In D.C., life after prison poses extra challenges for youths convicted as adults
A metal gate clinks behind him, and suddenly Gary Durant finds himself between two worlds, standing amid 47 large dogs at the upscale doggy day care where he now works, thinking of the inmates at the prison he just left.
All animals, it seems, act the same when caged.
Several of the dogs bump their muscular bodies in a test of boundaries. Others lie on beds against the wall, keeping to themselves.
“Break it up!” a fellow worker booms as one pooch pounces on another, drawing a crowd. The blond-furred offender is led to a segregated area.
“Some dogs,” Durant says, watching, “they just live in timeout.”
Durant, a reserved 24-year-old with a chiseled 6-1 frame, spent almost seven years in three different prisons for his role in a shootout that left a teenager dead. Two of those years were passed in solitary confinement after fights with other inmates.
Released in February, Durant is among hundreds of ex-offenders who return to the District each year with felonies on their records, looking to navigate a city that doesn’t resemble the one they left.
But for him and others like him, that challenge is even more fraught. They were still boys when they were first swept into the adult criminal-justice system. Charged and convicted as adults, the adjustment of coming home is less about reestablishing stability than in finding new footing without much of a foundation.
At least 678 juveniles have been charged as adults in the District since 2002, and about 60 more will probably find themselves in that position next year, according to Free Minds, a book club and writing workshop that provides regular discussions with young inmates and helps them reenter society once they come home.
Tara Libert, co-founder of the D.C.-based organization, has met almost every juvenile held as an adult at the D.C. jail over the past decade and describes Durant as both typical and a standout. Typical because he’s a young black man from a rough neighborhood and struggling family. A standout because of his sensitive nature and extraordinary potential — a star high school athlete who seemed destined for college before he let the pull of a trigger put him on a far different path.
“Once you’re in that system, it’s like quicksand — you can’t get out,” Libert says. “To me, Gary represents everything that is wrong with this system.”
‘A golden child’
Durant was 7 years old, running to catch a Metro bus after school, when the driver stopped, looked him over and asked whether he played any sports.
He didn’t. His parents hadn’t enrolled him in T-ball or pee-wee football. In an eight-page autobiography Durant would later write in prison, he describes a drug-addicted mother who fed her habit while she was pregnant with him and a “deadbeat” father who once left him in a bathtub, where he almost died.
“When my mother finally realized that she wasn’t ready to take care of a baby, she left me on my grandparents’ doorstep with a [soiled] diaper and a piece of candy,” Durant writes.
Durant begged his grandparents to sign him up for football. Soon, he was on a field practicing three or four times a week, crying on the days he couldn’t go because he hadn’t finished his homework.
“It was meant for me to play,” he says.
One of Durant’s earliest football coaches describes him as “phenomenal athlete.”
“Gary was a golden child,” says William Fitchett, who saw a talent in him that rivaled one in another student who went on to play for the New England Patriots.
By his junior year at Spingarn High School, Durant was the team’s quarterback and was named a first-team defensive back by the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association. In basketball, he was the top scorer for the Northeast Washington school. A letter from a scouting agency read: “Based on the athletic ability our scout observed, Gary appears to be someone that college coaches should consider for a Basketball scholarship.”
But even as his star was rising on the court, his life was falling into disarray off of it. His grandparents had died within a month of each other, and he was living with his mother in the Langston Terrace neighborhood. He began hanging with an older crowd of friends who sold drugs to buy what they couldn’t otherwise afford: cars, the latest shoes, jewelry. At 16, by his own account, he was caught carrying a gun — which he says he had for protection — and sentenced to two months in a juvenile facility.
He would be home only months before another weapon would again cost him his freedom.
The day of the shooting, Jan. 6, 2007, two rival groups exchanged gunfire in Northeast Washington, according to authorities. When it was over, more than 80 shell casings littered the ground, and Lovell Harrison, 17, lay dying from a wound to the chest.
Durant, 17 at the time, was the youngest of his friends charged with second-degree murder; the others were in their 20s. During his trial, a detective testified that Durant fired a gun that day but that it wasn’t his bullet that hit Harrison.
Almost seven years later, Durant struggles to explain what the bloodshed was about. He had played neighborhood sports with Harrison and recognizes that he could have easily been the one killed. “I think it was all about pride,” he says.
Durant, like the others, pleaded guilty to manslaughter. At his sentencing, his public defender, Santha Sonenberg, reminded the judge that because Durant was a teenager, his brain was not fully mature, and she argued that he didn’t need a long sentence to turn himself around.
“Mr. Durant has a potential recognized by virtually everyone who has had the privilege of meeting him,” Sonenberg wrote in a memo to the court. “He has a potential undersigned counsel has hardly ever seen in the years she has been handling criminal cases.”