Outside the System
By Jesse Duthrie
Avner Gregory isn’t a corrections officer. He doesn’t create legislation. Nor does he run reentry programs, guard prisons, or drive a police car. He’s a businessman; a property owner and landlord for several apartment buildings. Although he’s not funded by the state or part of the legislation process, he is still a vital link in the re-entry continuum. How, in a state diligently working on re-entry policy, could Avner matter?
He rents to ex-offenders.
Avner’s home is something of a remarkable circumstance. The state had closed down a section of houses in New London to build highways. The house, bought by Avner for a dollar, was moved to downtown New London. It serves as his temple with plenty of open space and Hindu iconography. Six months out of the year he lives in India, while the other six are spent overseeing his business in Connecticut. Like a clergyman, his words are calculated and resonate with a serious tone.
In real estate for more than thirty years, he has rented to many ex-offenders. When asked why, he responds with something many businessmen lack: compassion. “A lot of [ex-offenders] burned bridges before they went to jail. They don’t have friendship when they get out, and certainly the people in prison weren’t their friends. The prison guards aren’t going to help them. Who’s really going to help them?”
He can relate to the tribulations of ex-offenders. During the Vietnam War, Gregory did not comply with draft laws. A criminal of the state, he left to Israel for five years, than Canada, then found his way back to Connecticut in his mid-twenties. Shortly after he was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison.
“I met many people in jail and I knew that they were there because they may have not been guilty. They may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I saw many people who weren’t deserving of the jail. I don’t think I was deserving of the jail either. When I was in jail, I said to myself that someday, when I get a chance, I’m going to volunteer and help out with prisoners. It gives me a great satisfaction at this point in my life that I can do that.”
One such person Gregory has helped, who chose to remain anonymous, remembers the process of leaving prison only to find himself locked up again within a matter of months. “It was tough for me. I would be in jail but in there I could do drugs. So when I came out, nothing had changed. I went right back into my ways and next thing I know, I’m locked up again.”
After years of recidivism, this man came back from prison and declared to himself that he would not return. While staying at a family member’s house, he earned enough money to afford his own place. Along with his wife and three kids, he rented an apartment from Avner.
“Avner is great. He was there to talk to me. If he had work, I could sometimes work for him. I kept my place right and we had no problems.”
This man eventually began a landscaping business, and within a few years he bought a house, several cars and paid for his children’s educations. Amidst his success, he’s more adamant on discussing the challenges of men coming home from prison than his own life.
“It’s hard for these guys coming home. They need somewhere to lay their heads. There are halfway houses, but those are limited. Nobody really wants to live in a shelter. They usually go back to their neighborhood and live with people in the same areas they were arrested. No wonder these guys are going back to jail.”
Both Gregory and his former tenant agree that finding housing is one of the largest challenges returning men and women face. Unfortunately, there are landlords and property owners who are unwilling to take on a person because of their criminal record. Even Gregory, a person adamant about helping ex-offenders, is cautious when accepting a person because, “the landlord has some responsibilities to protect the tenants in the building.”
His unorthodox approach to selecting tenants with criminal background: getting a feel for the person. In his calm, Hindu-esque state of mind, he chooses those he feels will make a good fit. Yet if he cannot accept the person, for whatever the reason may be, he takes it upon himself to find other landlords who can.
Avner knows that if the state of Connecticut wants to progress and reduce rates of recidivism, it must start by learning compassion towards others.