In D.C., life after prison poses extra challenges for youths convicted as adults

September 28, 2013
Gary Durant was a celebrated athlete before entering the adult criminal justice system at 17. Now 24, he is trying to build a new life for himself after leaving prison. The Washington Post’s Zoeann Murphy shows how much of his days are now spent: working at a doggy day care. (The Washington Post)

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.”


Gary Durant, left, and John Becker work in a doggy day care and boarding facility in the District. Durant, who at 17 was convicted as an adult of manslaughter, was released from prison this year. Now 24, he is trying to make a new life for himself. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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 Durant stretches as he prepares to help coach high school football at the Randall Recreation Center in the District. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Gary Durant helps coach high school football players from Richard Wright Public Charter High School at the Randall Recreation Center. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“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.


Gary Durant finds a moment to relax at the doggy day care where he works in the District. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“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.”

‘Least effective outcome’

The U.S. attorney’s office ultimately decides whether a 16- or 17-year-old who commits murder, armed robbery or another violent crime in the District is charged as an adult. (Fifteen-year-olds can also be charged as adults if a judge makes that determination.)

Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, says the decision is made on a case-by-case basis and takes into consideration “factors such as the severity of the offense, whether a firearm was used in the crime, and the suspect’s criminal history, including prior juvenile adjudications.”

Nationally, there are about 250,000 juveniles in the adult system every year, a number that has remained steady even as the rate of juvenile crime has dipped. The difference between the juvenile system, which focuses on rehabilitation, and the adult system, which is more punitive in nature, is stark, experts say. It affects not only when they will be released, because juvenile facilities do not hold individuals past the age of 21, but also how equipped they will be to handle life on the outside.

Many juveniles housed in adult facilities do not receive drug treatment, mental-health therapy or educational services, says Jessica Sandoval, the deputy director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, which works to end the practice of charging those younger than 18 as adults. Youths who land in adult facilities are also more likely to be held in solitary confinement, commit suicide and re-offend once released.

“It’s the most-expensive option with the least-effective outcome,” Sandoval says.

Durant, who served his time at three federal facilities across the country, describes prison as a place so rough that D.C. residents who were rivals on the outside came together on the inside for protection. When he was in solitary confinement, he says, he welcomed the calm, even if he often didn’t get enough to eat, had only one hour a day to walk outside in a caged-in area and was regularly belittled by guards. When he was released this year from a prison in Victorville, Calif., he was given $70 and a bus ticket back to the District.

What he used to be

Durant looks tired. He has just finished his shift at the doggy day care, where he has been working as many hours as possible, earning $9 for each.


Tired from an overnight shift , Gary Durant rests his head at the doggy day care where he works in the District. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

He’s amazed that some people pay $1,000 a month for someone to babysit their pets, but he’s grateful to have found an employer who looked past his record. Even when he’s not on duty, he often wears the collared shirt emblazoned with the company’s name. He has it on at Anacostia High School as he and three other former inmates with Free Minds prepare to tell their stories to students from some of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Durant doesn’t say much — he never does — until he is introduced. Then his story spills out, matter-of-factly.

“I got locked up for murder at 17 for hanging with the wrong group of people,” he says. “Hanging with the wrong group of people can mess your whole life up. Just being there.”

He looks one lanky young man in the eyes, not knowing the boy’s father is a drug dealer and his mother is worried her son will go the way of his cousin, who landed in jail.

Durant tells everyone in the room to turn to a page in a book where they will find a poem he wrote titled “Used To Be.”

“I used to be that person that would stand on the corner selling drugs trying to keep up with the Joneses,” he begins. He ends: “I used to be a boy but now I’m a man. A man with goals and a man that plans to live and not to ever become that used to be person again.”

No limits?

At Free Minds’ office, the staff keeps a long list of things an adult with a felony conviction in the District cannot do. On it: sitting on a federal jury, living in public housing, enlisting in the armed forces, working any job that requires federal security clearance or unescorted access to airport security areas or the inspection of poultry or meat.

Tara Libert says she often worries whether the group is setting up some of the young men they encounter in the D.C. jail for disappointment after their release from prison. “We always say, ‘You can do anything,’ ” she says. “But actually they can’t.”


Gary Durant gets a hug from Tara Libert, co-founder and executive director of Free Minds, a book club and writing workshop for young inmates, after members of the group speaks to at-risk students at Anacostia High School. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Juvenile records are often sealed, but adult convictions show up during job and apartment ­searches.

Libert says she has seen former inmates sent back to prison because they couldn’t find a job and, as a result, were found in violation of their probation. One of Free Minds’ more successful past members recently made manager at a Chipotle, “which is huge,” Libert says. “Huge.”

Anthony Pleasant was 16 when his role as a lookout led to him being charged as an adult with armed robbery and second-degree murder. Now 27, he was released in April and still doesn’t know how to use Facebook or his smartphone for anything more than calls.

He says he understands jailing juveniles for their crimes but also thinks that their records should be expunged to avoid handing them a second punishment.

“If I wanted to go to the Army, I can’t go to the Army. If I wanted to be a police officer, I can’t be a police officer,” he says. “If I wanted to be a lawyer, I can’t be a lawyer.”

Instead, every morning, he gets up at 4:17 a.m. to catch three buses to his job riding a recycling truck.

‘Stay focused’

For a brief moment on a field in Southwest Washington, Gary Durant is a quarterback again.

“Down! Set! Hut!” he shouts before gracefully sweeping around on one foot and handing off the ball to a young man with his future still in front of him.

On this afternoon, Durant is helping coach the players from Richard Wright Public Charter School, where his old coach, William Fitchett, now works. Durant runs alongside the teenagers, showing them how to move and, ideally, win.


Gary Durant, fourth from the right, runs with high school football players from Richard Wright Public Charter High School in Northeast Washington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Gary Durant helps coach high school football players from Richard Wright Public Charter High School at the Randall Recreation Center, off South Capitol Street. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“You’re not going to let this man get past you!” Durant tells a 17-year-old who wears large diamond stud earrings and whose bare chest is covered with tattoos.

Later, when the players huddle, Durant will tell them what in many ways he has been telling himself these past several months: “Y’all can do it. Y’all just got to stay focused.”

For the first time in his life, he has opened a bank account, has a credit card and plans to file taxes. After putting off enrolling in Prince George’s Community College, he’s been offered the chance to play football at Bowie State University. But only if he can score the minimum 820 on the SAT.

When Durant speaks about the possibility of Bowie, he smiles, but his voice remains flat. He says he’s afraid to get too excited: “I guess I’m just so used to being disappointed.”

That day at practice with the Richard Wright team, Durant lingers on the field afterward, talking with assistant coach Garrette Ferguson. The two just met but find themselves casually swapping the names of prisons across the country.

Ferguson, 39, has stood in the same prison-issued shoes as Durant. “Used to be bad as hell,” Ferguson says. He was 16 when he was charged as an adult.

“If you’re lucky enough to come home from that, you just need a chance,” he says.

He tells Durant that he sometimes drives through his old neighborhood just to remind people he’s still alive.

“Honestly, though, I don’t even do that,” Durant says. “I see people all the time I used to hang out with, and I just keep driving.”

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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