Andrew Ferraro has been in and out of prison eight times and has been incarcerated for a total of 18 years. He has been locked up so many times that it feels normal.
“It was like being home actually. All my friends were there, I knew how to run the system,” Ferraro said. “I spent the best part of my life locked up.”
The 45-year-old New Haven native is one of thousands of ex-offenders in Connecticut who cycle through state prisons every year. According to the State’s newest statistics, 64% of ex-offenders released in 2008 were re-arrested within 3 years. 54% were sent back to prison with new charges.
Ferraro, who has a lengthy criminal record of assaults, larceny and drug possession, now says he wants to stop this cycle.
"I'm not going to go back. I'm doing the things that I need to do to stay out and it's hard. It's very hard and I just want people that are still in there to have the opportunities that they need so that they don't have to go back,” Ferraro said.
He cites two major challenges within the system: first, a lack of useful educational programs while incarcerated.
Ferraro took as many courses as he could and earned dozens of certificates, but says they were not what he needed to help him stay out.
“Classical sauce kitchen, menu planning and facilities design, basic baking skills, culinary skills and procedures” were several courses Ferraro took while incarcerated at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center.
The State of Connecticut spends nearly 17 million dollars a year on these types of courses. They range from introduction to Arabic, beginning art, “braille writing,” coaching and referee training, anger management and substance abuse. The course offerings run more than 200 pages.
Mike Lawlor, the Under Secretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning in Governor Dannel Malloy’s Office of Policy and Management, says the state is now shifting its focus to assess offenders as they come in. They aim to better educate those they believe have the highest likelihood of improving themselves.
“Culinary arts are not the solution to our crime problem for sure,” Lawlor said in an interview.
“Some people are beyond the pale,” Lawlor added. “They're never going to learn their lesson but others you can do things that make it less likely they'll commit crimes when they get out.”
Ferraro says in order to truly change an offender’s trajectory, basic life skills are badly needed in prisons.
“A guy could come out knowing why he should never pick up a drug again, but he has no idea how to make a living, how to make a legal living, how to work, how to fit into a company,” Ferraro said.
Freeman Holloway of Workforce Alliance helped Ferraro find a job when he was released last year. Workforce Alliance pairs professional “job developers” with ex-offenders to apply for employment. He says the lion’s share of ex-offenders leaving prison are unprepared.
“I do know one thing: when they do get out, many of them are not ready,” Holloway told NBC Connecticut. “If you prepare before you come out, then you’re ready to move forward.”
Monica Ronaldi, Director of Programs and Treatment at the Department of Correction, says all educational programs are currently being reevaluated. She says the DOC will not be satisfied until the recidivism rate is “a zero, if it ever could be.”
“Right now we have people reviewing these programs because we are..never satisfied,” Ronaldi said.
Ferraro also says the system which promises to set up ex-offenders like him with the basics to start a crime-free life is failing. He says the wait time for basic benefits promised to some ex-offenders, including health care and food stamp benefits, can be more than a month.
“You can't wait til the last moment because when the last moment comes, and all of a sudden I’m a free man but I have nothing, nothing to fall back on,” Ferraro said. “I’m going to make a bad decision.”
State officials agree:
“One thing is for sure, if you push a person out of prison, and expect them to jump through the hoops everyone else is being expected to jump through to qualify for Medicaid or healthcare or whatever, it's a fruitless proposition,” Lawlor told NBC Connecticut.
The DOC tells NBC Connecticut they recognize it is their obligation to prepare offenders for re-entry in a timely fashion and that new reforms are being implemented right now.
“We've hired some staff and we're going to have a reentry counselor in each one of our facilities now to work with offenders,” Ronaldi said. “We have had reentry counselors for a while but we have realized the critical importance of having one at each facility to help offenders when they’re getting out.”
Ferraro’s mother Beatrice Codianni--a former federal inmate for 15 years and former high ranking member of the Latin Kings, a gang in New Haven--believes better educational program and access to benefits will save taxpayers millions of dollars. She currently is the managing editor of Reentry Central, a national website for news on reentry and related criminal justice issues.
“You’re paying taxes to keep people in prison. They’re coming out and that money [for educational programs] could be better spent,” Codianni said in an interview at her home. “If somebody has a job, they’re going to be more stable and they’re not going to commit crimes. They’re not going to break into your house. They’re not going to rob your store.”
Meanwhile, Ferraro for the first time in his life has his home own, his own truck and his own family. Until last month, he worked in a steady construction job for nearly a year until he was laid off.
“I’ve accomplished more in the 11 months I've been out this time than I’ve accomplished in my life,” Ferraro said. “I still have a lot of work to do but I see things and I realize now that there is a life other than prison, crime and chaos.”