BILLERICA — On a cold March day, Angel Garcia stood in a snowy parking lot outside the Middlesex County Jail wearing only a sweatshirt and shorts that were still stained with grass from his arrest in August.
The leader of a Lowell street gang, Garcia barely had time to shiver before two men approached him, exchanged hand shakes, and led him to a waiting car. It sped off, whisking Garcia, just released on parole, back to his hometown of Lowell.
What would happen in the days and weeks to follow would be critical to whether the 24-year-old, whose record includes theft and drug charges, would resume his life with Lowell's Young Gunners gang or find his way to employment, skills, and a place in today's economy.
Johnny Chheng and Jonathan Lunde, outreach workers at a Lowell nonprofit, would try to steer him away from friends who sell drugs and carry guns as well as enemies who nurse grudges and carry guns. They would give him a job, a home away from home, a chance.
The rest would be up to Angel.
But time was not his friend. Research shows that the 72 hours after release are critical, that those first few days offer a window when an ex-convict can sometimes be set on the path toward rejoining society, rather than returning to associations, activities, and behaviors that are all but certain to steer them back to crime and incarceration.
The stakes are high, not only for young offenders like Garcia, but also for the state, which has seen its prison population triple since the 1980s and now spends nearly $600 million a year to keep 11,000 people in state prisons.
Chheng and Lunde would not say what Garcia's chances were, but their success rate in helping gang members resist the undertow is good: just 15 percent of the young people they work with return to jail. At 24, Garcia had spent his adult life in and out of jail, frequently in solitary confinement — the price for angry outbursts and fights in the penal system.
But in the last seven months, Garcia had become a model inmate, winning parole and leaving Chheng and Lunde hopeful that they had built a fragile trust.
"I know I gotta go the right way," Garcia said as Chheng and Lunde drove him back to Lowell that day. "It's jail or death if I don't."
Garcia has never held a job or a driver's license. He was expelled from Lowell High School for fighting. His criminal record dates back at least five years, when he was 19 and stole a bicycle outside Hobart's Country Store in Tewksbury. Garcia and his friends used the door of their SUV to knock over a 12-year-old boy and grab his bike.
His offenses many involving drugs, grew more serious as he worked his way up in Lowell street gangs, first in MLS, or Moon Light Strangers, an offshoot of a Stockton, Calif. gang, and later YG, or Young Gunners, affiliated with the Bloods street gang.
As he rose from soldier to gang leader, he not only committed crimes, but recruited younger gang members who stole cars, sold drugs, and brought mayhem to the streets. He watched some friends die.
In 2013, Garcia was dealing oxycodone, a high-powered painkiller, from his family's home in Lowell's Centralville neighborhood. Addicts banged on windows and doors day and night. Finally, in August of that year, his mother, Elsie, a school bus driver, had had enough. She called Lowell police and handed them a baggie of oxycodone tablets she said had fallen out of her son's shorts.
"She is tired of this and afraid for her safety and her family's," the police report said. At the time, Garcia had three other open drug cases, according to court records.
A year later, on another summer night in August, a young mother called police sobbing and hyperventilating because someone had smashed a window at the back of her home. She locked herself in her infant's room and called 911.
Police arrested Garcia as he scrambled to get away through a side yard. He said he had been attacked and was attempting to hide in the house, but later pleaded guilty to breaking and entering, as well as marijuana possession, and was sentenced to 18 months in the Middlesex County House of Correction.
His mother, in a recent interview, said she was skeptical her son would reform, describing him as wild and hard-headed.
"He entered the wrong path," she said. "Let's just see if he gets to the right one."
Chheng, 29, and Lunde work for UTEC, or the United Teen Equality Center, a nonprofit that operates in a newly renovated church in downtown Lowell, across the street from the city's district court.
The agency has expanded its mission from teenagers, and works with many 20-somethings, who congregate around the center's couches, pool tables, and gym. Counselors meet in classrooms with young men and women to help them get GEDs and driver's licenses, or prepare them to work at the agency's cafe, or UTEC's mattress recycling factory in Lawrence.
At any given time, the group works with about 130 young people, including more than 50 gang members, finding employment for more than half of them, often the first jobs they have ever held. Chheng and Lunde are part of a team of four people who work on the streets — and in prisons and jails — reaching out to gang members, trying to show them another way.
Chheng came to the job in 2009 after serving five years in state prison for the violent beating of a young man trying to exit the Cambodian gang Chheng led in Lowell. It was a sort of reverse initiation, members who left the gang were "jumped out," or beaten up, in this case, with crowbars and padlocks in socks. The victim was left in a coma for 10 days.
Chheng, 27, had worked on Garcia for years, seeing him on the streets and inviting him to UTEC, but Garcia always rebuffed his offers. And so when Garcia, in jail for the recent burglary, signed up for UTEC meetings, Chheng said he felt excitement.
Chheng and Lunde, a veteran streetworker who shed a heroin addiction almost a decade ago, visited Garcia regularly for months, talking to him about jail food, mutual acquaintances, and the idea of starting over with a "clean slate." During a visit three weeks before his release, Garcia asked them if they would pick him up from jail on the day of his release.
"I'll be good, chillin'," Garcia told them. "Coming out clean."
The guards escorted Garcia back to his cell, and Chheng and Lunde to the lobby. Lunde, who has worked with inmates for two years, looked at Chheng.
"I think Angel's ready," he said.
Chheng and Lunde waited nervously for two hours for Garcia on that freezing early March morning, jumping out of the car whenever they thought they saw him coming. When Garcia finally stepped off the prison van, he looked thin, his eyes red and bleary.
"Welcome home, bro," Chheng said.
"I'm starvin'," responded Garcia, who said he hadn't been able to sleep.
They stopped at an IHOP, where Garcia plowed through a scrambled eggs breakfast followed by French toast stuffed with whip cream. There was no swagger as Garcia sat in the backseat of the car, belly full and face tilted toward the warm afternoon sun.
Chheng talked him through the next steps, his casual tone growing increasingly serious.
Be honest with your parole officer, Chheng said. He'll visit your home, so be nice and neat. Don't leave ashtrays or beer bottles out. And don't bring gang friends or acquaintances home. Those interactions were forbidden under the terms of your parole, as is "getting all flamed-out" in the trademark red colors of the YG gang.
"You're a grown man," Chheng said. "You make the decisions."
Chheng alternated between chatty banter and drill sergeant tones because every moment that he kept Garcia's attention counted. So many like him fail to make it.
In Massachusetts, six of every 10 young people released from prison commits a new crime within six years, according to a study by MassINC, a Boston think tank. Many reoffend early in their release; a California study found that almost one-third of parolees there were rearrested within 30 days of release.
Anne Morrison Piehl, an Rutgers University economics professor who has studied the effects of incarceration, said getting and holding a job — especially a good job — is an effective way to reduce recidivism. But a job alone is not the answer to the riddle of whether someone like Garcia can change.
"The challenges are serious," Piehl said.
At dusk, Lunde drove Garcia to his mother's apartment, his first time home in many months. The apartment was dark, except for the cramped kitchen, where Garcia's 30-year-old sister, Carmen Soldevila, and 19-year-old brother, as well as another friend, sat at a table.
Garcia's sister offered him a half-hearted hug. "I hope he's learned his lesson," she said.
Three days later, Lunde was sitting at his UTEC desk, drinking coffee, when Garcia appeared in the doorway. It was 9 a.m. and Garcia had appeared, dressed in black and on time for a day of testing — for drugs at the parole office, then for aptitude at UTEC. "He showed up," Lunde thought. "That's big."
Bigger still was that Garcia stayed at the center after the tests, relaxing on its couches and mingling with other young people. In the following days, Garcia visited UTEC several times, kept appointments with his parole officer, and tested negative for drugs.
Counselors scheduled a tour of the mattress recycling facility in Lawrence, where he could get a $9 per hour job dismantling mattress coils from fabric and wood.
UTEC works with about 55 new recruits a year. Thirty-two of the 55 youth who completed UTEC's program in 2014 gained jobs, a success rate of nearly 60 percent.
Chheng visited Garcia at home everyday, sometimes unannounced. Garcia no longer talked like a gang member, dropping expressions like "blood" this and "blood" that from his speech. Also gone: his red shoelaces, red shirt, red baseball hat.
One week after his release, Chheng took Garcia back to IHOP for breakfast. Over orange juice and eggs, Garcia asked Chheng if he would help mediate percolating conflicts with his enemies in rival gangs. He said he wanted a "clean slate."
It was a major breakthrough, Chheng said, the culmination of two years of trying — and mostly failing — to reach Garcia. Influential and respected gang circles, Garcia, if he succeeded in this turnaround, could send a powerful message to the young men who looked up to him.
"It was a big score for me, big," Chheng said. "He used to walk around carrying a gun in his clothing. Now he doesn't even carry a sharp pencil."
Garcia had been free for 13 days when the UTEC office got the unsurprising but dreaded call. Angel was back in jail, his girlfriend, Sade Mansaray, announced. Sometime in the last week, Garcia had been hanging downtown with YG gang members, drawing the attention of police. Officers frisked the group and one of the gang, a juvenile, had a 40-caliber handgun in his pants.
For Garcia, it was a plain violation of the rules. His parole officer revoked his parole and picked him up a couple days later. Soon Garcia was back in jail.
"He should stay away from those friends," Mansaray said in an interview. "The whole time he's in jail, they don't do anything for him. They don't keep him company. They don't write him or send him money. But he doesn't listen."
Chheng and Lunde drove to the jail the next day, and met Garcia in a cinderblock conference room. He seemed deflated and sullen, back in a tan prison uniform with the word "INMATE" in black letters across his back.
Other inmates had taunted him before his release, saying he'd be back soon. Lunde said he seemed a bit ashamed that their predictions were right. He didn't have much to say about why he returned to his gang friends. He just said he lost focus.
"I was heartbroken," Chheng recalled. "We had a lot of plans for him, and everything just washed away."
If Chheng felt that way, he did not show it; each day, he said, offers a clean slate. "Don't drift away," Chheng told Garcia. "Think about what it's like in that cell."
On Friday, about a month after he broke parole, Garcia was released again from the Middlesex County Jail. In the parking lot, in a dark green Hyundai, Chheng and Lunde were waiting.