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Snake eyes on the street, he had a lucky roll in prison

Eric Van Buren is home from prison now, rebuilding a life thanks to lessons he learned while jailed and his invention of a new dice game

Eric Van Buren holds a pair of dice that he had custom-made for the board game version of Kokoro, which he invented while serving a life sentence at a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa. He also started a paralegal and mediation service. (Courtland Milloy/The Washington Post)
8 min

While serving a mandatory life sentence for drug dealing, something remarkable happened to Eric Van Buren. The Bowie High School graduate, Class of 1991, wrote and published a book about the law called “The Art of Winning Litigation.”

Housed at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., he began teaching law classes to inmates on criminal procedure and rules of evidence. He became a “jailhouse lawyer” and filed several motions that resulted in some inmates getting their sentences reduced.

His parents, Lester and Daphne, told me they are proud of those accomplishments. But they are also haunted by a question: “If he wanted to help get people out of jail,” his mother asked wistfully, “couldn’t he have skipped being incarcerated and still accomplished that?”

Maybe. Maybe not.

Prison life can be soul-crushing, life-draining and inhumane. Still, you’ll find inmates whose buried brilliance is revealed in novels, manifestos and poetry. But only after they are confined behind bars. They sing like opera stars, preach and teach; become painters, producing landscapes and portraits worthy of display in the finest art galleries.

Unless you attend a prison art show or poetry slam, you’d never know.

Van Buren’s creativity certainly was revealed. Besides the law. He also invented a sophisticated dice game in prison called Kokoro (which means heart, soul or spirit), that can be downloaded as an app.

He’d read about Kokoro in “The Book of Five Rings,” composed in 1645 by the undefeated Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi.

“Prison is like your greatest heartbreak, your greatest feeling of confusion and disdain all rolled into one and born anew every day,” Van Buren said. “Kokoro connotes the mental, emotional and spiritual states that can be used to resolve any discord within ourselves."

What was it about life in prison that could unleash such creativity and intellectual prowess?

In 2020, Van Buren was released from prison after serving 18 years of his life sentence. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, signed by President Barack Obama, had reduced the disparity in punishment for crack and powder cocaine — from 100 times more severe for crack down to 18 times more severe. But he would have to stay locked up for 10 more years, until a retroactive component was added to an updated version of the law and signed by President Donald Trump in 2018.

Van Buren had his sentence reduced to 22 years, with one year off for good behavior and another year to be served on supervised release.

He began shooting craps while in high school in the 1980s. He was good at it — knew that worn, unbalanced dice often produced patterns, with some numbers showing up more than others — and calibrated his betting accordingly. “I got lucky a lot,” he recalled. He would sometimes earn between $400 and $1,500 in a weekend, he said. Craps games also put him in touch with drug dealers, who also played high-roller games. One of the dealers convinced Eric that he could make a lot more money dealing cocaine and he could provide Eric with a steady supply.

By 1999, Eric’s good luck had run out.

Once in prison, he might have succumbed to bitterness, but he could see what happened to lifers who did. Some were so miserable they made themselves sick with resentment and died in prison. Some committed homicide in a fit of rage and ended up facing the death penalty for murder.

Van Buren, who was 29 when he entered prison, didn’t want to end up that way. So he stopped fighting — with himself most importantly.

“I decided that I was a failure,” he recalled. “I accepted it.”

He enrolled in a prison program that dealt with anger management, empathy, regret and forgiveness.

With a new attitude, he began visiting the prison law library, where he met Michael “Minkah” Norwood, Lewisburg’s legendary jailhouse lawyer. Norwood, who was teaching a law course from the D.C. Trial Manual, took Van Buren under his wing.

“He said I had an aptitude for the law, and that made me work harder at it,” Van Buren recalled.

He also met Ronald W. Pelton, a former communications specialist with the National Security Agency, who was serving a life sentence for spying for Russia. Pelton, who died last year, was known in prison as “the math whisperer,” because of his ability to teach almost any inmate to pass the GED exam.

“Pelton told me to read books on logic,” Van Buren recalled. “So, I did, starting with ‘Logic for Dummies,’ and ‘Logic 101.’ One day I was sitting in the law library, and something clicked. I started understanding and seeing the law in a whole new light.”

Two cells away from Van Buren was Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, one of the founders of the Cali cartel in Colombia, which had been responsible for smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine into the United States each year.

Orejuela was at Lewisburg as a holdover, en route to another federal prison. He had received a 30-year sentence and is due for release in 2029.

“We talked through an interpreter, and I asked how he was able to get a relatively short sentence compared to me getting life,” Van Buren recalled. “He just rubbed his fingers together and smiled. Later, I saw him washing dishes in the slop sink, just like the rest of us. That’s when I knew I’d never sell drugs again.”

He met Imam Jamil al-Amin, a.k.a. H. Rap Brown, the former Black Panther who was also on a stopover en route to another penal facility. Al-Amin had been convicted of murder in a Georgia case that many felt left reasonable doubts about his guilt.

“He had a lot of wisdom,” Van Buren recalled. “And never seemed angry or racist or violent. Just the opposite. He told me the difference with my generation and his was that people in his were willing to die for what they believed in and people in mine were willing to kill for what we believe in. Everyone on the compound showed him respect.”

Since his release, Van Buren has spent much of his time getting acclimated to a much-changed D.C. region. He and his wife live in Prince George’s County, Md., not far from where he grew up. Now age 49, he is a regular speaker at the University of Virginia Law School’s clinic on sentencing reform. He’s also started a paralegal and mediation service.

“He gives students tips on how to talk to clients in prison and tells them how he managed to cope when you have a life sentence,” said Andrea Harris, an assistant federal public defender who helps run the clinic and who filed the motion that eventually freed Van Buren. “He’s still hopeful and a dreamer and it’s all good.”

To keep his dice game growing, Van Buren reached out to an organization called SCORE DC, which provides mentors to small businesses and budding entrepreneurs. He was assigned to Josh Corn, a successful and energetic specialist in e-commerce who had sold a business and earned enough to devote more time to helping others.

“Eric said to me, ‘I’ve invented a dice game and made it into an app and I need to market it,’” Corn recalled. “He’s super smart. He has a good business sense, talks like someone who went to business school. I instantly realized he was a special person. The penal system does its best to try to crush a person, and if you can come out a better person, that just says a lot about the kind of person you are.”

Van Buren had a long-standing fascination with dice. His father, who’d served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, knew how to shoot craps, and explained it to his son. “He became curious after watching a TV show about casinos,” the father recalled. “So, I told him how it works, all about the odds of winning. It’s amazing what things you tell a child that they don’t forget.”

Eric’s parents are retired federal employees and have been married 52 years. He has a younger brother, Michael, who manages a warehouse. His mother believes that the values that were instilled at home and church may have waned at one time but kicked back when Eric needed to rely on faith.

“You think that everything just went in one ear and out the other,” the mother said. “But not all of it.”

Their son had rolled snake eyes in the drug game. But he’d caught some breaks too.

He said that one of his favorite books in prison was “Outliers,” by Malcolm Gladwell. Success is not based solely on smarts, hustle or ambition, Gladwell writes, but on many variables — such as the people we meet who can help us and our readiness to accept that help when it shows up.

Call that good luck.

Van Buren had run out of it on the street but managed to find some in prison. And even more in a new pair of dice.