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