from being a star football player, voted Homecoming King for two consecutive years, and Class President, to being Inmate #259596."

Gray and his cousin, Tavorus Fluker, were charged with killing Strong at the Michael Road apartment complex in a dispute involving drugs. Gray pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges and an unrelated drug charge. Fluker was convicted of a lesser crime but is serving a 25-year prison sentence for an unrelated shooting.

In seeking early release, Gray said he means "no disrespect" to the victim's family and is sensitive to the fact that Strong was also a father. But he said he has fulfilled all of the goals of criminal sentencing: deterrence, rehabilitation and punishment. He writes that the Department of Correction has determined he is at low risk for reoffending. He said he has earned a high school diploma, college credits and trade certificates in culinary arts. He works as a barber, mentors other prisoners and was baptized as a Christian.

Karen Martucci, a deputy warden with the Department of Correction who is serving as the acting director of external affairs, said discharge planning begins well before prisoners' release dates. Upon sentencing, each prisoner gets an "offender accountability plan," which lays out their goals for their incarceration. The purpose, she said, is to reduce recidivism.

"We review the rap sheet, the history of what type of thing they need to work on," she said. "If you're in for drugs, we want you to do addiction services. Everybody has an individual plan."

The latest recidivism figures released by the state for non-sex offenders indicate that 56 percent of 16,286 offenders discharged in 2008 were arrested again.

The department offers some educational programs and vocational training, including a food preparation program where graduates receive a Food Safe certificate, which is required of many restaurant workers.

Discharge planning starts near the end of the inmate's sentence. Staffers put inmates in touch with community providers who might help them with housing and employment. A crucial part of discharge planning is to help inmates obtain valid identification.

"Nobody's going to want to look at you for employment if you don't have a driver's license or a Social Security card, so we have those in place before they leave," Martucci said.

The department has a job center and contacts with employers willing to hire ex-offenders, she said. Discharge planners also help those who are receiving mental health services inside the prison system connect with outside providers, she said.

"Are there challenges?" Martucci said. "I'm sure there are lots. If you've done a significant amount of time, you may not even know how to use a cellphone."

k.florin@theday.com

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