Former D.C. inmate writes guide to life outside jail
By ROBERT E. PIERRE
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — At 31, Eddie B. Ellis couldn't drive, figure out the Metro or stand the hustle-and-bustle of crowds. After 15 years behind bars, activities that others took for granted terrified him.
He had to find a job, make money for food and to pay bills, endure the stigma of being a felon and stay away from the street life that had gotten him locked up in the first place.
"I did half my life in jail," said Ellis, who turns 33 this month. "It's easier for me to go back in there and live that life because it's less responsibility. Out here, things are harder."
So when he was released in August 2006, Ellis started work on "The Window of Opportunity Pre-Release Handbook," to help others make the transition. His 52-page book is full of contacts and organizations that can help the newly released, or those about to be released, find housing, jobs and government agencies that assist ex-offenders. He spent last year researching the project and self-published it in February.
He sells it for $25 (less for larger quantities) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The handbook's news-you-can-use is mixed with encouraging words to lift the spirits of men and women accustomed to being told when to eat, sleep, work and go outside for recreation. Similar guides are offered by the Public Defender Service and the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. Ellis's, however, is meant primarily for offenders. Two federal agencies that oversee those on parole and probation each purchased 100 copies.
The handbook "has been made available to our supervision staff so that they can better assist our clients with meeting their need for housing, health care, education and employment," said Cedric Hendricks, an associate director at Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, or CSOSA, the federal agency that oversees parole and probation.
Nearly 2,000 released inmates move into the District each year, from throughout the country. D.C. felons, as part of a deal with Congress, are housed in 75 facilities run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. Returning inmates often complain of being shunned by family members, neighbors and potential employers who are put off by their criminal backgrounds.
Ellis said inmates have to focus on themselves rather than others.
"We must put in overtime and work to keep our lives on track in order to remain free," Ellis writes in the booklet. "There are a lot of programs out there that can be of some help to us, and so we must use those programs to help get our lives back on track."
Getting back on track for Ellis has been difficult. His crimes make people cringe.
At 15, he was sent to the Oak Hill juvenile detention facility in Laurel on an armed robbery charge. He said he was innocent, and the court agreed, dismissing the case. But on Dec. 20, 1991, months after his release, he shot and killed another high school student during an argument. Ellis said it was self-defense, but he was convicted of manslaughter.
While in prison, he was implicated in another slaying and was sent to a supermax prison in Florence, Colo., considered the most secure federal prison in the United States because it has two layers of doors on each cell and houses people such as Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber.
"I didn't know what to think about him," said Tosha Trotter, a CSOSA supervisor, who met Ellis the day he got back from prison. She had to convince him that he needed to go to a residential program meant primarily for drug treatment even though he had never abused drugs. Ellis, unlike some prisoners, had not been assigned to a halfway house and was scheduled to go home with no transition period.
Trotter said that Ellis had done so much time in prison, going immediately to the streets could have been a disaster. Ellis consented, even though he had not spent time with his wife, whom he married in prison. They have since divorced. Ellis was assigned a supervision officer who works for Trotter, and he and Trotter continued to chat during his regular visits.
More than two years since then, Trotter realized that Ellis could help her train the people who supervise offenders. At first, she asked him to speak to other returning prisoners about his experience and then, in the fall, she used him at a training session for new supervision officers. She put up Ellis's criminal history on an overhead projector and asked the men and women what they thought. Some wanted to know why he was out on the street. Ellis, sitting there the whole time, rose to tell them about his experience and his efforts in prison to prepare himself for life on the outside.
"It allowed them to see you're not dealing with a piece of paper," Ellis said. "I let them know that all of us are not monsters."
Ellis said that although inmates can't change how others view them, they can maintain a positive attitude and keep knocking on doors until someone takes a chance on them. In addition to his book project, Ellis works at a cleaning job and also speaks regularly to criminal justice classes at colleges in the District. He lives in Landover, Md., and has a new parole officer there, but returns to Trotter's office weekly to speak with men who are just returning home, to convince them that the decision to do right is their own.
He tells them that parole officers are not their friends and are not there to hold their hands. The decision to do right is theirs to make. Telling it to them reinforces what he needs to do on the days when he's not doing so well, he said.
"The parole board, the police can't make us do right," he said. "I want to do right for myself."
His journey back began with keeping a promise to himself and to other men he left behind in prison: to not be just one of those people who talk a good game but do nothing when they leave prison. His booklet is the first step.
"My life is trying to help people understand that people do make bad decisions and overcome them," he said. "You can't lock us out. We are part of your society."