The Harp administration forced its prison reentry chief out of his job after he was barred from reentering prison—to work with inmates—- because of pending criminal charges.
Sundiata Keitazulu offered his resignation from the position this week after learning at a meeting with city Human Resources Chief Stephen Librandi and Youth Services Director Jason Bartlett that he would otherwise be fired.
They told Keitazulu that they made the decision in part because the state Department of Corrections had barred him entry to the Whalley Avenue pre-trial prison to work with inmates because of the outstanding criminal cases. (Keitazulu is pictured above before a debate during a mayoral campaign he ran last year.)
“The Connecticut Department of Correction [DOC] routinely conducts criminal background checks to determine if individuals will be allowed access into any of our agency’s correctional institutions. In this particular case, Mr. Keitazulu was not granted access following this process,” DOC spokeswoman Karen Martucci stated in an email message Friday.
“Our position is that it’s impossible for him to do that job” without having access to the prison, Librandi told the Independent Friday.
“He could resign or he would be let go that day,” Librandi said.
Keitazulu lashed out Friday against that decision, saying he’s innocent of charges against him—or, in the case of an old outstanding warrant from New York City, being unfairly punished for a matter in which he had been wronged.
“I also told [Bartlett] that was years ago. He asked why I didn’t tell them about it. I forgot about it! It never came to my attention. At the same time, it would not stop me from doing my job,” Keitazulu said.
Mayor Toni Harp appointed Keitazulu to the prison reentry position last month after she decided not to renew the contract of the position’s previous occupant, Eric Rey. (As of Friday morning, the city website’s Prison Reentry page still listed Rey as holding the job.) Some critics questioned Keitazulu’s qualifications for the $55,000-a-year position. Harp at the time said his hiring had nothing to do with the fact that he had run against her for mayor, then dropped out of the race and endorsed her: “He’s experienced in life. He can relate in a more real and tangible people with people who reenter society. He has done it in his own life very successfully.” Keitazulu started a successful plumbing company in the Newhallville neighborhood after serving 10 years behind bars for drug-dealing.
The city plans to unveil a new version of the reentry program, now called Project Fresh Start, at a Monday press conference. Mayor Harp said Friday that she has learned a lesson from the Keitazulu incident: The city will wait for a criminal background check to come back before hiring his replacement.
Meanwhile, Keitazulu said he plans to start a not-for-profit agency to help offenders. And he has some visits to courthouses on his calendar.
Clinton police arrested Keitazulu on Sept. 2, 2013, on two misdemeanor larceny charges. Keitazulu, who has pleaded not guilty, has a March 13, 2014, Middletown court date scheduled in that case.
He is also scheduled to appear this coming Tuesday, March 4, in state housing court in New Haven, he said, to respond to a summons he received in a dispute with a tenant who accused him of stealing $200.
And then there’s that New York case.
Those “Hippies” Were Cops!
Police did not have information available about that case Friday morning. Keitazulu offered his version of what happened.
[Update, March 6: Records show two warrants on file for Keitazulu’s arrest based on outstanding charges from two New York incidents. The first arrest occurred on Nov. 26, 2005. Police charged Keitazulu with three felonies—assault on a police officer with a dangerous weapons, reckless endangerment, and criminal possession of stolen property (a credit card)—as well as misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance and unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. New York police also arrested Keitazulu on Feb. 22, 2006, on a misdemeanor reckless endangerment charges; he pleaded guilty but then never returned for sentencing, according to records.]
Keitazulu claimed he had an outstanding warrant based on a New York incident from the mid-1990s. He said he was driving and almost hit another car—a police car. He described the charges alternatively as reckless driving and assault on an officer. He also said he fled the scene, in fear.
“They said I almost hit a police officer. I told them I didn’t know he was a police officer. He was an undercover police,” Keitazulu said.
“They pulled guns on me! So I took off. I didn’t know who they were. They looked like hippies! I thought they were trying to rob me.”
Keitazulu said he “went to court once” to answer the charge. But he didn’t return, because he was subsequently locked up in Connecticut on drug charges. So he couldn’t.
He claimed that in recent years he settled the matter with parole officers.
“They told parole they’re never going to pursue me. They told me never come back to New York again,” Keitazulu said.
The old case “does not stop me from doing my job. I told Jason, ‘If you want to give people jobs, we cannot go down the same line we’ve been going down.’”
Bartlett responded Friday that entering prison was a crucial part of Keitazulu’s job description—a job description the two hammered out together.
He said they agreed Keitazulu shouldn’t spend his days on “grant writing or writ[ing] memos or to do[ing] office work.” Rather, he would serve as “an outreach worker, somebody who can go in and out of the prisons and somebody who can work in the community with people who are on parole, people who are in halfway houses.” He said Keitazulu signed the job description and agreed to visit offenders in prison, assess their needs, then draw up plans to connect them with mentors and employers upon their release.
“What I saw as his strength was to go into the prisons and do assessments with inmates and figure out their needs and to do a plan so we can match them up with mentors and look to see what kind of services we can look to hook them upon their release,” Bartlett said. “He was unable to do that.”
“They never allowed me to do my job,” Keitazulu said Friday.
Prior convictions wouldn’t have prevented Keitazulu from entering the prisons again to work, Bartlett said. “That’s not the issue. The issue is, [DOC] came back and said, ‘He’s got a warrant for his arrest in New York State’” as well as his fresher outstanding Connecticut criminal charges.
Librandi, the human resources chief, was asked why his office didn’t come across that record in its background check before Keitazulu’s hiring. He responded that his office did make inquiries. “It’s not uncommon” for it to take weeks or longer to obtain a response, Librandi said. He said the information came back from DOC “simultaneously” with the response to Bartlett about admission to the Whalley prison.
Barltett called Keitazulu’s “lack of disclosure” about his criminal record “troubling.” Keitazulu argued that he did nothing wrong.
$200 & A Dirty Sock
Keitazulu ran into new trouble in September, when Clinton police issued an arrest warrant for him in the larceny case. Keitazulu’s mug shot popped up soon after on the screen of top cops’ weekly Compstat data-sharing meeting at police headquarters.
The incident occurred on Sept. 2. Police accused Keitazulu of sixth-degree larceny as well as conspiracy to commit larceny.
Here’s Keitazulu’s version: He was driving a cousin to Clinton. They visited a Stop & Shop. His cousin passed bad checks.
“I just gave him a ride! I never wrote no checks. I never purchased nothing. They said, ‘Well, you brought him out here!’ He opened up his own checking account! He has his own ID! They said, ‘You should never have brought him out here. So you’re with him too.’”
He argued that he was also unfairly accused in the matter coming up next week in housing court. It stemmed from a dispute with a tenant, or former tenant, of a building his mother owns on Shelton Avenue.
Here’s Keitazulu’s version of the incident:
“He moved out, and he wanted to move back in. I told him the only way to move back in is he pays a month’s security and a month’s rent. He had moved with this girlfriend. He got upset about it. He said he still had some of his stuff there. I told him, ‘I don’t know about your stuff. Whatever you left there, it’s your problem, not mine. Once you move out, I don’t have to let you back in there. You surrender your keys.’
“He said that he had $200 in a sock and it’s missing. I said, ‘Who goes around checking your socks for money? That’s ridiculous!’ He said he had $200 in his socks. I said, ‘Who’s going to look around in dirty socks for money anyway! If you move out, how would I know there’s $200 in there anyway?”
Keitazulu will next have a chance to tell that story at court. Meanwhile, Mayor Harp said she plans to wait for results of the next check before hiring a new person to run the reentry initiative. “We definitely learned that lesson,” she said.
Melissa Bailey contributed reporting.