After Prison, New Sets Of Barriers

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By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

At 31, Eddie B. Ellis couldn't drive, figure out the Metro or stand the hustle-and-bustle of crowds. After 15 years behind bars, activities that others took for granted terrified him.

He had to find a job, make money for food and to pay bills, endure the stigma of being a felon and stay away from the street life that had gotten him locked up in the first place.

"I did half my life in jail," said Ellis, who turns 33 this month. "It's easier for me to go back in there and live that life because it's less responsibility. Out here, things are harder."

So when he was released in August 2006, Ellis started work on "The Window of Opportunity Pre-Release Handbook," to help others make the transition. His 52-page book is full of contacts and organizations that can help the newly released, or those about to be released, find housing, jobs and government agencies that assist ex-offenders. He spent last year researching the project and self-published it in February.

He sells it for $25 (less for larger quantities) and can be reached at eddieellis_ebe@yahoo.com.

The handbook's news-you-can-use is mixed with encouraging words to lift the spirits of men and women accustomed to being told when to eat, sleep, work and go outside for recreation. Similar guides are offered by the Public Defender Service and the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. Ellis's, however, is meant primarily for offenders. Two federal agencies that oversee those on parole and probation each purchased 100 copies.

The handbook "has been made available to our supervision staff so that they can better assist our clients with meeting their need for housing, health care, education and employment," said Cedric Hendricks, an associate director at Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), the federal agency that oversees parole and probation.

Nearly 2,000 released inmates move into the District each year, from throughout the country. D.C. felons, as part of a deal with Congress, are housed in 75 facilities run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. Returning inmates often complain of being shunned by family members, neighbors and potential employers who are put off by their criminal backgrounds.

Ellis said inmates have to focus on themselves rather than others.

"We must put in overtime and work to keep our lives on track in order to remain free," Ellis writes in the booklet. "There are a lot of programs out there that can be of some help to us, and so we must use those programs to help get our lives back on track."

Getting back on track for Ellis has been difficult. His crimes make people cringe.

At 15, he was sent to the Oak Hill juvenile detention facility in Laurel on an armed robbery charge. He said he was innocent, and the court agreed, dismissing the case. But on Dec. 20, 1991, months after his release, he shot and killed another high school student during an argument. Ellis said it was self-defense, but he was convicted of manslaughter.


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