On Dec. 4, 2018, I was released from the Federal Bureau of Prisons after spending 24 years, eight months and 15 days in prison for a crime I committed as an uneducated, unstructured, foolish, immature, and reckless 17-year-old.
As we mark Second Chance Month, I present myself as someone who has not only benefited from a second chance, but who can serve as an example of how others can benefit from the services available to returning citizens—and offer some ideas about how we can better support those coming home.
First, here’s my story.
I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., in what is referred to today as the Shaw Corridor. I grew up in a neighborhood riddled with gun violence and open-air drug sales during an era when that was considered normal.
As a brash kid, I made one of the worst mistakes of my life. I didn’t wake up one morning thinking that I would do something violent, nor did I plan for it to happen, but I fired a gun that killed another human being. When I was arrested, I still had not grasped the severity of my crime and I was living in denial. I was unable to comprehend that I was likely going to spend the remainder of my life in a prison cell.
The impact of my time in prison was real and it was transformative. It was real because it showed that what I did was inexcusable and would not be tolerated by society. It was transformative because it caused me to deliberately focus on change.
I finally reckoned with the trauma I had experienced growing up in a community plagued by extreme violence and learned that, no, that was not normal. I wanted to change to be a better person, son, sibling, father, grandfather, community member and a better man for our society.
My time in prison was a real challenge, but away from the dangerous community of my youth it also provided that solitude and space for growth.
I went through the early years of my life while incarcerated trying to find the real me. It was buried deep within me, but I didn’t know how to bring him out in a nourishing way, so he remained lost until I was lucky to meet a mentor.
His name was Lucius F. McCoy-Bey Sr., and he tutored and mentored me for two years before he was released. He infused me with a new life by increasing my capacity of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. This provided me with a glimpse of hope. It was not just a dream, but a second chance that could be accomplished through a structured lifestyle and education.
Thanks to his encouragement, I entered educational courses with a vigor and drive to succeed. These opportunities were never made available to me in my developmental years. Had they been, perhaps I and the countless other youth of my generation could have envisioned a different life beyond violence.
Degree in Business
While incarcerated I earned my GED and enrolled in Allegheny College where I earned my undergraduate degree in business. After I jump-started my life, I began tutoring others who needed help earning their education, ranging from GED prep to the basics of learning how to read.
While awaiting my petition for re-sentencing, I was afforded an opportunity to continue my mentorships to young adults through a unit in the DC Jail called Young Men Emerging (YME).
The initiative allowed me to help guide 18-25 year old incarcerated young men to their personal and professional goals. During that time, it also helped me think about my reentry and the type of goals I wanted to succeed if I was granted relief.
The day my plan became actionable was Dec. 4, 2018, after my motion for sentencing relief was granted through the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016 (IRAA). The IRAA was passed in response to the research showing that maturity, impulse control and decision making are still developing for youth and young adults. The law was written to provide a second chance to people like me.
My story, and others celebrated during April, provide support for a wholesale rethinking of America’s approach to extreme prison sentences. Incarceration must be based on acceptance of responsibility and taking steps to improve your life, not simply to punish.
Long prison terms do little to achieve those important goals. Instead, they too often extinguish hope and frustrate efforts made by countless people to turn their lives around and return to their communities to give something back.
I can do much more to change the lives of the next generation in my community, acting as a mentor, than locked up behind bars. And there are many others, just like me, sitting in prison and waiting for their second chance.
It’s long past time we reach out a helping hand and bring them home.
Tyrone Walker is Georgetown University Pivot Program Fellow and is also working as an intern with the Justice Policy Institute. His testimony last month before the Washington, DC Council on the Second Look Amendment Act of 2019 is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.