Despite outward appearances, George Negron has been to hell and back — and now has the certificate to prove it.
As he methodically shaved the face of a client with a straight razor this week, he was focused and confident. He worked quietly while music played in the background of the newly renovated barbershop that he’s in the process of buying from his father, Daniel’s Barber Shop on Grand Avenue in Fair Haven.
“This is the work of a barber,” he said as he splayed his arms with the grace of a conductor, meticulously shaving around the contours of his client’s upper lip and nose.
He wasn’t this calm and collected last October when he went before the state Board of Pardons and Parole to ask the board to forgive him of his crimes and allow him to move forward with his future with a clean slate.
According to statistics provided by Richard Sparaco, executive director of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, the number of applications for pardons has climbed steadily since 2013. The number of pardons granted by the state has continued to increase, too. In 2013, the state granted just 314 pardons of all kinds, 254 of which were absolute pardons. But in 2016, it granted 773 of which 672 were absolute pardons. And those numbers could go up thanks to new rules on the books. Starting July 1, nonviolent crimes will be separated from violent crimes, with nonviolent offenders being allowed to skip the hearing process before the pardons board.
In the meantime, New Haven’s Fresh Start program is working with people like Negron to get clear of one of the biggest obstacles to reentering productive society. Two recent success stories show it can be done — and it takes persistence
Negron’s request for a pardon had a lot riding on it: His future plans with his wife Grisselle to expand the barbershop into a full-service salon. His obtaining a substitute license to help run the home daycare that his wife started. His plans to finally use his commercial driver’s license to start a trucking business. His dream of turning the food pantry for children that he and his wife are supporting in Nicaragua into a full-fledged orphanage here in the United States.
He came prepared, with help from Project Fresh Start, the city’s reentry program for formerly incarcerated New Haveners. The office provides pardon sessions to help people like Negron regain their foothold in society and avoid recidivism.
“I was nervous,” the 50-year-old Negron said of the day he went before the board. “People went before me so I saw the process. I was honest. The first thing I said was ‘I’m sorry for what I’ve done. I failed New Haven but I’m here to make it right.’”
And he meant it. Nearly two decades ago, Negron was in his 30s. He had a successful career as a welder and owned his own home when he began “experimenting with street life.” He said it didn’t take long before he’d lost his job and his home.
“From there it was just a long road of failures,” he said. “My family, from giving me so many opportunities, they said, ‘We have to close our doors.’ So they threw me out to the streets. That was the tough love part.”
He was homeless, but not ready to give up the street life. A first-degree robbery conviction landed him in prison. It would take a second trip to prison and a car accident that nearly killed him to convince him to go straight.
But everywhere he turned looking for job opportunities, the doors closed when employers discovered he was a felon. His father, Daniel, saw how hard he was trying. Ultimately, he gave Negron a shot at working at the barbershop, under his watchful eye.
“I started working with my dad on and off, at the barbershop, doing the best I could,” he said. “That’s when he started trusting me more. I started going to church. Started filling that void in my life that I needed to be filled. I was looking for jobs, I couldn’t find jobs because of the felony. I tried to do different things but the felony” got in the way.
He knew he had to do something, so he hired an attorney to help him apply for a pardon. Hiring the attorney cost him $1,000. But he didn’t get it.
“I was so upset,” he recalled. “I got kind of a little depressed.”
Negron could have given up. He could have gone back to the streets. Instead, he told his father that he really wanted to learn the barbering business. Obtaining a barbering or cosmetology license can be a challenge for convicted felons, but Negron was able to obtain one. (Lawmakers recently passed a bill that ensures that the state Department of Public Health does not use criminal history as a barrier to obtaining such a license.)
While he was learning the business of barbering from his dad, Negron also attended trucking school, successfully obtaining his commercial driver’s license. The school had neglected to tell him that his felony would keep him from being hired by trucking companies. He learned that when he applied forjobs and got turned down. After that disappointment, he stumbled upon a pamphlet from the city’s Project Fresh Start Reentry program about pardon sessions that set him on the four-month path that led him to the pardon board last October.
“There was a group of guys there, I heard what they had to say and I said, ‘You know what I’m going to give it a shot.’” The state board heard Negron out and granted him the pardon.
Project Fresh Start’s Jordan Johnson said the person who is successful in completing the pardon’s process is the person who is persistent.
“They’re the ones who don’t give up when things are taking too long and not done on their time,” he said. “When they face a challenge and they feel it’s too hard and life happens and things come up, they don’t give up. The people who get it are the people who want to get this taken care of and get this done.”
Pardon sessions are held at City Hall every other Wednesday from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. People who are serious about pursuing a pardon get the hard facts about the pardon process—a four month or more process that involves filling out an application, obtaining one’s criminal record for all crimes and jurisdictions, fingerprinting and possibly a trip to before the state pardon’s board wherever in the state it might be meeting. They also learn about the state’s certificate of employability, which can help with some of the barriers that felons face when applying for jobs.
The applicant gets step-by-step help from Johnson and the rest of the Project Fresh Start staff to properly fill out the application and to write the required essays that must be written as part of the process of just getting the pardons board to consider the application, which can be a barrier in and of itself, for felons with limited educations.
It must be five years from your last felony and three years from your last misdemeanor for you to apply, Johnson said. You also must have successfully completed your sentence, and not be under state supervision.
Some states operate differently. In Massachusetts, if it’s been 10 years since your last crime and you’ve remained crime-free during that decade, you can obtain an automatic pardon, Jordan said. Connecticut has been making some strides toward reforming and streamlining its pardons process, and advocates continue to push to reduce barriers to reentry for the formerly incarcerated.
1 Lie, 1 Day In Jail, 30 years Of Hassle
Last month another formerly incarcerated New Havener working with Fresh Start, Danielle Murphy, learned from the pardons board that she too will receive her pardon certificate.
The 55-year-old New Haven native said she committed her crime when she was in her late 20s. It all started with a pair of stolen shoes, and opportunity to have her record cleared if she stayed out of trouble after she got caught, and a lie.
“This one fearful lie took like maybe 30 years of my life,” she said. “I falsified who I was. I had pilfered some shoes from Parade of Shoes. I did the thing where you’ll be cleared after a year if you keep your record clean. In the process, I bought a car. And I was driving around without a plate on it and I got pulled over. Instead of saying who I was, I lied and said I was somebody else. But here’s the ironic thing: I told them everything else [that was] truthful. But I lied about my name.
“That’s impersonation,” she added. “I was fearful that the fact that I had done the year’s thing that would have been messed up, and I got in a worse mess.”
Murphy said she never forgets what the female officer said to her on the day she was arrested. “She was mad,” Murphy recalled of the officer. “She said, ‘We were gonna let you go, too!’ Because everything I said they were able to check out.”
She served a day in jail. But that felony followed her around for the next 30 years.
The former salon owner said she tried to ignore it for years. She tried to self-medicate her shame about it through substance abuse. She said she would lie about it, but every time she tried to get a part-time job to supplement her income, it would pop up. She worked at salons that didn’t ask too many questions about her background or even her lapsed cosmetology license.
But all of the covering upkept haunting her.
As with Negron, her faith played a part in her decision to not only stop lying about her past but to get her to reapply for her license and finally finish her pardon paperwork.
“Once I came to know the Lord and realized that I was a new creature—all things have passed, behold you are new—he told me not to be ashamed,” she said as she expertly cut a client’s hair, tapering the sides. “He said don’t be ashamed. Go in there and tell them that you want your license back. Get it. And that’s what I did.
“The more I got secure in the love he has for me, the more I was able to step out and talk about the things,” she added. “Because I could never talk about this like this. In the beginning, I had a fake image to keep together, and then I just was so ashamed of it I didn’t talk about it. And now I just share it because God loves me, I’m new and things are different.”
She found it difficult to fill out that pardons application. She learned about the pardons process when she worked a second job at Crossroads and met staff members who’d gone through it. Though she’d picked up the packet at least 10 times, she would start and stop the paperwork. She said she found it hard to write about her crime and how she’d changed her life because for a long time she hadn’t come to terms with it. But a year ago, she was ready.
“It was still time-consuming, it was tedious because you have to have the wording right,” she said. “You have to write what you think they want to hear about you, you have to talk about you and for a long time I didn’t want to talk about me. [Before] I didn’t want to talk about myself because I wasn’t happy with myself. But once again God. The more you begin to love yourself, the more you can do and say about yourself.”
Murphy said when she began working on the application she discovered that not only had she changed her outward life by being a law abiding citizen, but mentally she had changed too.
“I’m really up here,” she said while touching her head, “I am not the same person.”
And that’s what she explained in her application, which she had critiqued first by Freeman Holloway at the Workforce Alliance and then she took the application to the Project Fresh Start office downtown to get another critique.
“They have the Yale students come and help you with the typing and the young lady that typed it she was like very impressed,” Murphy recalled. “I told her, ‘That’s blood, sweat, and tears right there.’ She said she didn’t have to do much so I was glad of that.”
A Burden Lifted
Negron learned on the day of his pardon hearing last October that he had gotten his pardon. While he was pursuing his pardon, Negron was busy working at the barbershop, putting himself through college and he even wrote a book, the proceeds of which goes to support the food pantry in Nicaragua. He’s also earned back the trust of his father, which he said means the world to him.
“I’m so happy right now,” he said. “I think this pardon helped me so much. It gave me more confidence and opportunities. I happened to get this pardon and this part of my life is over. I thank New Haven, the mayor for having this program here to help me.”
Negron has since taken over his father’s business and is in the process of buying the shop directly from his dad because before the pardon went through he couldn’t qualify for a bank loan. With the weight of his crime lifted, he’s ready to expand the barbershop, start other businesses and open an orphanage with his daughter who lives South Carolina.
“Coming here,” he said of Project Fresh Start, “is the reason why I was so confident. It is because of the way they treated me here and how they tell you step-by-step, each four step. They teach you here. They check it for you and make sure it’s done right—that builds confidence, so I’ll tell people don’t give up do it, let this place help you.”
His wife, Grisselle, said that she was excited when her husband learned that the pardon was a done deal.
“It’s like you’re at peace with God and the law,” she said. “It was a great blessing for him to be able to have that out of his life because now he has a different path of life but that was haunting him and now it was taken away. There’s no stopping him. We’re very happy and proud of him. I also thank the mayor because I think it was a very good to have this type of service for the community.”
After being told that she was a good candidate and wouldn’t have to come for a hearing, Murphy said she didn’t say anything about her pardon until she had the letter from the board in hand. Her actual certificate is expected to arrive in about 90 days, she admired Negron’s framed certificate during a recent meetup at the Project Fresh Start office.
“It was just like a burden lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “It’s just a relief. I want to see how I can go about helping people do this and letting them know that it don’t have to take 20 years.”
Johnson said the office is working on tracking clients from their pardon session to the completion of a packet and actually receiving a decision, but right now the main focus has been getting the word out about the service and letting those returning to New Haven from incarceration and those who have been living in the shadow because of their previous incarceration that they have an option.
“I’m a strong believer in second chances,” he said. “I believe everybody deserves a second chance at whatever it is that they do if they push forward and want to actually get it done. Everybody has gone through something in their life where they messed up but we also want them to know that although you might have messed up, there are people and resources in the city of New Haven that are willing to help you clear up those mistakes because no one is perfect.”