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First In A Series: Life After Prison
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State officials say the number of inmates going out on programs like probation and parole has gone up.  That means more offenders returning to their neighborhoods looking for work and opportunity.  In the first of a series on life after prison, WNPR’s Jeff Cohen reports.

Dartanyon Blake is a man who got in trouble as a boy, and who hasn’t been able to get out.  He’s 37 years old and has spent much of the past 20 years in jail for selling drugs and robbing people.

He was released from prison last fall after a parole violation following a drug arrest.   Now, he’s in a Hartford-area halfway house, taking classes, looking for work, and gearing up to go home - back to where his family is.  Back to where he’s sold drugs.

“A lot of times when a person grows up in a neighborhood and they do the wrong things in that neighborhood, and meet the wrong people in that neighborhood it’s hard to go back to that environment and succeed. I can actually look out the window and see myself in certain places and know that that’s not where I want to be. And I love Hartford. You know what I'm saying? My grandmother represented Hartford very well.”

His grandmother, Isabel Blake, was a city activist – a big part of what Blake calls his “family of strong women.”  And while a life of drug dealing has taught him how to provide, it’s also taught him what makes these strong women hurt.

“If you really want to see a mom or an aunt or someone who really cares, especially a female, really get broken down, have her child do the opposite of what they intended to them to do and you’ll see real pain."

Blake has violated his parole before. This time he’s on it because a judge figured he’d need more supervision once he got out of jail. He may not be incarcerated anymore, but he’s far from free. 

“It’s not natural to be on parole.  You know what I’m saying?  Dinnertime.  That’s natural.  It’s time to eat, let’s eat.  You know what I’m saying?  Let’s go on vacation, I can’t go because I’m on parole, that’s not natural.  That’s unfortunate. But I did what I did and it was wrong, you know?  I cheated myself. I cheated my community, I cheated my family – but I cheated myself.”

Blake doesn’t have a high school diploma and he doesn’t know any trades. So now he’s taking computer classes and forklift classes.  And he’s also looking for work – so he doesn’t have to fall back on the thing he does best.

“The only thing I really have ever been decent in was selling drugs. That’s what landed me this idea that if I can’t get a job, I could always fall back on hustling. That’s what we call it. And that’s what landed me in jail this time.”

Blake is a big guy dressed a little too warmly on a cold day.  He gets his cigarettes and lighter from the front desk of the halfway house and starts his short walk to the bus stop.

Today’s goal is to get a job at a carwash. 

He’s had jobs before – in fast food, as a mover.  But he’s also lost sight of what he calls the big picture and gotten back out on the street.  Hustling.  This time, he says, will be different.

“Hustling isn’t just about selling drugs.  It means focus, it means determination. It means motivation. Movement. That’s hustling. That’s what we’re doing now. We’re moving. Hustling to another opportunity to better myself, that’s what I’m doing.” 

Blake walks up to the Bloomfield Wash and Wax.  Inside is its owner, Dominick Magnotta.

“We’re taking a bunch of applications, we definitely need help, okay. Your past means nothing to me. It really doesn’t.”
“That’s what I’m looking for, an opportunity to show people that people can change, you know.”

“Oh, absolutely, yeah.  Listen, I was no picnic when I was young.  I’m gonna give you a job, okay, I'm just gonna give you, I gotta get a schedule to tell you when to start and when not.”

Magnotta gives Blake a job – minimum wage plus tips -- and he says he expects from Blake the same things he’d expect from himself. 

“The guy seems sincere, he’s saying the kind of things that I really want to hear as far as, he’s a small businessman he has pride in his service and he wants people that’s going to do good.”
 
“There was one time I was selling drugs, I was making $1,500 a day.  That’s no exaggeration.  I don’t even know what I’m gonna get paid, all I know is I’m going to get a little check, and it’s cool with me.  Because I’m working for it.  And I’m earning it, man.”

And even after 20 years in and out of jail, Blake says, it’s not too late to be remade.

“Look at Martha Stewart. Now you got some people that could care less about Martha Stewart, some people that love Martha Stewart—I personally love Martha Stewart.”

He loves her because she’s got a little redemption in her, too.  She’s hardworking.  She’s smart. And she is hustler.

“She is a hustler.  Yeah.  Definitely.”

So Blake looks up to strong women.  Like Martha Stewart.  And his grandmother - the woman who wouldn’t visit him in prison and who died while he was there.

“I believe that the same things that are in her, I possess, as well.  The desire to do good, the desire to care for my community and my fellow man, woman, and child.  And I embrace those feelings.  And I want to do better. And it’s on me, man. That’s the beautiful part.  No one else gets credit for the good stuff I do.”

A few weeks after the job interview, Blake says he’s only gotten called in for work twice.  So this week, he went back out to another job interview, at another carwash. He hopes to leave the halfway house within the next few months.

For WNPR, I’m Jeff Cohen.