“I was unfocused. I was very violent at one point, and they taught me how to conduct myself, as a human being, as a father, as a man and a citizen of Washington, D.C.”
Those were the words of Anthony Irving, speaking on stage at Busboys and Poets in Brookland on Tuesday night as part of an event called #ReturningCitizensMatter. It was an intimate affair in the new space’s Pearl Bailey room, but the stories told resonated strongly among the three dozen people present.
The event was organized by Ron Moten, the Ward 7 political gadfly and former co-founder of Peaceoholics, an anti-violence group. Moten is one among many who have worked to destigmatize those who have been convicted of a crime. No more “ex-offender” or “ex-con.” The term is now “returning citizen.”
But the reality is a jail sentence is often a career-ender.
The plight of someone coming back to society from incarceration is still largely misunderstood, and the population is inadequately served, comparatively. It is estimated that 60,000 people in D.C. have criminal records, with more than 8,000 returning each year from various prison populations. Recently a “ban the box” bill has been circulating through the City Council, an attempt to prevent employers from discriminating against job candidates based on their criminal records.
On Tuesday, the frustrations of a marginalized population were obvious. And it was clear that to them, the solution was help from a friend, family member or acquaintance, not necessarily the D.C. government. The panel featured a cable repairman, a realtor, a life coach and a landscaper. Tony Lewis Jr. — son of Tony Lewis, who ran one of D.C.’s most notorious drug cartels — was there, too, advocating on behalf of the families of the incarcerated. They all told stories of getting back on their feet.
Anthony McDuffie, a sales agent at Anacostia River Realty, said he has Darrin Davis, the company’s owner, to thank for his career. For Davis, it wasn’t the first time he had hired a “returning citizen.” But this hire did come with better results, he said.
“I did have an ex-offender whose crime was so horrible, that after he’d been there I had to let him go,” said Davis, 49. “But I think everyone deserves a fair chance. A second chance.”
Davis has been in business for six years. He said he tries “to put myself in that person’s place about how serious they are and how much they want to change their lives. And if I can feel the sincerity, then I’ll be more than happy to help.”
According to the D.C. Department of Corrections, from fiscal years 2008 to 2014, the number of inmates dropped 41 percent, from 3,100 to 1,841. During the same time, the city began releasing inmates at a faster clip than previously. That means there are more people are out looking to rebuild lives. And the largest percentage of those people are black men, aged 21 to 30.
But those men face serious obstacles. According to an October 2014 report by the DOC, a whopping 37 percent of young men in custody self-reported their education level as none. No high school diploma, no GED. Nothing. And former mayor Vincent Gray’s newly formed D.C. Office on Returning Citizen Affairs is getting 0.2 percent of the DOC’s $140M budget.
For those men with limited education and limited job skills, life often seems to move at a snail’s pace. And it can be scarier than ever. They’re coming from a system that often breaks their will. They’re returning to a city they don’t recognize. Fewer of those small businesses that once might have given them a chance are still around. It’s another side effect of gentrification that’s hard to see if you don’t know it first-hand.
Irving does, and he recounted as much in searing detail Tuesday.
“Dealing with emotional trauma is the most dangerous thing,” said Irving, 42, who owns Golden Seed Landscaping and Cleaning Services. He thanked his brother for helping him get a job with developer Chris Donatelli. Prison, he said, had left him scarred.
“What that place did to me, it was unreal,” Irving said. “I’ve seen what men told me: when we cut you, we gonna kill you. When we cut you, it’s ’cause of the color of your skin and the city you’re from. And I had one thing on my mind: how to survive and how to kill when I slept in a cell with boots on. You never know when them cell bars would come open. And somebody would run in there and slaughter me.”
With an increasingly strained voice, he talked about life after his 14-year term.
“I came home mentally disturbed,” he added. “Cars drove me crazy. I had a girlfriend. I had to get out of my house because the same fight was, she’d leave hair in the sink. I’d run in there in two minutes and clean it up. If she cooked, I’d wash the dishes in 2.5 seconds. I heard something in the hallway, I ran and got two knives and peeped out the peephole,” Irving said to nervous laughter from the crowd.
Irving’s landscape business has yet to turn a profit, but that hasn’t stopped him from reaching out to others. He has hired returning citizens like himself. And his company cuts senior citizens’ grass for free as a way to give back.
“It’s why every single day of my life, I try to help somebody. Money means nothing to me, clothes mean nothing to me,” he said.
“People talk about, they love their city? They will tell you in the federal system: I was ready to die for this city,” he added. “You talk about war? It was me. It was my name. It was my life. And I’d like to say that every single day, I am grateful to be alive. I am grateful to my brother. I am grateful to D.C. to give me an opportunity. For me, it’s not a joke.”
I’d hire that guy in a second.