From Living in Darkness to Sharing Light

TJ & Tara, one of his creative writing professors.

TJ’s clear blue eyes give you all of his attention. Admitting his affinity for lots of strong coffee in the morning, he sipped happily from a large cup between the breaks in his story. Here sat a man who speaks to young people about violence, who sparkles when he talks about his past work where textbooks were translated into braille for blind learners, who writes poetry, and adores his cat as evidenced by the pictures he proudly scrolled through. Five minutes into our meeting and it’s clear: this is a good man. A self-aware and self-improving man. And a convicted murderer.

TJ was fifteen years old when he and a friend, high on drugs, committed an afternoon burglary on a neighbor’s house. Things escalated when the female homeowner stumbled into their ransacking chaos. The boys inexplicably murdered her
and left her body broken and vandalized only to be found later by her teenage son, a boy just two years older than TJ.
We want to believe that those who commit heinous crimes are so very different from the rest of us, but when TJ entered the prison system, he wasn’t a hardened criminal. He was a terrified sixteen year old boy sentenced to life behind bars after a string of terrible, violent choices.

Both boys were tried as adults, convicted and sentenced to life without parole. But, years later, when a state appellate court reduced the conviction to second degree murder and ordered the two resentenced, TJ received the life sentence. His friend — the one who actually committed the murder and acted as the attacker — was released back into society after just ten years due to some savvy moves on the part of his lawyer. TJ sat in prison, alone and hurting for those he’d wronged, struggling with his own coming of age while plagued with the mental images and heart-wrenching guilt of what had happened. Because of the length of his sentence, he was denied any kind of psychotherapy for ten years — the decade he was becoming a man.

Prison was hard on TJ. Role models were scarce. Many of the guys serving time were desperate and without hope, not the kind of men you want to emulate when you’re sixteen and looking forward. The prison food caused plaque to build in the arteries in his legs, exacerbated by the lack of exercise available. Fellow inmates weren’t always safe or friendly. TJ was stabbed in the back by another prisoner and rushed to the prison hospital where he stayed until he healed. Luckily, he was in psychotherapy at the time of the attack and was able, after a stretch of time, to understand the release of forgiveness.

Despite all obstacles, TJ used his sentence as a time for growth and giving back. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and sought psychotherapy. He took classes, served in prison libraries, worked as a clerk, and volunteered with the older inmate population as a geriatric aide. His hard work came to the attention of others and, finally, TJ was granted a parole hearing. Forty years after he entered the system, he walked out on parole into a vastly different world from the one he’d left behind at sixteen.

TJ explained that the things we take for granted in our everyday lives are tremendous obstacles for someone re-entering community. Finding a job, a landlord, a roommate, setting up a bank account, using a cell phone, securing transportation — all these things are riddled with extra challenges for an ex-prisoner. TJ is still getting used to his cell phone and laughs now about his first terrifying and overwhelming trip to Costco. When considering each hurdle combined with the psychological and emotional transitions that prisoners face as they move from a cramped, shared, and overly structured life to the quiet isolation of freedom, it’s easy to understand why recidivism rates rise.

TJ is gracious when he talks about the Washtenaw Prisoner Re-entry Program (WPR). He shares the power of small gifts and big connections — like the six months of bus passes he was provided. Without a steady income, purchasing these would be nearly impossible; and without transportation, there would be no job interviews or positive parole reviews. WPR connected him with other resources such as employment opportunities and clothing vouchers to support his transition. The WPR staff believe in him and in his rehabilitation. Nobody wants to see his process of growth and giving back waylaid by desperation, lack of opportunities, closed doors or closed minds; but without good resources and solid support — both emotionally and through resources — many ex-prisoners fail and return to a life behind bars.

Today TJ is halfway to a bachelor’s degree in pre-law while balancing his classes with his jobs. He continues to volunteer and works with the U of M social work department as a research assistant and with the American Friends Service Committee as an intern. His poetry bookshelf is filling up. And he really, really loves his cat — Sam I Am. This is a man — lost and then found — committed to making something of his own life and the world a better place.

CSSW operates the Washtenaw & Livingston Prisoner Reentry programs, helping assimilate parolees and ex-offenders back into society. This state-wide initiative promotes public safety by increasing the success rates of prisoners transitioning from incarceration to reentering the community.

If you want to support others like TJ, you can find out more about the Washtenaw Prisoner Re-entry program here.