This old house in Hartford is getting a makeover. It’s around 100 years old, and the remnants of gas lighting are still visible in the walls.
Over the years, it was split into several apartments and slipped into disrepair. Now, it’s getting sanded and painted. It has new energy-efficient windows and modern closets.
This property that was once a drain on the neighborhood is becoming attractive affordable housing.
The six guys doing the work are hoping for a similar transformation. They are all recently out of prison.
"I’ve been selling drugs since I was 15."
Davon Lott is 27 years old, and just finished parole from his third stint behind bars.
"I didn’t have really parents to tell me to get a job or do my homework or live a straight life., and everybody around me was doing the same thing."
Now he has kids of his own -- a 7 year-old boy and a new baby. When he got out this time, he wanted to shed his old patterns.
“It’s hard. It’s hard to get a job once you’ve got that F on your record. It's really hard. I’ve done knocked on a lot of doors, and none of them have opened.”
But he is making some money - as part of this crew for a full-service contracting business called Fresh Start Enterprises. They traveled up from Bridgeport for this two-month job.
"I’ve been for a while working everyday - it puts food on my family’s table. They only help the guys that’s willing to change- the guys that give clean urines, go to the groups, go to the meetings. They guys in there they been handling their business as far as being a productive citizen."
That’s the idea. Fresh Start is not just about getting ex-prisoners working.
"This is a holistic program."
Mario Sarro helps run the business, but his background is in social work.
"We worry about substance abuse issues. We worry about any anger or domestic violence issues. We try to wrap our services around the client, so it's not so much about getting a job. The end result is getting a job."
The approach has won fans in Bridgeport's business community. At a recent fundraising breakfast, several business owners testified about their good work.
Keynote speaker Chris Bruel went further, and he’s no prison activist. He's the president of the Business Council of Fairfield County.
"Our choice to invest in continuing to lock away, to hurt, to hate and to fear, or to say, change is here.”
He says it's time to think about offender reentry as an essential piece of economic development.
"We are comfortable with as a society sending people away. We are not necessarily comfortable with them coming back, and we certainly don’t want to think about what happens while they’re gone to their families, their children, their communities, or what havoc they may reek when they come back having been made less economically viable, less socially acceptable, because of how we’ve managed their time away."
A Yale study found that men who've been in Fresh Start have a 45% lower rate of ending up back in prison than the overall ex-offender population. And word is getting out in prisons, that because of Fresh Start, Bridgeport is the place to land when you get out.
Yasdiel Moya is a project manager for Fresh Start.
"All these guys they transfer down to Bridgeport, just for the simple fact of the program, because they know this program is not in any other city but Bridgeport."
Moya is also a former client. He first went to prison for robbery and assault when he was 14 years old, and didn't get out until he was 20. Then, he ended up back in prison on drug charges.
"I'm still paying for it, for what I did as a kid. I'm still paying for it."
And he gets to share this experience with other ex-offenders. He says it helps.
"We just sit down and just talk about real stuff. You know, things that we been through. because we understand each other, we've been through similar stuff."
But he knows they're not getting to everyone that needs it.
“I’ve got tons more workers than work. We got hundreds of guys and only got but so many projects."
For Davon Lott, who's staying busy hanging sheet rock, filling nail holes, and painting, he's happy he'd landed a slot.
“If it wasn’t for them, I would’ve gotten frustrated and went out on the block, so we say, and started selling drugs. and you know, I know now, I'm never going back to jail."
And with any luck, he won't be working for Fresh Start forever either, because the program's ultimate goal is to lose its best workers to permanent, stable jobs.