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Queens Chronicle

Former inmates share prison and life stories

As part of the Fortune Society’s arts week, clients bare all in ‘Castle II’

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Posted: Thursday, May 1, 2014 10:30 am | Updated: 11:40 am, Thu May 8, 2014.

Victor Rojas, Thomas Jones, Vilma Ortiz Donovan and Rory Anderson all arrived at the Castle for the same reason: They were broke, homeless and recently released from prison with no place to turn.

The four all came from different circumstances and made different choices throughout their lives but their paths converged when they came upon the Castle’s doorstep.

“Castle II,” a new play sponsored by the Fortune Society, allows the four to tell their stories in their own words and after a performance at Rutgers University, they brought the show home on Tuesday.

The Castle is a nickname given to the Fortune Academy — housing that operates under the Fortune Society program.

“The only requirements are that you have to be homeless and you had to have been previously incarcerated,” Rojas said.

As part of the Fortune Society arts week, David Rothenberg, founder of the program, directed the performance though his hand in the project is hardly noticeable, in a good way.

The accounts were all emotional and forced the performers to share some of the most vulnerable parts of themselves, something that is never easy to do.

“Violence was part of my life from a young age, I never questioned it,” Jones said, recalling his childhood in East New York. “It was like a rite of passage.”

The streets became Jones’ home when he ran away after his mother hung him out of an eighth-floor window. He was illiterate and without a family.

Eventually he was arrested and placed in solitary for 18 months where he obtained a dictionary and taught himself to read.

Rojas was molested by a babysitter’s boyfriend, Ortiz Donovan suffered from low self-esteem and dove into the wrong crowd, and Anderson got caught up in street violence.

The further the four got into their stories, the more similarities there were. All four started by hustling and eventually began experimenting with drugs at a young age and all but Anderson — who served 25 years for shooting a bodyguard during a bad drug deal — were repeat offenders.

“I had no self-esteem or self-worth but when I started selling coke, I was finally the star,” Ortiz Donovan said.

In the audience sat newer Fortune Society clients who recognized the strife and harsh reality of prison life. Many people’s eyes welled up and almost constantly, someone nodded his or her head in agreement of what was being shared on stage.

Though many stories were heartbreaking, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Jones and Rojas work at the Fortune Society as a narcotics counselor and family planning counselor, respectively, and all four are living in their own apartments.

But as Ortiz Donovan said, it’s not a happy ending yet, “every day is an uphill battle.”

While many events during Fortune Society’s arts week were meant to entertain, “Castle II” seemed to provide clients with something to aspire to.

Rojas, Jones, Ortiz Donovan and Anderson all came out of prison unsure of what would happen to them, much like those who are now working with the Fortune Society.

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