At 6:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday, faces started popping up on the phone and computer screens.
The dozen men on the screen each had spent at least 15 years in prison for murder. As they adjust to life back in the community, they have been there for one another to offer support.
Most of the men were released under a D.C. law that allows judges to free certain longtime prisoners who committed serious crimes when they were under age 18. The coronavirus pandemic has led to a burst of activity under the law — nine men released in the past four months — but it also means those men have stepped into a world where traditional support and education programs have been upended by the pandemic and even the ability to see family and friends may be limited.
So the former inmates, who no longer can meet safely in person, have begun to use twice-monthly Zoom meetings for encouragement and a place to talk about job opportunities and the challenges of life outside prison walls. And for those on the call who happen to be Dallas Cowboys fans, some good trash-talking.
“Look at us. There’s about 300 years on this screen,” said Norvelle Nelson, 43, scanning the faces of the men attending the meeting. “These guys on this screen have a level of strength and endurance to persevere.”
When Nelson was 17, he and two friends fatally shot a man as they tried to steal his crack cocaine. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison and released last year under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA), which requires inmates to have served at least 15 years in prison and to have tried to better themselves there.
He is among 22 men who participate in the meetings, with various numbers joining as they are able to.
“They’re somebody to talk to me when I need it,” Manuel Brown, 39, said in an interview. Brown fatally shot someone when he was 17. He was released from prison in January. “I like to see them succeeding in life. I can learn from them, like how to think first before reacting with a comment or making a move. You don’t always learn that as a kid, unfortunately.”
The meetings, Brown said, “keep me focused, because out here you can definitely lose focus.” He works stocking shelves at a local Giant and has part-time jobs with a street-cleaning and landscaping company.
The IRAA, which the D.C. Council passed in 2016, is based on studies that show that the brains of teenagers are not fully mature, and the idea behind the legislation was that those who commit offenses at younger ages should not receive adult punishments of decades in prison.
So far, D.C. Superior Court judges have granted petitions for 42 inmates, the vast majority over the objections of federal prosecutors. In eight other cases, the judges agreed with prosecutors and denied the petitions.
The law, Nelson said in an interview, dramatically changed the outlook for prisoners who committed serious crimes as youths but had shown evidence of growth in the years afterward.
“Guys who thought they were going to die in jail, now have hope,” Nelson said. “They now feel they have a chance to go home, so they are changing their behavior on the inside.”
Several men who petitioned for consideration under the law had been moved to the D.C. jail and were awaiting court proceedings when the novel coronavirus struck the nation and the courthouse drastically reduced its operations. At first, those legal cases slowed. But as the court ramped up telephone and virtual hearings and officials sought to reduce the jail population to limit the virus’s spread, another group of men were given their freedom.
Darrick Evans, 41, who joined the Zoom call, was among them. He was released in April after 24 years in prison for fatally shooting a 14-year-old boy.
“I’m here just to gain some insight on what to expect now as a free man,” Evans said. He told the group he had been having trouble getting proper identification so he could secure a job. “It’s hard to get an ID during this covid crisis.”
Each morning since his release, Evans has written a to-do list to help focus his job search. “Structure is important,” he told the group. Behind bars, inmates are told when to eat, when they can exercise, when they can go to the commissary and other appointments. On the outside, sticking to a schedule helps keep him on track.
Eddie Ellis, 44, understands the challenges other former inmates face. He was 16 when he was charged with fatally shooting another teen in 1991 and ultimately sentenced to prison. He was released in 2006, about 15 years into his 22-year sentence.
Ellis was released on parole, not because of IRAA but for good behavior. It was during his 14 years out of prison, Ellis said, that he saw former inmates struggle to build new lives as they returned to gentrified neighborhoods that were completely different from the places they had left as teens.
So Ellis partnered with several organizations, including his employer, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, as well as the Free Minds Book Club, to help fund various programs, including those to support the IRAA recipients.
“We wanted to give them a safe space for them to talk about and acknowledge what had happened, the wrong they did, the guilt, their frustrations in finding jobs, mental health and self-care-type things,” said Ellis, who joins each session and helps lead the conversations.
The Web meetings are akin to neighborhood barbershops where men gather in a relaxed, no-judgment space and can discuss their feelings and frustrations. “We wanted to give them a place where they can come in and laugh and, when it’s time to get serious, to talk about things,” Ellis said.
Through their meetings, the men have organized letter-writing campaigns and sent care packages to those D.C. jail inmates waiting for IRAA court hearings to be scheduled. Several even recorded videos of support on behalf of the inmates to send to the judges overseeing their petitions.
Practical information such as job openings are shared at the meetings. During one recent session, one attendee said he had found a job with a construction company and shared the contact information with the group. Others mentioned companies that were hiring such as Amazon, Home Depot and Giant supermarkets. Domino’s Pizza, DoorDash and Grubhub were also hiring, one of the organizers of the call noted. But employees must have a driver’s license and access to a vehicle.
After spending 40 years behind bars, Gary W. Jaggers, who was released in April, talked about the challenge he and his 73-year-old mother were having getting reacquainted. Jaggers was 16 when he was charged in 1980 with killing an elderly man and woman as well as robbing and assaulting a third elderly victim in Congress Heights.
Jaggers, 56, said he realized that his and his mother’s personalities had changed drastically during the decades he was in prison. Jaggers also said he realized he needed to accept the grief that his crimes caused his mother.
“One of the biggest challenges I have now is to mend a fence that was broken and the embarrassment that I caused my mom for my incarceration,” he said to the group. “I don’t know nothing about her other than she’s my mom. I’m in a mending process right now because of the pain and suffering I caused her. It’s great to be home. But it’s also a responsibility for me.”
After 22 years behind bars, Charles Fantroy, 41, said spending time outside each day helps him cope with coronavirus restrictions. He was 17 when he was convicted of murder and was sentenced to life in prison before being granted release last year. He said he had been convinced he would die in prison.
“I get out every day. I go running a lot in Rock Creek Park. I practice my social distancing,” he said. “I’m going to be getting out this house. I just keep pushing.”
A handful of the attendees called in from their phones without video. One told the group he was “still in recovery” since being released.
“You are bouncing back, man,” another participant said.
“It’s good to see y’all,” another man told the group. “Good to see you too, bruh,” they responded. After about 90 minutes of discussion, the men signed off until the next meeting. “See you next time, brothers,” Ellis said.