By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff
WORCESTER, Mass. — As one of six children being raised in a single-parent household, Benito Vega said his mother worked hard to support her children but didn’t have the time to do much else.
“She couldn’t afford to put us in after-school programs and things like that,” said Vega, so left to their own devices the six siblings found other ways to fill their time. “I started to hang out with so-called ‘buddies,’ looking to have fun but not realizing the consequences that come with that so-called fun.”
By the time he was 18, Vega had dropped out of high school and was in the midst of a full-blown addiction to heroin. While trying to feed that addiction, he said, he committed crimes that led to his incarceration and became one of the estimated 65 million Americans who have a criminal record.
For Vega, his time behind bars led to a personal epiphany.
“It definitely was not worth it,” said Vega. “When I was doing my time during my incarceration, I realized this was not the life I wanted to live. In there you’re for yourself, surviving on your own. While incarcerated I saw many guys come in and out during my eight years. I must have seen 10 to 12 people leave and come back, leave and come back.”
The reason behind his fellow inmates’ return, said Vega, was their having difficulties finding a job once they were let out, thus giving them no option other than to return to a life of crime to support themselves.
“Seeing that cycle, that was the epiphany that I had and I didn’t want to be 55-years-old, talking about being back here [incarcerated] for selling drugs because of a lack of opportunities,” said Vega. “That’s when I woke up.”
Vega took advantage of the resources offered to inmates, including educational opportunities getting his G.E.D., and culinary and HVAC welding classes, “so there were some trades I was able to take and came home with that,” said Vega; but he was warned that while he was learning these trades, because of his felony background, he would not be able to work in any of the trade fields that he was learning.
“I’m getting an education but would never able to put it into practice. I was doing it to better my life,” said Vega. For the first 18 months after he came home, “there were times when I just wouldn’t answer the question [about prior convictions] and worked small jobs and took a chance. I realized it was a big issue holding our backgrounds against us and that something needed to be done.”
He finally found a company willing to take a chance and hire him, and he stayed with them for seven years. During that time his wife was volunteering for Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (www.exprisoners.org) based in Worcester. EPOCA is an organization that focuses on the issues of incarceration and the difficult reentry to society that ex-convicts face, and have been fighting for changes in policies and increased funds to help create support programs. Initially hesitant about joining, when Vega lost his full-time job due to the company relocating and found himself once again dealing with the same issues looking for new employment, he fully immersed himself in EPOCA’s cause.
In 2008, EPOCA was instrumental in changing Worcester’s background checking system, helping develop a new and comprehensive Fair Hiring Ordinance for the city of Worcester so that in order to do a background check on an applicant for city contractors or vendors, an offer of employment already had to be on the table.
“Once we did that in Worcester, I realized we could make some change,” Vega, who along with EPOCA then pushed to have that change statewide, propelling a new CORI reform to encourage a reduced recidivism rate due to the increased opportunities afforded to ex-convicts looking for stable employment, and by 2010 the question was removed from all applications in Massachusetts.
Tom Dwyer, coordinator of the Northeast Region of the Poor, an outreach ministry of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Mansfield, is a member of the Vincentian Reentry Organizing Project (www.VincentianRestoration.nationbuilder.com), a partnership between the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the National Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Along with Ohio, Louisiana, Florida and Wisconsin, “it was noted that Massachusetts was one of the five sites where this reentry project was ongoing,” said Dwyer. “A big part of the program is to make Vincentians aware of these issues and those who are dealing with the problem with reentry, from the problems with the criminal justice system at the outset to the problems of reintegrating ex-offenders or citizens back into the community. There’s a whole continuum of things the project has tried to address.”
Dwyer met Vega more than a year ago, and has helped him make connections with fellow Vincentians by traveling and presenting to parishes Vega’s personal journey and what the Vincentian Reentry Organization Project is all about.
“I found it absolutely astonishing the way we approach this, and the relatively backward way Massachusetts is approaching it,” said Dwyer. “At one time Massachusetts was a leader in these types of efforts, but it is really fallen to the wayside and there’s a whole series of legislative proposals that are designed to try and bring Massachusetts back in line where the national trends are heading and, from a Catholic point-of-view, bring it in line with restorative Catholic social teaching principals of the criminal justice system.”
EPOCA has also partnered with the Massachusetts Campaign to End Mass Incarceration and Fund Job Creation (www.JobsNotJails.org) to help propel the “Justice Reinvestment: An Act to Increase Neighborhood Safety and Opportunity,” legislation that is hoping to improve Massachusetts’ systems of criminal justice, end mass incarceration and re-invest in communities through job and education opportunities.
According to Jobs Not Jails, the Deval Patrick Administration has estimated that, if current criminal justice policies are not changed dramatically, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will have to spend two billion in the next seven years to build 10,000 new prison units, as well as 150 million more each year to fill them. Massachusetts already has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world — on par with French Guiana and Kazakhstan. There are so few opportunities, and so many barriers to successful re-entry, that more than 60 percent of prisoners released from the Department of Youth Services (juvenile justice agencies), county jails, and prison recidivate within three years.
The reforms will help create prospects not just for those ex-convicts trying to reenter society but help others avoid incarceration altogether by giving those living at the poverty line hope through additional educational and job resources, said Vega. The Act would improve justice and safety, reduce incarceration and invest millions of dollars to create jobs for struggling families; a key component of the Act is the end of “mandatory minimum” sentencing for drugs.
So many of those incarcerated suffer from substance abuse issues and are non-violent offenders, said Vega, so “why are they being penalized? They need treatment, not incarceration. And for non-violent crimes, why are we punishing folks for non-violent crimes? People commit a crime and there should be consequences, I agree with that. Then there are people who are getting criminalized for drug habits and being penalized,” instead of getting the treatment they need.
There is a public hearing on the Justice Reinvestment Act scheduled for June 9 at the State House in Boston, and Vega will be part of a rally organized through Jobs Not Jails.
“It will be a busy but fun day,” said Vega of the rally, “but it will impact the whole of Massachusetts.”
Dwyer said the Vincentians will do their part, and will continue to raise awareness, to meet with various parish groups and fellow Vincentians, as well as letting released inmates become aware that there is help out there by working with prison chaplains like those in the Archdiocese of Boston.
“Many come out of prison and have no support systems whatsoever,” said Dwyer, “and as Benito said, they are homeless, poor, they may have lost their networks because they have been in prison for so long, have no job and so they need not only short-term assistance but also some long-term assistance to reintegrate to life learning job skills and seeing what’s changed in the world. We’re trying to foster mentoring opportunities, especially among the Vincentians.”
There has been a slow realization that the issues are connected, and that poverty and the recidivism rate “are not standalone issues,” and people need to realize they all tie together, said Dwyer.
Vega was able to find a full-time job and is busy supporting his wife and children, but he warns that once people know you’re an ex-convict the stigma never leaves and that many are “suffering for fear of being made vulnerable,” he said when all they want to do move on.
“Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, they pay their time, get out and get on with their life,’ but that’s not the case,” said Vega.