Life After Prison

After Eddie Ellis was released from prison, his family wondered why he still ate meals in his room with the door closed.

“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.

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  1. My question is regarding close relatives of released prisoners.
    Without income, such released related prisoners are taken in by close relatives in their homes. How do such relatives cope with a convicted incarcerated people in their homes? Are there schools for such relatives to take prior to released prisoners/relatives coming back into the same home? I am in California
    Thanks.

  2. My question is how do we get involved in services. My uncle spent 32 years incarcerated in attica state prison , he was released in 2006 and i want my favorite uncle to come to Seattle Washington ;
    I guess what im asking for is there any organization that can benifit from from this experince in Washington state. Just take a look at this you-tube clip

  3. Unless people get continuing support from family and organizations the transition from prison to civilian life can be a extremely difficult. Being an ex-warden myself I have seen many prisoners that in my opinion would never survive civilian life, these people spent more time inside than outside. I know of many cases where these people committed suicide when they were released or committed some form of crime to get back to prison, to an environment that they felt most comfortable with. These people need a second chance and they need a caring society.

  4. Im an ex prisoner that was locked up at the age of 18. I came home a the at of 32, but for me I was turning 19 years old, I was raised by the system as boy turned into a man over night, not like a young man being guided by parents in becoming a man, I was guided by every criminal in the state, criminal minded. I wasn’t taught about life, dreams, love, feeling, but to love not caring and excepting it as you except love . Can you relate? Im confused about a lot of things in my life, LIFE itself. Im 39 yrs of age and I still get into prison mode everyday, I shout down

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    about my feelings, I believe in just letting you know a little about me in what I want to tell you. Im always analyzing people, I look at my family and friends as strangers. I know they are my family but who are they? Im lost and don’t know where to turn to, Im confused so I rather stay in my house. I have 2 beautiful children and a 20 year old, but yet I don’t know how to be a father. I show love support but is that what it is to be a father? I take my children to the park early so that way Im not around too many people, once I see the crowd coming I start to panic, I break out in sweats, I get nervous and then prison mode kicks in, where I stay analyzing there moves, why they are looking at me, wondering if the are talking about me, and then I snap out and realize Im not in prison, so I leave and have to see the tears coming out my children’s face. Im always with my back to a wall. I don’t mind being around people I know but once I see a new face, Prison mode, who is that person why are they in my house, I don’t know, Ive called for help but I don’t trust people. How can I open up to a stranger on my emotions? Will they go back and tell there friends about what we talked about? It took my college counselor 2 years to finally open me up, I didn’t trust her. The minute she wanted to know about me is when I picked up my books and said, you f***ed up. and Ill leave the office. 7 years ago and Im still the same way I still wake up at 6 cause I hear doors opening, people yelling, intercoms, keys. I hate the sound of keys jiggling. I can go on and on but ill end it. Solitude Confinement, I guess its my way of life.

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  5. Eddie. I too experience what I believe to be symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from my 4 year 3 month incarceration that now is more than 8 years in my past. Unlike many, I was indeed guilty of my crimes, which pertained the manufacture of Methamphetamines. I, like you, seem to experience a great deal of stress in public places as well as when I’m with my very own family at home. I also am always completely aware of the Totality of my surroundings including where I am, how I’ll leave as well as a complete assessment of those that I perceive to be a danger or threat. Although these things may seem normal, I assure any that read

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    this, “It is Not”. The worst, I think, are the dreams of still being incarcerated or being called back based upon a mistake that They Made and have now decided that I must return to serve more time. I suffer from a rather deep depression along with some “Non related” health issues. I awaken in a nervous panic more nights than not, if not properly medicated. I prefer to be alone, in my “house” rack at all times now. I realize that anything I do effects those around me and I make do with very little in the way of clothing and possessions but I have a certain, methodical way about myself and become extremely aggravated if my family doesn’t “do as I do”. These things alone are not only difficult for me but are exponentially difficult for my family. I, in all sincerity believe this to be a sickness or mental disability and “One I fear I shall never be free from”. I’m grateful to have come upon your story in my search for PTSD in relation to Incarceration. If any of you have any further information on this topic please share with me @ traycoker@cspire.blackberry.com . MDOC#K7245. A number I shall forever remember.

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  6. After reading and watching this testimonial and comments; I know now that i surely have pics/ptsd symptoms that effect the very fabric of my life. I’m just awed by how much I relate to Mr. Ellis and others comments, including the awesome, “A second chance” YouTube video.
    I was locked up from 15 to 28. How I learnt to be a man

  7. I was sentenced to 40 years released after 12 for a sex offense. I am trying to become a respectful member of society. I am not able to and not because of anything i do but because of the registry. I am not able to keep a job. I am in a relationship with a beautiful and loving woman who knows all about my past but we cannot move on because of society and i also don’t feel like i can ever contrbute anything but more baggage.

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We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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