New Haven – From her desk in her small, sunlit apartment, Beatrice Codianni broke a national news story this summer about the women’s federal prison in Danbury.
Codianni’s story, posted on her national criminal justice website, Reentry Central, revealed that the women’s facility was being turned over to house male prisoners, and that the Bureau of Prisons planned to move the women inmates across the country, far from their families.
The story was picked up by the national media and created a firestorm, with senators pushing to stop or at least suspend the plan.
Codianni, a matronly woman, isn’t an editor or a lawyer. But she does know a lot about prisons. She was incarcerated for 15 years at the federal prison in Danbury because of her involvement as a leader of the notorious Latin Kings gang that terrorized New Haven with drug dealing and shootings in the 1990s.
At 65, she has found her calling writing news stories about criminal justice reforms and the barriers facing ex-offenders, quietly shedding light on what happens beyond the barbed wire.
It is hard to square her gang-leader reputation with the Codianni of today. She comes across as warm, friendly, an earth mother-type, with her wire-rimmed glasses, a pronounced limp and a rescue dog named Rocky.
Not that she ever really looked like a tattooed gangbanger. Codianni joined the Latin Kings when she was in her 40s. A white mother of three in a gang of mostly young Latino men, she had a den-mother quality to her.
In many ways, the plot line of her life sounds like an HBO series.
Becoming a Latin King
Codianni said she never planned to join the Latin Kings. In fact, she said she was appalled when she got a phone call from her son in prison who told her he had joined the gang in prison.
All she knew about the Latin Kings at the time were the news stories about shootings between rival gangs plaguing Meriden.
“He said, ‘You don’t understand’,” she said. “ ‘They support you. It’s more of a community thing.’ “
He told her that the gang’s support had helped him get over the death of his father.
She began to see the Latin Kings more as a support group, pointing out that the group originally started as a civil rights organization for Latinos.
This appealed to Codianni, who had been a political activist since the ‘60s, when she protested the Vietnam War, supported the Black Panthers and worked for the women’s liberation movement.
She said that she had wanted to help reform the young gang members, and help them earn their GEDs and get jobs so they wouldn’t rely on drug-dealing to make money.
“I’m not Mother Teresa. I was just trying to help,” she said. “I came from a poor neighborhood, so I always felt like I had a lot of empathy.”
So she wrote to the gang’s vice president, Pedro Millan, and told him that he should take a leadership role, stop the violence and change the gang’s direction.
“I offered to be a community liaison, but he said, ‘No you’d get more respect and they’d have to listen to you if you joined. You could come in as my assistant,’ ” she said.
She became a member of the gang’s board of directors and was named director of programs and charter goals. In her new role, she courted the media as a self-appointed spokeswoman for the gang and reached out to the New Haven community.
She visited the police chief and asked him to get his officers to stop roughing up gang members. She asked the schools superintendent to be more lenient with gang members who were chronically late for school, explaining that they came from dysfunctional families.
“My job was to try to get things better for the young kids,” she said. “I went knocking on doors to, like, McDonald’s, for example, in Fair Haven,” she said, referring to one of New Haven’s poorer neighborhoods. “I said, ‘Can you hire some of these kids so they don’t feel like they have to deal drugs?’ The guy was open to that, which was amazing,” she said.
Getting sucked in
But as time went on, she became more entrenched in the gang. Her position gave her authority and she was seen as the eyes and ears of Nelson Millet, the imprisoned leader of the Latin Kings who directed much of the gang’s activity from his California prison cell.
Her friend, Patricia Buck Wolf, urged her to get out.
“When it got bad, I told her ‘Look, you’re an old lady now, and these are a bunch of young toughs, and I don’t think you know what is going on’,” said Buck Wolf, who has known Codianni since their days as activists in the 1970s.
Buck Wolf, who later became an attorney, warned friend that if federal authorities cracked down on the Latin Kings and their drug dealing, the consequences would be awful.
In 1994, Codianni was rounded up along with 32 other Latin Kings in a statewide police sweep. She was charged with conspiracy to murder for ordering a drive-by shooting and knowingly taking money from known drug dealers to pay her exorbitant phone bills.
During the trial, it was revealed that Codianni settled drug disputes among gang members and rival gangs, and even ordered a drive-by shooting.
She said she had to plead guilty for not stopping a drive-by shooting, but insists that she didn’t really authorize the shooting. Upset about drive-by shootings at the time, she said she told a rival gang, “This @#$%’s gotta stop. I’m tired of going to funerals.” She said her gang misinterpreted her statement as an order to do a drive-by killing.
Several New Haven leaders testified on Codianni’s behalf at the trial, pointing out her civic engagement in the New Haven community, including volunteering for the AIDS project in New Haven.
But U.S. District Court Judge Alan H. Nevas called her a fraud who associated with murderers and drug dealers and undermined the very community she sought to help.
His comment cut her to the quick.
“He said I was fraud,” she said during a recent interview. “That, out of anything anybody ever called me, that cut me the deepest. I wanted to say, ‘No, I’m not.’ I had to plead out. I had to take responsibility.
“It was very humiliating, very humbling. I just pled out. I knew my kids were going to suffer and they did.”
She pleaded guilty to a lesser racketeering charge and was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison, a relatively long sentence, of which she served 15. Her youngest son was 16 at the time. He was 31 when she finally got out of prison. His older brother raised him.
Codianni has had a hard life with more challenges than many people. She grew up poor in East Haven in a lower middle class neighborhood near the beach. Her father was an electrician who broke his back and was out of work for a long time. Her mother had two jobs, working as a waitress and running a snack bar. With three older brothers, she said she was a bit of a tomboy growing up.
She says she suffered through sexual abuse. She became a heroin addict and, in the mid ‘70s, joined a methadone program.
She married and divorced and ended up raising three boys on her own, living on welfare and the occasional minimum wage job. She later married a heroin addict with AIDS, who died while she was in prison.
Her friends, who describe her as a left-wing idealist, say her fighting spirit has helped her survive through her hardships.
The Welcome Wagon in Danbury prison
In prison, she was among a group of women serving substantial sentences, said Piper Kerman, author of the book and hit TV series “Orange is the New Black,” who served time with Codianni in Danbury in 1994.
“There were a handful of women doing much more substantial sentences. Of course, you gave special respect to those folks because they are navigating such long sentences. Those women were very formidable in a lot of ways because of what they’re contending with,” Kerman said.
Even in prison, Codianni was an advocate, looking out for other inmates, Kerman said. Codianni was part of a group of inmates unofficially called the Welcome Wagon who tried to round up toiletries and other basic supplies for new inmates.
“When you first get to prison, you have nothing,” Kerman explained. “They don’t give you toothpaste, soap, deodorant or anything. You walk in, and you don’t have those things, and you won’t get them for a number of weeks. You don’t have money either. So you are totally reliant on the kindness of the other prisoners.”
Codianni was part of the group that collected these supplies from other inmates to help the newbies, she said.
“She had a reputation as being someone really actively engaged with other people. A lot of people really shut down when they get to prison. Bea was definitely more political than a lot of other prisoners,” Kerman said.
Inmates at Danbury also tended to shut down intellectually while they were doing time, but Codianni kept engaged. She was a literacy volunteer in prison and was part of an AIDs awareness group in Danbury.
Kerman, a Smith College graduate who served about a year on drug trafficking charges, said friends from the outside sent her books and magazines to read while she was in jail. Someone even sent her a subscription to the New York Times’ “Review of Books.”
“Bea was only one who asked to borrow it,” Kerman said.
The turning point for Codianni came in prison.
“When I was in prison, I saw that sometimes you just can’t jump in because you’ll get surrounded by the dark side, and you get caught up in it,” she said.
In 2004, she became a Buddhist and renounced her gang membership. She says she has found redemption.
Trying to find a job
When she was finally released from prison four years ago, she faced the monumental task of trying to find work as an ex-con. She spent a year and a half trying to get a job, any job. Even Wal-Mart wouldn’t take her.
“You’ve just got to believe in yourself. It beats you down, trying to get a minimum-wage job and getting the door slammed on your face. If I didn’t have my family and I wasn’t a strong person, I might have gotten picked up on another charge,” she said.
One day, at a meeting at an agency for ex-offenders called The Reentry Roundtable, she asked, “Do any of you actually hire ex-offenders?”
“I was just so grateful because I couldn’t even get a job at Wal-Mart, and here I am now doing something I absolutely love and am passionate about,” Codianni said.
She has found a new way to advocate for people and said she was thrilled that her story may have helped inmates at her old prison in Danbury.
“I am happy to have played a small part in that and motivated people to try to get this thing stopped,” she said, of the threat to move the women across the country.
Now, after so many years in prison, Codianni likes the solitude of living and working alone in her apartment. She doesn’t have many visitors and likes it that way.
The walls of her apartment are painted a peaceful white, and at the entrance, near the door, a clay bust of the Buddha sits on a pedestal. Framed above it is a Buddhist saying that is a metaphor for her new life. It says, simply,
I have arrived.
I am home.