Sundiata Keitazulu stands out among the candidates running for mayor in New Haven, CT, and it’s not just his name that makes him different. He’s freely admits to having sold drugs, running a Three-Card Monte scam, being homeless for a time, and being a convicted felon. There is no degree from a prestigious university hanging on his wall – he earned a G.E.D. while incarcerated. But, that’s not what makes him stand out.
His ideas for reducing recidivism could be torn from a best-practice handbook. But Keitazulu ideas weren’t copied from one. He knows what will work because he lived through the experience of incarceration and reentry. Reentry Central sat down with Keitazulu on June 12 to learn more about the man and his mission.
Born 56 years ago as John Brown Denby, Keitazulu changed his name as an adult to honor his heritage. Born and raised in New Haven Keitazulu experienced wanderlust in the 1970’s and set out to find cousins in Philadelphia. His time in the City of Brotherly Love was spent sleeping on trains and in abandoned houses. He earned money selling blood, and scamming people with his Three-Card Monte game. He also sold drugs to eat, and for a time collected welfare. His love affair with Philadelphia soon ended, and he headed back to New Haven. His life there wasn’t much better.
Fortunately, his paternal uncles were carpenters, plumbers and electricians, and Keitazulu picked up some skills from them. But, not earning enough to support himself, he again started selling drugs. Keitazulu was convicted of possession with intent to sell 19 bags of cocaine. The judge sentenced him to 19 years in prison, which amounted to one year for each bag of he was caught with. Keitazulu was stunned and angry. He said all he learned in prison was “hate, hate, hate.” But he learned a bit more, too.
Before funding for educational programs were cut from corrections budgets across the country, Keitazulu was able to study business, accounting and marketing, skills he would need when released with little else going for him. Keitazulu served 10 years and returned to New Haven, again homeless and hungry. When asked if he availed himself of any reentry services he replied that he didn’t know of any reentry programs. Doing odd jobs for his uncles allowed him to save up some money and to start his own small business. Because he was a convicted felon, Keitazulu was barred from obtaining a plumbing license, even though his crime had nothing to do with that occupation. He bought an inexpensive device to unclog drains, known as a “snake” and reinvented himself as Nate the Snake. With the profits he made, he bought another one to unclog toilets and his entrepreneurial business was born.
Refusing to grant occupational licenses to convicted felons is a national disgrace, says Keitazulu. He is pushing for striking such laws off the books. And that’s just for starters. Along with sound reentry practices today, Keitazulu would like to see “no entry” become the norm in the near future. His vision for keeping people out of prison is to pour more money into creating jobs, instead of housing prisoners. Keitazulu believes that while the New Haven Promise, which is a City-Yale initiative that provides college scholarships for New Haven students who do well in school, have a low absentee rate and perform community service, is admirable, not every student is college material, or is interested college. One of Keitazulu’s visions is to create vocational-technical schools that will teach students job skills that will help them find employment after graduation. If Keitazulu has his way, a school day would consist of academic learning coupled with an apprenticeship at a local business or industry. Having a stable job is conducive to staying out of trouble, and thus part of a “no entry” program.
Keitazulu is also a firm believer in the “Pay for Success” model for funding non-profits. If, for example, a reentry program cannot provide evidence that its clients have been provided with promised services, and that a favorable outcome was produced, future funding would cut.
Keitazulu told Reentry Central that a huge part of the criminal justice system must be deconstructed and rebuilt again. That includes teaching prisoners skills before they are released. Money spent on vocational programs in prisons will yield a payoff in the future as recidivism rates drop, he says. Alternatives to incarceration programs should be stepped up. He still wonders why he was sentenced to prison for 19 years for a non-violent crime. Multiply that by hundreds, if not thousands, of other steep sentences, and calculate the cost, and then ask yourself is this where you want your tax dollars to go, he suggests.
When asked if he believes that those with a criminal past can be redeemed, Keitazulu answers that most can. He cites himself as an example. With the odds stacked against him, he turned his life around. He says there are millions of other people just looking for the opportunity to prove themselves, but society sometimes won’t give them a chance. The stigma of a criminal conviction is what binds good people to poverty, and that’s when good people can make bad decisions. Poverty, states Keitazulu, is what motivates crime. Jobs can reduce crime.
If he wins the mayoral race Keitazulu would implement a reentry program that focuses on job training. Contractors doing business with the New Haven,which already has a Ban-the-Box policy in place, would have to show what percentage of their employees are from New Haven, and what percentage have a previous conviction. He would reach out to some of the top employers in the city to ask them to hire qualified people with a criminal record who have redeemed themselves, instead of just talking about having such a policy in place. He would encourage Yale to help fund voc-tech schools, and to hire the graduates. Investing in reentry programs is another way Yale can help revitalize the city, concludes Keitazulu. It makes sense, he states, to provide a safe environment for Yale students, by adding jobs for marginalized people, such as reentrants.
When told that Yale President-Elect Peter Salovey told Reentry Central that he believes that people should be given a second chance, otherwise recidivism rates would continue to spiral upward, Keitazulu said he hoped that Salovey would put his words into action.
Keitazulu spends his spare time spreading his message and seeking campaign donations.The odds of Sundiata Keitazulu winning the mayoral race in New Haven are tiny, but whoever does win would do well to take on Keitazulu as a reentry consultant. This unlikely candidate’s ideas can make New Haven a safer city and better city.
Contact information for Sundiata Keitazulu is:
Sundiata Keitazulu, 209 Shelton Avenue, New Haven, CT 06511