Catch and Release
By Dave Baker
At 22 years old, Antonio Streater can fit more titles in front of his name than most PhDs. In high school, he went by class clown and starting defensive end on the football team. After graduation, he added college student, rapper, and entrepreneur. However, the titles colleges, prospective employers, and the state of Connecticut are more focused on are convicted felon and ex-offender.
Born and raised in the Newhallville section of New Have, Streater’s wild and rambunctious childhood got him kicked out of three different elementary schools. There was talk of alternative schooling, ACES or another school equipped to handle hard cases, but his good grades and high standardized test scores made him an ideal candidate for Project Choice.
“They wanted to send me to an alternative school, but that’d just throw me in with more bad kids – I was already bad,” Streater explained. “So they snatched me up and shipped me to Wallingford.” If his time in Wallingford taught him anything it was people. At a young age, Tone Streater could adapt to new surroundings and communicate with anyone, regardless of their background. “A lot of my friends don’t know how to act around certain people because they’re not comfortable. How I would act in a business setting versus how some of my friends would act is different. They don’t how to conduct themselves because they haven’t been around people of different cultures.”
Understanding different people isn’t the same as walking the lines dividing them. Antonio Streater walked these lines his entire life.
Smart, perceptive, and self-aware, Streater’s spent his early swaying between two worlds: the suburbs and the streets. In Wallingford, he was the wisecracking loudmouth and big hitter on the football field. In the Ville, he was another young blood, hustling and fighting. “Shit I’ve been arrested more times than I can count…don’t mean they ever pinned anything on me,” Streater said to sum up life in one of the worst areas of the city, an area The Atlantic ranked as the fourth most dangerous in 2011.
Streater fought more than he liked to. Going to school in Wallingford kept him away from the rivalries and beefs that erupted in the Ville or the halls of New Haven’s Wilbur Cross and Hillhouse high schools – though it didn’t keep him from pummeling another student in his high school’s parking lot and being put on probation for Assault III.
“I wouldn’t say that Toney is violent or quick to snap. He’s very loyal so in cases where it’s not his fight he’s going to get involved because you’re his boy. Essentially, your fight is my fight,” says Streater’s close friend Justin Stevens. A New Haven local and Project Choice participant, Stevens has known Streater since elementary school. He currently attends Howard University in Washington D.C. and still maintains his friendship with Streater.
“Honestly, to me, he hasn’t changed at all. His music has gotten a whole lot better, but he hasn’t really changed since the fourth grade,” Stevens said.
This unspoken code of loyalty got him expelled from college in the fall of 2008. While attending Central Connecticut State University, his friend had a spat with a CCSU football player at a New Britain nightclub. They retaliated with a robbing spree in the player’s dorm room. The outcome: expulsion and a seven-month house arrest.
The next two years Streater shifted his concentration to the grind, polishing his skills as a rapper, writing lyrics and performing at small venues. He rented recording studios, launched a website and began making a name for himself on the New Haven rap circuit. Making it back to the classroom at Gateway Community College and picking up odd jobs, Streater resolved to make his expulsion a temporary setback.
But then in May 2011, witness testimony placed him at the scene of a robbery. “Yeah, I was there but I didn’t rob him. Cops saw me there, know my record and were like ‘Ok, book him,” Streater said. To handle his 2008 burglary case, the court appointed Streater a public defender; a decision he believes landed him on seven-month house arrest. “He just told me, ‘whatever the judge offers, take. Take the deal.’ He didn’t give a shit about my case.”
A hired lawyer got the charges against Streater reduced to conspiracy to commit robbery III and his initial sentenced dropped from 18 months to six months in the Cheshire Correctional Institution for violating his probation. A rocky relationship with a corrections officer came to blows, landing him from a minimal level-two security cellblock to 23-hour lockup and a week in solitary confinement. “I never really had any real problems with anyone in jail. I knew a lot of people from the town. You tried not to fight too much or draw blood. That’ll get you packed up,” Streater explained. “If you gotta settle something, you scrap it out and it is what it is.” He passed the time drawing and sketching, obsessively working out and reading Dan Brown and JRR Tolkien.
Following his release in November 2011, Streater returned home to New Haven where he resumed his education and bounced between temp jobs in retail at an American Eagle outlet and the Gateway CC bookstore. Unlike many ex-offenders, Streater’s education and solid support base prevented him from joining the 50 percent of repeat offenders going back to prison, raising questions as to how the criminal justice process shaped and influenced someone sharp and relatively educated like Streater.
“Cops know me. They know I’m gang affiliated. My dad did time, my uncles did time. They know Streaters. I’ll walk down the street and a cop will pull up, ‘Yo Toney-B, so and so got shot last night. Know anything about it?’ Once you’re in the system, they know you.” The system and Streater have been playing catch and release since his teen years. His early twenties provided him with a fuller view of life on the inside and the slow, monotonous drag from arrest to booking, to awaiting trial, and ultimately prison.
Each of his arrests followed a similar procedure. Handcuffed in the backseat of a police car, he was booked at the police station then brought to a poorly sanitized holding cell, where detainees are sustained with nothing but measly bologna sandwiches and artificial juice. He stayed in the holding cell until his first hearing the following morning, where he was transferred to county jail, issued a prison jumpsuit and assigned a cell. “That’s when it hit me: I’m a statistic now.”
The tedium and drudgery of prison life came as expected – it was the complacency and wasted time behind bars that topped the list of Streater’s worst experiences during his incarceration. Working a few days a week for the Department of Transportation somewhat occupied his time and gave him a chance to get outside Cheshire CI’s barbed wire fences. Dealing with COs, however, made life on the inside difficult.
“You form different relationships with each correctional officer. Some want to give you a hard time and some just want to get their hours and leave. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Behind those bars you’re still nothing more than a number to them,” he said.
Streater faces the challenges of readjusting to life in mainstream society alone. “The courts and probation haven’t done a thing to help me find employment. I’ve even heard that people in halfway houses pay rent and get penalized for not working,” Streater says. Though he takes classes at Gateway CC, his expulsion bars him from reentering the Connecticut State University System. He lived briefly with an ex-girlfriend before moving back in with his family. Without that support, his living situation might have come down to halfway house or bust, where they’re short on beds and long on waitlists.
The system impacted Streater’s life. From his education to his job prospects, his contentious past with the law follows him. The traces of his experiences in prison are now a hallmark of his music. Since his release, he’s rededicated himself to rap – a cellblock made for a terrible place to write lyrics. “Sitting around and being unable to write as I wanted to because I didn’t have access to a beat or recording studio filled me with a bigger hunger to stay in the studio and do what I do best since I’ve been home,” Streater said. Back in the studio and the classroom, bouncing between jobs, Streater now stands, as he has for most of his life, on the brink of success or a jail cell.