The Amazing Life of Sidney Davis.

DC Public Safety Radio-Transcripts

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See radio show at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2015/11/the-amazing-life-of-sidney-davis/

Leonard: From the nation’s capital, this is D.C. Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, the title of today’s program, “The Amazing Life of Sidney Davis.” Sidney Davis is here by our microphone. Sidney, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.

Sidney: Good afternoon.

Leonard: Sidney has been involved in the criminal justice system as a former offender. He has 3 articles or more written about Sidney both in the Washington Post and the Washington Times. I’m going to read, briefly, from a Courtland Milloy article in the Washington Post. “While riding a Metro bus recently, I watched a driver help a blind man find a seat and then help him off the bus, waived on coming traffic to a halt and escort him in his arm to the other side of the street. It was a remarkable courtesy made remarkable because the driver was Sidney Davis who I first met in 1981 when he was an inmate at the Lorton Correctional Complex. He was serving 9 years into a 20 year to life sentence for murder. God granted me the freedom so I could help others at Davis 66 after returning to the bus. Once considered incourageable, Davis held the Lorton record for the most time spent in solitary confinement. To the disbelief of many, he declared himself to be a Born Again Christian and started an annual prison prayer breakfast and other self health programs for inmates.”

I was encouraged to interview Sidney because again, he has had an amazing life. Caught up in the criminal justice system, coming out being a driver for the bus system here in the Washington, D.C. area and instituting dozens of programs both on the outside and the inside. Again, Sidney, welcome back to D.C. Public Safety.

Sidney: Thank you, Brother Sipes.

Leonard: I am fascinated by this entire story. I want to go into a little bit about this. It’s interesting. Talk about the transformation. He’s currently running for president of the Transit Workers Union here in Washington, D.C. Let me go back to your present experiences. According to this article, you spent more time in solitary than anybody else.

Sidney: Yeah. It was a no practice. It was just me coming into contact with who I was in an environment that I had to make all kind of adjustments according to the conditions. Those adjustment depended upon me making up my mind that I was not going to allow my sentence to take advantage of me.

Leonard: People considered you to be incourageable. They were saying that you may have been one of the worst inmates at Lorton. You come out where you were instituted a lot of programs while you’re in prison and then you come out and you get involved in dozens of community programs. You’ve been mentoring lots of different people. You have built yourself up to the point where you’re running for president of the Transit Union. That’s a long road from a 20 year to life sentence in a homicide and spending more time in solitary confinement than anybody else.

Sidney: Absolutely. Let me just say that, in an environment where you have to make your mind of about who you are, where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, what kind of support you need, all of these things come in to relate to where you are going to be in the next few minutes because you’re in a prison environment where your life can be taken instantly. I had to be able to determine which way I was going to go and what I was going to do. I had just been given a 20 year to life sentence. I was still having my life in a bucket where it could only evolve around and around and around. I had to get out of the bucket. I had to make my mind. I had to have something that was stronger to convince and convict my mind and my soul about where I was going. I had to turn to Jesus who my grandmother often told me about but I refused to practice that behavior. After getting into an environment and getting into yourself, you find that that’s real. Those words become authentic. They become a center of focus of your environment and you learn to take control of your life and your atmosphere and the things around you and affect you in that manner.

Leonard: Did you ever look back at your life and say, “Heavens, I have truly lived a long and complicated and amazing life”? Did you ever take a look back and just think and reflect that all of the different thing that have happened to you throughout your life in terms of prison and out of prison and what you’ve given to the community as a result, you’re changed as a human being? It is an amazing story.

Sidney: I always reflect. I sit and I concentrate. I reflect on where I was 20, 30 years ago. I reflect on my thinking. In my reading and having to read many pieces of literature, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X. All of these were thought changing incidents, thought changing processes that made me think more cognitively in myself as opposed outside of myself. There, I found strength. The prison environment allowed the barriers, the walls, all of the conditions, the boundaries that kept me in but my mind was forever free.

Leonard: How did you see yourself when you were on the streets and entered the prison system? How did you see yourself as a person?

Sidney: Incorrigible. I mean, I was a renegade. A renegade to the extent that everything was not taken into account of what I was doing or how I was doing it. It was just doing it. I mean, when you have that kind of life in the urban environment, not that the urban environment is one that makes the influence but you adapt to a lot of things to try to find of where you are with yourself.

Leonard: How did you see yourself as a person? Did you see a future for yourself? Did you see aspirations? Did you see goals? How did you think of yourself as a person?

Sidney: My family had always injected in me and tried to stear me in the right. When I was going to school, I was always a good student. I went to school but school was not always an interest. I took trades; welding, carpentry, shoe repair. I had all of those things in junior high school and high school. School was not an instrument. I went to school to play around. I didn’t give full concentration to the maximum of my ability that allowed me not to get caught up into this criminal justice process. Subsequently, I tried to get into military because I knew that was upon me. Go into military, get my life straight, get some discipline, travel some, come out with skills and directions and purpose, but I couldn’t get in the military because they said one of my legs was longer than the other and so I did not make it into military. Therefore, I was out there, so to speak.

Leonard: So many of today’s youth and throughout my experience within the criminal justice system committing crimes end up in the criminal justice system because they don’t see a life for themselves. They live for the moment. They don’t see a future for themselves. They’re just aimless, wondering for their life. Was that you or was that not you?

Sidney: That was me. In part, that was me. Let me just say that, those kind of values are reinforced where they’re not intrinsic in the school process. They’re not intrinsic in their community in a civil way. At one time, the community cared for one another. They cared for each other. They made sure that people weren’t hungry. They made sure that the village was a nurturing place and not necessarily a place of destruction. There were some things going on. They’re drinking. Drugs was not a primary in communities back when I was coming through. Alcohol was okay. They made Moonshine. People enjoyed themselves and they work and then they loved each other and they reach for each other. They cared for about each other and they were for each other regardless of the circumstance. They would look out for one another’s children. All of those kinds of things made for the strength of the community where you had models that you could look up to. They were elders and who nurtured you and told you what not to do and showed you what to do and how to do it.

Leonard: Do you think that’s in place today?

Sidney: No. We are missing a great deal of leadership and the strength of the elders and communities. They’ve all passed away or gone to glory. That’s not in place today. What we do have is, those who were coming from prison who have experience, that can be a benefit to the young people. That’s where we have to begin to look at the value of the people who are now in prison to see what value they can bring back to bring about that reconciliation.

Leonard: Is that how you see yourself now? I was reading the Washington Post article about how you quiz students who come on your buses and ask them questions about history and asking questions about philosophy and then gauge them and tell them that you want to see their report card the next time they enter your bus. The Washington Post article went on to say that where other bus drivers were having problems, you didn’t have those problems because you meaningfully engaged the young people getting on your bus. Is that how you see yourself today taking on that mental of an elder guiding young people through the life of living in the community?

Sidney: Yes. You must be able to take a position or someone will give you one. Sometimes, the position that they give you, you won’t necessarily like. You have to take one that’s going to bring humanity close to you, let you know who you are and what you’re doing and what value you are to other people. It’s always that people in work and these institution, the government institution, you have to find something that’s more bigger than you. In order to have appreciation for life and fullness, you got to have something bigger to do than yourself. You can’t get caught up in the selfishness. What I have been given, what I have learned, what I have been exposed to is no value for me just to hold it. I have to give it back. Seeing these young people get on the bus with no directions and real playful and joyful and going out on each other is always an opportunity to put their consciousness when they step on the bus. You ask them the kind of the question that I believe they should know at that level and not greed.

I ask them about Paul Robeson. No one seem to know who Paul Robeson was and so I give them research projects. When they come back, they have, for me, the clear example who Jack Robeson was, who Elvis Presley was. I mean, what did he do? How did he become famous? All of the challenges in a particular community have to be always reinforced all the time, not just by me being a bus driver who didn’t get the money. I’m not supposed to let them on the bus.

Leonard: Everybody is supposed to do that, correct?

Sidney: That’s right.

Leonard: I mean, all of us of a certain age and when I say a certain age, you could be 25. We all have the responsibility to interact with the kids in our community and challenge them to be better.

Sidney: Absolutely. That’s a necessity.

Leonard: That’s the way we solve the crime problem beyond law enforcement and beyond the criminal justice system and beyond the correctional system. That’s your point, correct?

Sidney: Absolutely. In school, the day you have to be introduced to the life of what it means, not to be able to grow and develop and be fullness of thinking about decision making. That has to be a part of the curriculum in schools because if it’s not reinforced there, that value, of being complete in your thinking as to how to love a person as opposed to going to get a gun or going to get a gang of guys to jump on somebody. You have to reinforce the values that are strict, that are going to forever remain in the life of a child, of a community, of a family, of the broader society. We have to demonstrate that. We have to lock our minds, our spirits, our hearts into one another and know that we can make the difference.

Leonard: A fundamental change, you say, came upon you through religion. You said about something that your grandmother gave you. Do you think that that was the pivotal moment in your life that changed you as a person?

Sidney: I would have to say yes. I mean, yes, twice, 3 times. Yes, because when I was younger, I was introduced to church. I was introduced to the spirit of the reality of who this Jesus was. I didn’t embrace it until such time as I was in a predicament, where God put me in a predicament, for me to pay attention to what he was saying to me. I had to listen. I asked …

Leonard: What was he saying to you as you’re sitting in prison? Because I’m assuming that this conversion came in prison. I think, according to the article I did, what was God saying to you as you sat in prison, as you sat in solitary? Because if you serve the longest time in solitary in the Lorton Correctional Complex, you had to be doing a series of pretty nasty acts. There was a certain point where you sat there in solitary and something happened to you when I’m trying to figure out what that was.

Sidney: It was a transformation. It’s like, we being in a womb. 270 days, we lay in a womb and we’re being nurtured. We’re being nurtured according to the adrenaline and the thinking of the person that’s carrying us and then it comes a fullness of time. The fullness of time in every season where food grows right. Food cannot grow out of season and be as it was intended to be. Now, it could be [inaudible 15:04], it could be given some kind of chemical to grow but the natural order of life is for you to get quiet with yourself and yourself, see yourself as to who you are and you pray. Because the power of prayer intervenes and gives you an instant transformation.

Leonard: Do you believe that God was speaking to you directly?

Sidney: Spoke directly to me.

Leonard: What was that message?

Sidney: I asked him. I asked him if he, in fact, would take from me, all of the ills, of the drugs, and all of the desires that were not a part of the light that he was allowing me, then I would do the rest. Just allow me that opportunity. He did that. My life has been consistent with that practice.

Leonard: We’re halfway through the program. The title of today’s program, “The Amazing Life of Sidney Davis,” and it truly is amazing. He’s gotten a lot of press in the newspapers in Washington, D.C. and throughout. He is running for president of the Transit Workers Union here, the District of Columbia. He has come a long way from the most times spent in solitary confinement to a pillar of the community. I find that that’s the principal part of his story. When you got out, you ran into a jam because you’re talking on the bus, you’re talking to lots of different people and you ended up talking to people about a candidate for mayor of Washington, D.C. who was supportive of re-entry programs for people coming out of the prison system and you lost your job.

Sidney: You’re absolutely right, Brother Snipes. I lost my job because I took a position. I took a position based upon the candidate’s record. I was talking to people on the bus about not getting caught up in the emotion or be driven by your emotion, check out the record of the person. It’s the same situation where our records are always held against us once we come out of prison and people getting a job. I’m telling these folks to look at the value of the person’s record to see how they voted, to see what their thinking is and so there was a report on the bus who was recording the information. After the article came out in the paper and the same what I had adapted and supporting the candidate, Vincent Orange, who is now a councilman at large.

Leonard: The thing that gets me is that, you’ve been through, undoubtedly, a tough life. You come out, you do find work, you’re working, you’re interacting with the passengers on the bus in many pro-social ways, you say something political that transit folks objected to you engaging in political advocacy while on the bus, you lose your job. You lost your job for over a year. How did you feel when you lost your job?

Sidney: I felt kind of disempowered so to speak. I couldn’t contribute in my family. I had to go back and get another skills that I’ve had. I’m a barber by trade. I’m a welder by trade. I had to draw from all sort of skills that I learned while I was in prison. I was not going to be turning back on myself and doing something that was going to put me back in prison. My mind had been made up to do the correct thing.

Leonard: For so many people who come out of the prison system, when they do find success and the success is stripped from them, they spiral back into drugs, they spiral back in the crime. My point is that, you did not let that happen to you. That had to be immensely disappointing to you but it had to be a very hard time for you.

Sidney: It was a hard time. It was no more harder than the fact that I had done 21 years in prison without anything. Therefore, that had become a practice in my life because of that catastrophe or because of that blockage or barrier or wall that was set up, it wasn’t going to prohibit me from continuing to progress to build myself.

Leonard: You measured the process of losing your job against where you’ve been and simply say, “If I can survive that, I can survive this.”

Sidney: Absolutely.

Leonard: You did get your job back after a year.

Sidney: I went through the arbitration process and it [would be 19:41] to mean that they didn’t have facts to substantiate what they were doing to me.

Leonard: Did you get back pay?

Sidney: I didn’t get back pay and I lost my …

Leonard: You did not get back pay. Oh my heavens.

Sidney: I didn’t get … Unemployment. They took my employment. I had an option whether to go back to live the old life or to take what had come out as a result of the situation with the political thing. What came out was, here’s a choice. “You take the job, we’re taking this.” If you work, you can get more money.

Leonard: By the way, you and I, we have similarities. You went to John Hopkins?

Sidney: I attended John Hopkins right up here on Massachusetts Avenue.

Leonard: You got your bachelor’s degree while in prison, right?

Sidney: I got my bachelor’s degree in prison. Yes.

Leonard: How important was that to you?

Sidney: It was exceptionally important. I mean, to come to get my GED and to continue to go on to get the AA and then to get the BA. Those were major cons for education. It was the fundamental thing that I continue to concentrate on to make myself aware to myself so I can improve.

Leonard: Now, you know that most of the college programs have been stripped from Lorton prison. When I looked at a Washington Times article, they addressed that and they interviewed you about that. How important do you feel as to the educational process within the prison system, whether it’d be vocational or college?

Sidney: We’re talking about 2 aspects. We’re talking about education as it relates to young people, introducing them to the fundamentals of who they are. Subsequently, if they wind up in the criminal justice process, it seemed that the education is separate. In other words, there’s no more concentration. Education is fundamental to being able to respect oneself, to respect somebody else, to love somebody, to get knowledge of knowing how to grow, how to understand, how to apply to understand, how to apply economics with situation. You have to know that this life is one that you must be educated in and to be able to exchange socially, politically, and economically at whatever institution you decide to go in.

Leonard: We pulled the programs. The programs had supported … The vast majority of this programs have been pulled. President Obama is reintroducing them on a limited basis. You’ve already told me how important it was to you. How important is it to everybody else in the prison system?

Sidney: It is a fundamental prerequisite that everybody be exposed to education. It reduces violence inside the prison. It reduces violence to oneself. It reduces a behavior to get along with the prison officials. No one can’t be point the finger at for the wrong that you commit. You got to come out of that and be able to appreciate that you made a mistake. Now, what are you going to do with it? What are you going to do with the mistake? You’re going to let it grow or you’re going to cut the mistake off and begin to look more into the value of what you need to do and not only it comes to fundamental education, not only these programs being cut out.

These are the minds of people who are looking for those individuals as there’s like a … It’s just like an individual having to be ate up and not being able to think themselves out of a condition. These conditions have been created and folk in prison want to get out and tax payers want to see them come out to be better. However, people who runs this prison industry, if they’re not applying those things, then it’s detrimental to the community, to the health of the community, to the safety of the community. We have to begin to impose upon the policy makers to change the paradigm.

Leonard: Where would you have been if you did not have the college programs? Would you have come out and be the success that you are today?

Sidney: I would say yes, because I made a determination that I wasn’t going to go back the other way, regardless. I think that it was essential that I had that educational support base so that I could do even that much more.

Leonard: The articles talked about the programs that you ran in prison and it makes reference to a youth summit locally on [inaudible 24:29] engaged in. You have been involved in the re-entry community, you’ve gone out and entered kids, you’ve gone out and talked to different groups, you’ve been an organizer and an advocate for the re-entry community. Why?

Sidney: Again, you have to do things that are more and bigger than yourself. In order to be a God-driven instrument, you have to be able to touch people, in fact, with what you had been given. I believe that I have been given some divine principles that I need to impart and practice to other people to show them the benefit of the sincere happening as the day I suppose I had with an [inaudible 25:17]. Therefore, it won’t be all of this entitlement. You have to have a freedom to know and to be able to do and to practice the things that you’ve been given. Now, if we don’t have no exchange about those things, then it won’t see it. A teacher can’t engage a child like I can engage them because they haven’t been there, you understand?

Leonard: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sidney: A judge won’t be able to do that. The students in college won’t even be able because they haven’t been exposed to it. Now, I work with Howard University. A professor there by the name of  Adel Jackson and Douglas Hall. I’ve known her since ’76. I had a chaplain of the United States Senate to pay her to come to Lorton, to teach us, and the prodigy, linguistics, sociology. Now, becoming a part of the Howard University program through Lorton was one that I had to create myself because I had the resource to do it. Ten of those men were taking those classes. I’ve still been in contact with her since coming in the community. I’ve given a [preface 26:22] up there at Howard University so that the student population that comes from different states can be able to have a practical experience of what it means to integrate their education with the reality of community work.

Leonard: You do understand that most people who come out of the prison system don’t do what you do. A lot do. I don’t want to take away from anybody who have been advocates. You have just been there steadfastly throughout working with youth, working with anti-crime summits, working with re-entry community, being an advocate. You’ve been a bus driver for years. You’re now running for the local union presidency. What motivates you to do all these things? You’ve said religion. Is there anything else beyond religion?

Sidney: My belief and faith in Jesus Christ is the ultimate driving force in my life. That’s where I get my energy. The power of the holy spirit allows me to be driven to do things to help others.

Leonard: That young men early on in life probably had all that instruction, probably had all that encouragement. You were, probably, as you said, exposed to religion but there was a certain point where it took root was in prison.

Sidney: Yes. It was the fullness of time. You cannot continue to be destructive to yourself and expect to get something out of life more. You have to be able to be a contributor. You have to be able to be a participant. You have to be able to be involved. That goes across the board with the criminal justice process. The fact is that, they don’t have experiences that would make … For the difference, once a person is caged in an environment. Now, we have to look at what value can we get out of these people now that we’re locking them up, now that they committed some wrong in society or have been found guilty for some particular crime, how can we get the best of this? Now, what I did was, I looked at the special Olympics that was a population of people that was not being addressed …

Leonard: While you were in prison.

Sidney: While I was in prison. I met this guy who was part of the world football league. His name was Joseph Wheeler and he was an oceanographer. I challenged him. He was on the field. He has some guys doing some football trials. That was in the transition of the world football league. I challenged him and wrote him a letter. He took the letter to [inaudible 29:06]. They sent this boss directly down here and we got something going. It lasted for 10 years successfully.

Leonard: All right. Final 30 seconds of the program. The answer has been quick. What message do you give right now to somebody called up in the criminal justice system doing the wrong thing, hanging out in the street, you’re talking directly to that person, what do you say to him?

Sidney: I believe that I would want this person to begin to evaluate themselves, build a support base in the community with their families, with the church, with someone that will keep them conscious, motivated, and educated about where they’re going once they are released.

Leonard: All right. That was a wonderful story, Sidney. This is a program, The Amazing Life of Sidney Davis. This is D.C. Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticism. We want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

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