Life After Prison
“Mama, I says, this is what I am used to. I am used to being in my cell. I am used to eating alone. This is how I am comfortable.”
As about 90 Middlebury students sat riveted to their seats on March 3, Ellis spoke uncompromisingly of the hardships of life after prison during one of the final events in the week-long student symposium on “Communities and Justice.”
After serving 15 years in prison for a 1992 manslaughter conviction, Eddie B. Ellis Jr. still experiences acute anxiety when he goes to the movies (“too dark and people moving too much”), eats in a restaurant (“I sit with my back to the wall so no one’s behind me”), and rides the Washington D.C. Metro (“if it’s too crowded I get off”).
“These are the things that I have to deal with every day,” he said, “and these are the things that people don’t see when people come home from prison.”
Wearing a sleeveless sweater over a pale blue dress shirt with pressed slacks and polished loafers, Ellis spoke for about 35 minutes without notes and took questions for another three-quarters of an hour. He laid bare the facts about “the code of the street,” the circumstances surrounding his crime (he shot and killed a man who pulled a gun on him), and the rigors of prison life and solitary confinement.
Ellis never revealed more than a hint of smile, for which he has a simple explanation. In prison, he said, you don’t have much to smile about and you don’t want to show too much emotion, lest you’ll be perceived as weak. So Ellis learned to suppress his urge to smile, which is something he still does.
“My brother asked me, ‘Why are you so serious all the time?’ and I tell him that I smile on the inside,” said Ellis who is back in the D.C. area living with his mother and brother, working for a cleaning service, maintaining a website, and speaking out.
If there was a theme to Ellis’s talk, it was just this: that former prison inmates bear deep scars from their experiences and need to be given support when they re-enter society. He likened the post-incarceration experience to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and has self-published a book, “The Window of Opportunity Pre-Release Handbook,” to help ease the transition for others.
Ellis said he has benefited greatly from counseling, especially through role-playing difficult situations (like when someone bumps into him on the Metro) and learning to keep the ups and downs of life in perspective.
“I now realize that there are things I want to do [in life],” Ellis demonstrated with his hands far apart. “And things I can do” as his hands got closer together, but “I have to keep it real for myself” he concluded with his hands just a few inches apart.
Ellis was invited by Middlebury student Hanna Mahon ’13 to appear in connection with the Communities and Justice Symposium organized by the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity. The symposium included an address by former federal prosecutor, a lecture from a Bronx public defender, two documentary film screenings, panel discussions, talks, and a campus-wide storytelling event – all aimed at exploring questions about criminal justice, immigration and justice, and the American correctional system.
In his closing, Ellis urged the audience not to judge convicted criminals on their mistakes, but on their character and potential.
“This is my fifth year that I have been out, and I am giving back because I want to give back. I am doing the right things. I am putting the right messages out there. I am not going to lie about my actions. I take responsibility for what took place in my life.
“I just want to keep doing the positive things I can in whatever community I am in, and help people understand that a lot of people coming out of prison can do right too.”
The pain Ellis has caused others and the pain he has caused himself will never go away. Yet, as he said, “a lot of people come out of prison better than they went in,” and he is trying to be a prime example of it.