36 years behind bars is something most individuals can hardly fathom, but a REAL LIFE participant by the name of Darrell has lived that reality.
He was born in Harlem Hospital, in New York City. His mother was a Native American Indian and his father an African American. He was also raised in a substantially religious household. His mother was a Buddhist, his paternal grandmother Jehovah’s Witness, and his father a Muslim by the time he returned from prison. Darrell was close with his mother who helped raise him in his early years while his father was in and out of the prison system. Circa the age of ten, his mother was killed and not long after, when his father had been out of prison for three months, he too was killed. Before his adolescence had even truly began, he was orphaned. He then went to live with his grandmother in Norfolk, Virginia, and while attending high school took a keen interest to sports—especially football—but not as enthusiastically to academics. This earned him probation from sports and school, and later time in a juvenile facility. A facility much akin to what is colloquially referred to as ‘juvey’. Circa the age of 18, he was released, but then began ‘running the streets’.
Over time, Darrell got into Morgan State University and was planning on attending after returning to Virginia for a brief while. There, one of his friends Maria, a prostitute, hadn’t been paid the promised sum by a client of hers, and Darrell alongside her boyfriend resolved to seek this man out to make him pay the sum. They found the man, an older man, in a drunken stupor on a cold night, and while in a drug-induced haze, murdered the man, and the friend threw him off the bridge. When confronted by the authorities, Darrell was ready to confess until he learned part of the plea bargain was admitting the culpability of his friend. According to Darrell, ‘snitching’ violates the code of the streets. He was at the Southampton Correctional Facility for some time, where he was even afforded the opportunity to earn an Associate’s Degree, which he did in the topic of business. Inmates were permitted to study in a variety of fields, with the exception being the topic of criminal justice—lest the inmate learn more about the system and begin to petition. As time progressed, one of Darrell’s friends was to be transferred to the Spring Street Prison which was located in Richmond. Quickly, in a desire to stay alongside his friend, he also requested to be transferred to the notorious Spring Street—a decision he would soon come to regret.
Spring Street was where the hardest of criminals in Virginia went. Within his first 24 hours of being at the new prison he was engaged in a knife fight and began to learn the severity of his new circumstance. He instantly regretted the decision he had made to transfer but knew that there was effectively no going back. The life of incarceration would be commonplace until his release in 2017. In that time, he would be party to myriad knife fights, a prison riot, time in solitary, parole boards, and the ins and outs of daily prison life.
Struggling for a moment to find the right words, he finally says “Prison (…) destroys your humanity. Prison destroys your hope. Prison destroys your character and turns you into whatever animal society sees you as because of your crime. Prison turns you that animal. (…) And a lot of guys do it. A lot of guys lose hope. A lot of guys commit suicide, a lot of guys get raped, (…) prison is hell on earth”. One thing Darrell made clear was that the men in the prison with him had done terrible things, there was no doubt about that, but when talking to them apart from the settings of prison or gang politics, many of them in his experience were intelligent and empathic towards him, and many often had dual personas. One that was the front for the rest of the community, and one that was the human side. He noted how some of the biggest, toughest men in the system would also often be the ones crying themselves to sleep at night.
Since his release, Darrell has been an active participant in the Real Life program in Richmond, and will be attending classes at University. Having spent thirty-six years in the prison system, he concedes that himself and others feel they know that system better than the world today at times, since our society has changed so drastically in less than four decades. Many men will often find ways to be incarcerated again to be in the system they are so familiar with rather than face being ostracized, and effectively having to start all over in society. As for Darrell, he is content where he is now and is on the path to continually progressing forward, in spite of but also because of his years in prison.
- Molly O’Hare, VCU Homeland Security/Political Science Major