Thursday, April 7, 2011

Former Criminal Helps Other Criminals

A nice story from the New York Times about a housing program for released prisoners in New York managed by a former criminal, and part of an organization, The Fortune Society, developed and managed by former criminals.

An excerpt.

“IN a nod to hue, not heft, Chris Carney christened his 600-pound Treadlok safe “the Leprechaun.” It is nearly the same color as the tattoo of a four-leaf clover on the knuckle of the middle finger of his right hand — a tattoo his mother threatened to scrub off with steel wool after he got it as a defiant ninth grader.

“Back in the day,” which is how he refers to his criminal past, Mr. Carney kept guns, drugs and money in the safe. The guns were for protection and ego, souvenirs of a misbegotten boyhood near Boston that included family hunting trips and the drill team at military school. The money was for a Stuyvesant Town apartment, a Corvette, trips to the Caribbean, top-shelf alcohol, gambling and cocaine. He supplemented his salary as a union painter by stealing from drug dealers and bookies, as a sort of low-life Robin Hood. “I guess I was another criminal’s worst nightmare,” Mr. Carney said.

“After nine years in prison, he retrieved the Leprechaun from storage in 2008. Today, it hulks impressively in the corner of his tiny office at Castle Gardens, an environmentally conscious apartment building in Harlem that serves a fallen-between-the-cracks clientele. The safe holds nothing but pristine keys, hundreds of them, one for every door at the $44 million building where Mr. Carney, 41, a multiple offender and multiple substance abuser in his angry-young-man 20s, became the primary caretaker — and first tenant — last summer.

“The reincarnation of the Leprechaun is fitting for Castle Gardens, a place of redemption: more than half of the building’s 114 units are reserved for the formerly incarcerated or the formerly homeless. A project of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping ex-convicts re-enter society, Castle Gardens is next to Fortune Academy, a 62-bed halfway house on Riverside Drive for offenders fresh from prison. It got its nickname, “the Castle,” because it resembles one.

“Mr. Carney landed at the Castle within weeks of his release in 2008, and eager to stay out of jail but spurned by the painters’ union, he started mopping floors and cleaning toilets there and at the Fortune Society’s offices in Long Island City, Queens. He moved out of the halfway house, to Jackson Heights, Queens, and then to the South Bronx. He was promoted to superintendent at the Castle. He got off parole. Be it ever so humble, it was a start, and it was legal.

“A year later, Mr. Carney stood among officials at the Castle Gardens dedication ceremony, all of them holding shovels he had spray-painted a festive shade of gold for the occasion. He had been named superintendent of the new building, with a base salary of $33,000 a year, a staff of four and a rent-free two-bedroom apartment.

“If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told the crowd that September day. “But sometimes you need a second chance to get your priorities straight.”

“Mr. Carney saved a few of the shovels; they are in his office, leaning against the Leprechaun.”