16. 15. 31. Eddie B. Ellis Jr. went to jail at 16 for manslaughter and served 15 years behind bars before coming out at the age of 31. During that time, Ellis spent most of his years in solitary confinement, with six years in the ADX Supermax in Florence, Colorado. As one of the formerly incarcerated panelists during Rep. Danny Davis’ Reentry Forum, the native Washingtonian made sure to “keep it 100.”
“They say most of us who come home will never be successful, never make it, never be right again in life. But I’m here to prove them wrong,” Ellis said.
While many reentry programs advocate job-training opportunities during incarceration, little discussion is given to an individual’s skill set. So when Ellis was introduced to banking, it didn’t stick: “I didn’t have any money, so I had no use for banking skills.”
What he did have is a dedication to stay out of prison, and for Ellis, that proved the best reentry strategy. By putting himself first, he said that he knew what he had to do: “There was nothing my mother could do, a program could do, nobody could do if my mind wasn’t made up.”
After being released, Ellis in 2009 started the nonprofit One by 1 to equip ex-offenders with the tools they need to be successful in light of the challenges they will face after incarceration. The organization also conducts youth outreach in an effort to prevent incarceration. Programs include healthy kids, anti-bullying and violence alternatives workshops. One by 1 provides reentry support resources as well.
Ellis started building relationships to help him successfully reconnect to his community – and himself. He reached out to his probation officer and got a doctor to address the emotional impact of incarceration – because where “a lot of people are failing is mental health.”
It was his probation officer who one day took his lunch break to show Ellis how to use the Metrorail system, a foreign concept after being locked up so long. “I caught cabs everywhere because I didn’t know how to get [around] in my own city,” he recalled. To this day, Ellis said he remains in touch with his therapist, counselor and others who helped and believed in him when no one else did.
“We can’t do it alone,” said Ellis, admitting that shadows of his former life remain (he still eats breakfast, dinner and lunch in his room). “If we make people who are coming out of the system more involved, they will feel more empowered.”