Donald Moody, with Elm City ID / prepaid MasterCard: "That extra $500, it's a big thing." Thomas Breen | New Haven Independent

Donald Moody spent the first $200 that he received from a cash-transfer pilot program for formerly incarcerated New Haveners on basketball lessons for his stepson.

How might he use future monthly allotments under the year-long program?

On the occasional restaurant date with his wife and on regular insurance payments for his car and motorcycle and on the many, many other bills that come with living outside prison, Moody said.

And maybe on a tuxedo for his long-planned-for wedding ceremony this July, too.

Moody, a 45-year-old personal care assistant and New Haven native, got out of prison last spring after spending a quarter century behind bars for a murder he committed as a teenager.

He is also one of 20 New Haveners who have been tapped to receive $500 per month under a year-long, public-private pilot program designed to support people reacclimating to life outside of prison.

Moody, with his wife Joyce on Tuesday. Thomas Breen photo.

For Moody, that means having some much-needed extra cash on hand for the big and little things in life — from sports lessons to wedding prep.

“It means a lot, because while we was in prison, we really didn’t have that much responsibility. We come out here and we accumulate bills,” he said while still wearing his purple scrubs outside of a Warner Street apartment in Hamden where he was spending Tuesday afternoon looking after a patient.

He gestured towards the two-story building’s stairs and upper-level railing, where his wife Joyce and four friends — all of whom have served time in prison, some of whom were released just a few weeks ago — were standing and watching in support.

“That extra $500, it’s a big thing,” Moody continued. ​“Because things cost out here. Being away 25 years … I was given three meals a day. Now I have to experience the responsibility of car bills, insurance, spending time with my family.”

Top city officials and prison reentry nonprofit leaders announced the launch of the program — which is funded with $120,000 in private philanthropic dollars by the nonprofit 4‑CT and which allows participants to spend the cash aid on any expenses, without restrictions — at a Tuesday morning press conference at Project M.O.R.E.‘s headquarters at 830 Grand Ave.

The Independent and a handful of fellow local reporters caught up with Moody later Tuesday afternoon to hear not just from officials but also from one of the 20 New Haveners to benefit from this new effort.

Like the pilot’s other participants, Moody already has his Elm City ID card-turned-prepaid MasterCard. He’s already gotten his first $500 cash transfer. He should receive another $500 every 15th of the month through next February as the pilot’s managers track the prison reentry pilot’s success and figure out whether or not it should expand.

For now, Moody said, he’s grateful to be picked for the first phase of the pilot.

And he’s looking forward to not having to rely as much on his wife and friends to cover bills — and to be able to help them out instead.

“That extra cash can be a lifesaver,” he said on Tuesday. ​“I’m about to come into my first year” out of prison. ​“My wife has helped me out. Now it’s my time to be responsible.” That means, for example, covering the cost of his stepson’s basketball lessons himself.

Joyce Bellamy Moody, who started her own reentry nonprofit after getting out of prison herself, said that this cash-transfer pilot helps address what she has seen is one of the biggest reasons why people end up back in prison after being released: that is, ​“the bills they encounter when they get home.”

When the formerly incarcerated can’t land a stable job, she said, ​“they go back to what they know best.” This extra $500 per month will help Moody and other pilot participants ​“while they’re trying to get on their feet.”

That resonated with Larry McCown, a friend of Moody’s who said he just got out of prison three weeks ago after serving over 24 years behind bars.

“I think it’s great,” he said about the cash-transfer pilot, especially for those coming home who don’t have a job or family or friends there to support them. ​“You have to eat,” he added. ​“You need money to live.”

“Cash provides short-term stability”

Earlier in the day, top city officials and prison reentry nonprofit leaders gathered at Project M.OR.E.‘s headquarters and welcome center at 830 Grand Ave. to announce the program’s launch.

Mayor Justin Elicker, 4‑CT Executive Director Sarah Blanton, and Project M.O.R.E. Social Worker Raquel Ferguson said that 20 New Haven residents — all of whom got out of prison sometime in the last year and range in ages from mid-20s to mid-50s — will receive $500 each month for the next 12 months. 

They’ll get that money via an Elm City ID card that doubles as a pre-paid MasterCard and will be able to take out those funds as cash.

The first money-loaded cards were distributed to all 20 pilot program participants on March 15 and 17. Those cards will get a $500 boost every 15th of the month through next February.

Project M.O.R.E.’s Samantha Esposito and Raquel Ferguson, with Mayor Elicker at Tuesday’s press conference.,

All $120,000 for this pilot program is privately raised aid coming from 4‑CT, a statewide nonprofit created at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in a Lamont administration effort to funnel cash from private philanthropists to some of the state’s most in need. 

Working with 4‑CT and the city’s Department of Community Resilience, Project M.O.R.E. chose ​“clients who are motivated, ambitious, resourceful and overall in need,” Ferguson said during Tuesday’s press conference. 

She said the 20 clients — none of whom were in attendance at Tuesday’s presser because of work and other commitments — whom Project M.O.R.E. picked for this pilot program are people who ​“are motivated to gain employment, going on interviews,” but have not been able to make ends meet after getting out of prison and returning to New Haven.

Blanton said that the average income for the 20 participating in this pilot is under $14,000 per year. She also emphasized that, while 4‑CT and other program partners will generally keep track of how this basic-income-pilot money is spent, there are no restrictions on how participants can use these funds.

“What we’ve heard so far [from people participating in this program is] this money will be used for basic needs, child care costs, paying bills, job training programs and continuing education.” She said the ​“the first purchase made with one of these cards, by a father of two, was at a children’s shoe store.”

Elicker said that up to 32% of people released from state correctional facilities return to prison within a year of getting out. That number rises to up to 45% within two years, and up to 61% within three years.

“That’s an astonishing number of people that come out of prison and then recidivate and go back to prison,” the mayor said. ​“That’s a reflection on us as a society. We need to do more. People deserve a second chance. We need to do everything possible to provide a second chance.” This pilot program, he continued, is one step further in making sure people who get out of prison have the support they need to succeed when back in New Haven.

Elicker — who so far has declined to support a universal basic-income pilot with federal pandemic-relief aid that New Haven has received — also heralded the general concept of guaranteed basic-income programs. 

“There’s increasing evidence that if people have a baseline of income, they are more likely to succeed, they are more likely to have positive incomes. We are combing both a research-backed philosophy on providing guaranteed basic incomes and connecting that with some of the people that are most vulnerable in our community.”

Blanton and Ferguson agreed.

“Cash provides short-term stability,” Blanton said.

“These cards fill a significant need for our clients,” added Ferguson.

Everyone who spoke on Tuesday said that they hope this program will only expand if the year-long pilot proves to be successful.

Click here to read about a universal basic-income program in Stockton, California, which provided $500 per month for two years to 125 randomly selected residents living in neighborhoods with a median income of $46,033 or less. And click here to read about a guaranteed income pilot program specifically for formerly incarcerated residents in Durham, N.C. That one-year program, launched in March 2022, has provided 109 formerly incarcerated Durham residents with monthly stipends of $600.

“If you don’t want the help …”

Elicker and Blanton said that none of the 20 participants in this pilot were present at Tuesday’s presser because of a mix of work obligations and not wanting to speak publicly before the press about receiving such a benefit.

After the press conference was over, the Independent caught up with two formerly incarcerated New Haveners — both of whom work in maintenance for Project M.O.R.E. — by their work van in the Grand Avenue nonprofit’s parking lot.

Elvis Perez said that he recently finished a 10-month stint in federal prison, and was so grateful to be able to return to his maintenance job at Project M.O.R.E. in December.

How are things going in the few months since he returned from prison? ​“Excellent,” Perez said, in large part because he had a job to come back to. ​“They give you an opportunity to get back to society.”

How would he spend cash assistance if he were to receive $500 per month after getting out of prison?

“Pay some bills,” Perez said, including his mortgage.

Andrew Nelson, who currently works as the head of maintenance for Project M.O.R.E., said it’s been a long time since he got into trouble — roughly 25 years since he spent four or five months in prison on narcotics charges.

He said he succeeded in getting a pardon roughly a decade ago, and that that clean slate was one one of the biggest helps in getting his life back on track after prison.

Would $500 per month have been helpful for him when he got out of prison a quarter century ago?

Maybe, Nelson said. But also, maybe not.

“I probably would have gotten high” with that money, Nelson said, recognizing where he was in his life at the time when he went to and got out of prison. He’s well past that time in his life — and has been able to move past struggles with substance use and all the other activity that came with it.

Nelson stressed that it’s not just money that helps someone get their life together after prison. You also have to really want the help and set your mind to it in order to succeed after such hardship. ​“If you don’t want the help,” Nelson said, then $500 per month likely won’t be enough.

4-CT’s Sarah Blanton (center): “This money will be used for basic needs.” Thomas Breen photo

On Tuesday afternoon, a 4‑CT spokesperson followed up with the Independent to provide a photo and quote from one of the pilot program’s participants, AF Santiago. Santiago did not attend Tuesday’s presser because of a work obligation.

“We talk about these things a lot in the abstract, right? And so we don’t really see the impact that these things can have on people’s lives, especially when you’re first coming home,” Santiago is quoted as saying in 4‑CT’s email comment. ​“I think that the ingredients for a positive reentry outcome, in my opinion, must include critical family and/or community support and immediate access to vital reentry support services. This program can be a component of the latter. But even before release, education, training and a solid plan or idea for how to move forward once released is key. … 

“This program is an example of a resource that may help someone start over and get on a positive track. I will do anything I can to help make this a successful program, because anything I can do to help fight homelessness and help someone else stay out of prison is a win for me.”

This story was first published March 28, 2023 by New Haven Independent.