Thursday, November 20, 2008

Eddie Ellis Jr- People Can Change

Last week Georgetown's Prison Outreach program hosted Eddie Ellis Jr in White Gravenor, an ex manslaughter convict from Washington DC. Sam, Max and I were among the forty or so people who turned out to hear him talk. When Eddie was 16, he shot a person in self defense at a party. The other man involved in the incident died, and Eddie was sentenced to 22 years in prison. He ended up serving 15 years, and was released a little over two years ago.

Eddie's initial story is not a unique one- he is an example of a youth in the Washington DC area who turned to violence at a young age, as a way of expressing himself. Eddie's father died when he was two, and he grew up in a single parent home with a mother who was trying to support her family. Wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, Eddie found himself extremely angry and frustrated with 'the system' that he felt was against him, part of a larger government that didn't care about people like him who were struggling in the nation's capital. He then started to become involved in compromising situations, and when a guy at a party pulled a gun on him, Eddie shot him, because as he saw it, it was either him or Eddie. While I make no excuses for Eddie and the crime he committed (he certainly makes none for himself) I would argue that unfavourable economic and social circumstances in his life make what he did easier to understand. Whether or not you agree, and whatever you think of his case, one thing is for sure- Eddie is a changed man.

After 15 years on lock down, Eddie is trying to be a force for good in the world by helping other incarcerated men and women. He speaks in high schools and colleges, and prisons throughout the area, and is currently working on creating a nonprofit that will help ex-offenders ease back into society. Eddie's message is an inspirational one to many of the incarcerated; they too can turn their lives around. In this way Eddie is devoting his life to contributing to the non violent cause by leading by example and contributing to the cause of non violence by helping others. He has recently published a book entitled 'Window of Opportunity', which serves as a resource guidebook to educate prisoners on the opportunities that await them in the outside world. Eddie hopes to do his part to help keep the incarcerated out of prison once they are released, showing them the 'right path' so that they can successfully contribute to society.

Colman McCarthy, who Sam did his biography on, actually wrote an article on Eddie for the National Catholic Reporter. Colman not only discusses Eddie's personal story, but also delves into issues of rehabilitation for prisoners in 'prison happy' America, an issue I'm particulary interested in.

You can find the article online here.

In addition, you guys should definitely check out Eddie's personal website.

Eddie's talk and Colman McCarthy's article raised a couple questions for me that I find myself thinking about a lot, especially after I visit prison every week with the Prison Outreach program.
Once the government imprisons people for violent crimes, how do we ensure that they don't continue down the same violent path? What mechanisms can be implemented to help offenders correct their ways and change their lives?

These are just a couple thoughts. I'd love to hear what you guys think about this issue.

- Katherine


Nadia Jafar said...

I'm amazed by how Eddie seems to have completely turned his life around and I wish I had heard him speak. What is especially amazing to me is that not only has he changed, but he is committed to helping others change. The link below is a video of Eddie's involvement in a play called Dream City. Dream City raises awareness about the violence and problems that face many young males in unfavorable economic circumstances, similar to what Eddie grew up in.

Sam Harris said...

After listening to Eddie Ellis Jr. with Katherine a couple weeks ago, I was very impressed by his emotional and spiritual journey. But, what I found even more impressive is the degree to which his "reformation" was self-initiated. I am amazed that a system theoretically designed to improve lives did almost nothing in 15 years to help Mr. Ellis. When asked what motivates him to speak to groups of people about his experience, not once did he reference the prison system. To me, this seems like the real injustice. From a taxpayer’s perspective, I find this extremely frustrating. The government uses taxpayers’ money to create the largest incarceration system in the world, yet fails to create an institution capable of performing its functional objective. It would be like Donald Trump building the biggest office complex in the world, but one so structurally complicated that it is unsafe for human workers. The process just seems so backward. I hope that in continuing to speak to large groups and encouraging other inmates to do the same, Eddie Ellis can contribute to the drastic improvement of correctional facilities in America.