Former Offender Writes Guide on Reentry

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[Audio Begins]

Hi, and welcome to DC Public Safety. I’m your host Len Sipes. Back at our microphones is Eddie Ellis. Eddie has a front page article in The Washington Post. He’s been at our microphone before. I’m going to read a little bit from The Washington Post:

“I did half my life in jail,” said Ellis who turns 33 this month, “It’s easier for me to go back there and live because it’s less responsibility. Out here, things are harder.”

We’re going to talk about this whole issue of re-entry as we have in the past, but one of the things, and one of the reasons why The Washington Post did the front page article on Eddie Ellis is that he put together a pretty good resource manual to assist offenders when they get out of prison. What are the things that they should know? Where can they go for help? What should they do?

In my 40 years within the Criminal Justice System, I am not aware of anybody coming out of the prison system that turned around and reached back to the people who are still in the prison system, and tried to help them in terms of this manual, so Eddie, welcome back to DC Public Safety.

Eddie Ellis: Thank you Len.

Len Sipes: Alright, Ladies and Gentleman, we are receiving 122,000 requests for these programs on a monthly basis. Every month it seems to go up and up and up, and we appreciate your comments. We respond individually to all of your comments, and we work your comments into these programs. You can find us at or the website, which is the main website for the agency, is the podcast site where we have the radio and television stations and where we have transcripts and a blog, and we are just receiving an award for television production from a county television association, so I appreciate your comments, and I appreciate everything you are doing to make the show a success.

Okay, Eddie, back to you. So, we have this Washington Post article, and you know the President of the United States gets on the front page of The Washington Post, the Mayor of DC gets on the front page of The Washington Post, and you are on the front page of The Washington Post. How does that feel?

Eddie Ellis: It’s an honor. It’s an honor. It means I’m doing what I gotta do. You know, I had the life in prison, and I’m just trying to make my community better, and I think people are recognizing that, and that’s what’s important to me.

Len Sipes: Now, you are out there, even as of today, you are coming from a job interview. How did that go?

Eddie Ellis: It went well. It went well. I went there and pitched myself and hopefully I get another job soon.

Len Sipes: Alright, good, and that’s one of the things we want to talk about, this whole issue of reentry. Again, reading from the article, at 15 he was sent to the Oakville Detention Facility in Laurel, which is the Juvenile Justice Facility for the District of Columbia, and Laurel in Maryland, on an armed robbery charge. He said he was innocent and the court agreed, dismissing the case, but on December 20th 1991, months after his release, he shot and killed another high school student during an argument, and Eddie said it was self-defense, but he was convicted of manslaughter, and the next paragraph goes on to say that while in prison he was implicated in another slaying and sent to a super maximum prison in Florence, Colorado, and one of the things is, that I read this solely from the basis of we want to understand that a good number of the 700,000 individuals that come out of federal and state prisons, every year, a good number have -and when I say a good number, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of them -have violent criminal history backgrounds, and Eddie I ask this question of you just about every appearance, what do you say to the people that say, “Man, you know, with that kind of violent history, I don’t think that you should be out of prison at all?”

Eddie Ellis: Well, you know, people have their opinions, and my thing is this, if we paid our debt to society, we should be given another chance to prove ourselves, and I’ve made some bad choices in my past, and I’ve taken responsibility for those choices, and unfortunately, you know, somebody lost their life, in 1991 when I went to jail.

Len Sipes: That was the school shooting?

Eddie Ellis: No, it wasn’t at a school, but he was a high school student, you know, selling drugs like I was, was in the street like I was, and he pulled a gun, and I pulled a gun, and he was shot, and unfortunately he lost his life, but I can’t bring that back. So, what I want to do now is give back to my community with the resources to help people come home and change the outlook on life, and I want people like ex-offenders to see that a lot of us can do right, and I want people in the community to see the same thing.

Len Sipes: You know, there is a larger issue here, excuse me, both in terms of the ex-offender community, and in terms of the community at large because, again, nothing more than what you and I have talked about repeatedly in the past, is that I go back to the two most influential people in my life, my mom and my wife, and my mom, God rest her soul, simply said, “Leonard, you can advocate for offenders all you want, I’m telling you the money should go to the elderly.” She had been through the Great Depression, and the Second World War, you know, they’ve paid their debt and should be taken care of. You can’t argue with that.

My wife, who was a vice president of a county PTA basically said, “Leonard, the money needs to go to kids,” so that’s one of the reasons why I brought up your charges, is that the reality is that people are just going to have a hard times coming to grips with reaching out to Eddie Ellis, putting a human face on Eddie Ellis and doing what we would say is probably the right thing to do, solely from a pragmatic point of view, because the programs indicate that the more we help you guys that are coming out of the prison system, the less crimes you commit.

Eddie Ellis: That’s true, and I am not going to argue the opinion of your mother or your wife, but I’m just, and I want to say this, we’re here. We’re not going anywhere, and without the help with things, it will get worse, but with help things can get better. Things won’t change fully, but things can get better.

Len Sipes: And I think that’s the heart and soul of it, because people do this, advocate for reentry for a wide variety of points of view. Some do it from a biblical point of view. Some do it because it is mandated either by the Koran or, if you are part of the Jewish religion, I am told that there are great similarities in terms of Jesus’ sense and command, if you will, of going into the prison system and reaching out, and going into the jails and reaching out to criminal offenders. Some people do it because they believe it’s a moral duty. Some people do it because it’s a religious duty, and some people do it as I do it, from pure pragmatism, because it is, and this is what I tell people, exactly what you tell people, they are there. They are a ten-minute drive from where you are, thousands, tens of thousands, and if you are in any metropolitan area in the United States, and we have listeners in Australia, England, New Zealand, and I don’t care where you are, there are thousands of offenders with violent criminal histories within a ten-minute drive from where you are right now, 15-minute drive tops. They are there, and so the question becomes whether or not you want them to be a taxpayer, or whether or not you want them to be a tax burden, and whether or not you want them to victimize family and friends and community, and whether you don’t. To me, it’s just that direct, and that pragmatic.

Eddie Ellis: Yeah, I understand where you’re coming from, but the problem I have is the negative attention that the media gives to ex-offenders all the time, and I’m saying that to say that 90% of the things that you see on the media screen, or in the newspapers, is negative. You know, it’s rare that you actually see us out front and doing good, even though it’s a lot of us out here doing good. We can’t change what we’ve done in the past, and so the only thing that we can do is move on and try and help our community, and I’m doing what I’m doing because I want to help my community. I don’t want see someone kill my little brothers, or my little cousins, or rape them and beat them. I don’t want that, and so if I can give these men and women this information, it’s very important for me.

Len Sipes: And that is your point and my point. It is, and I have a full respect for people who look at this, either from a moral point of view or a religious point of view. I fully respect them. I also fully respect people who say, “You know, Leonard, they should be locked up and the key thrown away, and that’s what’s going to make society safer,” because there is good solid research that says incarcerating people makes the community safer, so I understand everybody’s point of view, but I’m stuck with your point, you are here. I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of people like you that are here, so what do I want them to do? Do I want them to be a pain, or do I want them to contribute, and the research is, I think, pretty clear that you can have a 20-30% reduction in recidivism which for some states, by the way, that means not having to build an entire prison. I mean, you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars to build and hundreds of millions of dollars each year to maintain a prison. That’s money that could be going to colleges. That’s money that could be going to the elderly, or to school kids, so you can have a big financial incentive to do these programs and more and more states are looking at it that way.

But still, I mean, we both acknowledge that society is just not jumping up and down and saying, “Welcome home, how can I help you.”

Eddie Ellis: And that’s the problem I have, because they say we must pay our debt to society, right? I’ve paid 15 years of my life, to society, right, for doing what I did, and I’ve taken my full responsibility for what I did, so what am I to do now, come out here and just sit back and just allow society to turn its back to me after I’ve done and paid my debt? That’s the problem that I have, you know, because you have a lot of people out here that make bad choices and make bad decisions and my thing is, like I say, I can’t change what happened, but I will continue to do what I need to do to help those in my situation, so those who are not in my situation understand how can they help us.

Len Sipes: I’m going to give Eddie Elllis’ email address, and it’s in the article in The Washington Post, so if you don’t remember this address, you can go to our main website, which is for the Court Service of Offender Supervision Agency, my agency, which is a federal executive branch agency, and you can go onto the website and look at the article. It’s like the fourth paragraph down, and I’ll repeat this throughout the program. His email address is, or again go to our website and it is right at the top of the page

Eddie, we’ve been talking a little bit today about the fact that in Washington DC and cities around the country, every summer you come across the issue of violent crime, of people shooting other people, and there’s been quite a stir in DC lately about young people being involved in acts of violence. There was a 13-year-old shot and killed just the other day in the Trinidad neighborhood, not terribly far from where we are right now, do you have any thoughts on all of this? I mean, you’ve been in the street, you’ve been part of the gangs, you’ve been part of the lifestyle, you’ve been incarcerated, and you’ve been around people who have done a lot of things. What is your opinion on this whole issue of violent crime and young people?

Eddie Ellis: Well, to be honest, it’s sad that this stuff is continuing to happen, but I feel that the lack of programs and recreational centers in those areas for these kids could lead to a lot of this stuff, and I’m not, you know, making any excuses for anybody’s actions, but I think that government officials need to be held for these programs not being there for these kids. Where do they have to go? Where is the recreation center? I used to play football on Florida Avenue for the #9 Boys and Girls Club. It’s no longer there, and 90% of the people in that Florida Avenue area played for this boy’s club. It’s no longer there. They don’t have nowhere to go, and the only problem I have with the checkpoint thing is ,

Len Sipes: By the way, let me explain that. The Metropolitan Police Department is setting up checkpoints in the neighborhood. They did it before and crime went down. The neighborhood was ambivalent about it. Some supported it and some did not, but as soon as they pulled out, you had shootings all over again, not just the murder of the 13-year-old, but other shootings there as well, and so they’ve restarted the checkpoints where they are asking for identification for people moving by vehicle in and out of the community, and if you don’t have a legitimate reason for being there, then they will not let you in, and so go ahead Eddie.

Eddie Ellis: The problem I have with that is, as a taxpayer, why don’t I have the right to drive anywhere in my city? I have a real problem with that. I understand what you are trying to do, but for the same time it’s like you violated my civil rights in not allowing me where I want to go, you know, and I clearly understand what they are trying to accomplish, but I also understand that some of these people have given away their civil rights by allowing them to just do that, because if I want to take someone through the city that’s visiting here, and take them through the city, why can’t I do that? Why am I being stopped?

Len Sipes: I guess the larger issue, and I’ve been wrestling with this issue, and everybody in criminology is wrestling with this issue for 40 years now, is that, as you have just said, it’s frustrating that it continues. I mean, the recreational programs, fine. I grant you that. There should be recreational programs, but the problem itself, is it a matter of programming, or is it a matter of parenting? Is it a matter of the community? I mean, at what point does government say, “You know what, this really is a matter for the community. It really is a matter for the parents. It really is a matter for the individuals themselves and the decisions that they make.” Now, some people will say that’s blaming the victims, but in Criminology 101, the most powerful influence over anybody is going to come from their immediate peer group, and that’s parents, and that’s family and that’s community.

Eddie Ellis: Well, I don’t get it. I’m putting blame all across the board. I’m not, you know, dismissing anybody, but the problem I got to say, if the person normally got to do with this child, and that’s like my mother, I know for a fact that my mother done everything she could to keep me out of trouble and away from trouble. You know, and ,

Len Sipes: Your father wasn’t there.

Eddie Ellis: My father died, right, when I was a kid, right. But my mother did everything that she needed to do to keep me out of trouble. I went to school. I played sports. I went on family vacations. I done what I was supposed to do. I went to see my doctor when I was young when I needed to see him, and all that, but my thing is this, I chose to step out of line and make that choice, so I’m not blaming my mother, and I’m not going to allow anybody to blame my mother.

Len Sipes: Right, but I’ve talked to, and so have you, dozens of people caught up in the game, and the research substantiates this. The research is pretty clear on this, a lot of them, they raised themselves. A lot of them, they raised themselves, and they’re angry about it, and a lot of them started alcohol and marijuana at 9, 10, and 11, started crime at 11, 12 and 13, and a lot of them got pushed around in the process, physically, by whatever parent was there and whoever was in that house, so a lot of these kids who are caught up in the game, you know, they had a terrible upbringing.

Eddie Ellis: Yeah, but that’s but that’s not paying attention to them.

Len Sipes: Well, that’s my point. Why isn’t it paid attention?

Eddie Ellis: Because it’s easier to deal with surface stuff, and I always say this, because I think a lot of these men and women are dealing with a lot of mental issues, and I think that is not addressed.

Len Sipes: 50% of all offenders claim issues of mental health, mental health issues.

Eddie Ellis: And I don’t deal with stats myself, but I believe that, and my problem is this, I’ve lived in Montgomery County, in the suburbs.

Len Sipes: And Montgomery County is a wealthy county suburb of Washington DC.

Eddie Sipes: And I witnessed a lot of my classmates that had a lot of problems, and worst problems than the kids I’d been hanging with in DC, but I’ve never around anybody in DC that said they going to kill themselves, and your parents are making all this money, and your house is as big as two or three of our homes in DC, and I’ve never saw this before, so the issues that they deal with out there, it’s a little different, but they are addressed in a different way out there, than it is in the city, and I say this, as to say, when someone shoots somebody in the suburbs, you know what a lot of the times they say? They had mental health issues. He or she was abused when they was young. They have mental health issues. But in the city it’s the blame of the parent. It’s the blame of the lack of something, and I have a problem with that, because it’s like you are overlooking the mental health problem that these kids may have, but out in the suburbs you are not doing that, you are accepting it as a mental health issue, and that’s the problem I have.

Len Sipes: Alright, where does it lead to in terms of the larger issue of offenders coming back out of the prison system? We are going to shift gears from the younger people getting involved in all of this. Most crime is not reported. Most reported crime does not end up in arrest. In some cities throughout this country, there are a sizeable number of crimes that, when they are arrested, they are not prosecuted, and most people who end up being prosecuted do not end up doing prison time. They may go to the local jail for a small amount of time, but they don’t end up in the state prison. They don’t end up in the federal prisons. So, the folks who end up in prison have somehow and some way gone through this funnel, and most of them have some real issues in terms of their own criminal issues, or they would not have gone to prison to begin with, so with that knowledge in mind, these people come back out, and it’s inevitable that they come back out; there are very few people that stay there for life, and virtually nobody is executed, and so they come back out and they have the same issues that you and I have been talking about, you know? That they’ve raised themselves at age 9, 10 and 11, and they had early onset of criminal and drug activity at 12, 13 and 14, and they started doing crime at right around the same age, and they graduated to more strenuous drugs, they dropped out of school, they don’t have a solid job history, and that’s a lot of issues to deal with. Now, tell the audience how we can deal with that?

Eddie Ellis: Well, I think , first of all, I think a lot of mental health issues need to be addressed while they are in jail. You know, when I was in Florence, Colorado, in the supermax …

Len Sipes: A federal prison.

Eddie Ellis: Yes, a federal prison. I saw the doctor once every 30 days, “Are you okay?” and this is the first prison I had ever been in that now I’m behind double doors, and I actually felt like I was locked up, and I’m just fortunate enough that I didn’t lose my mind behind my doors, and a lot of these people come out of there dealing with these issues. A lot of people have drug issues and don’t have nowhere to go. They don’t have the support that I had. A lot of people don’t have the will to say that I want to do right and I’m tired of doing wrong.

Len Sipes: But everybody that comes out, looks straight you in the eye and says, “I don’t want to go back. I do want to do the straight and narrow,” and then five days later they’re shooting up.

Eddie Ellis: I really believe that there are a lot of people who believe that.

Len Sipes: I really believe that a lot of people believe that too, but as far as the reality of coming out, it’s harsher than they imagined.

Eddie Ellis: That’s right, and that’s one of the reasons why I created that book, because a lot of us don’t know about the programs that are available for us, and I’m just explaining to a person. It’s like a hypothetical situation, and a guy comes home after doing ten years, and he has a child, and he’s been communicating with his child through the phone and through letters at the prison. Okay, but he actually never the physical, beyond the prison wall, physical contact with his child. Now, there’s parenting classes in this book. These parenting classes can help this man and this woman now know how to adapt and be a parent. That’s important, and a lot of things are missing when we get out. When we get out, things are moving very fast.

Len Sipes: You know, look at it this way, and this is what different people have told me about parenting, is that they had a lousy childhood, and I’m not saying every person in the prison system had a lousy childhood, but you know I’ve heard it from the great majority of people that they did. The stats back it up. So, you go through this experience and then you have kids, because the majority of people inside the prison system are parents, 70% in some cases, so you come out and suddenly you’ve got this kid. You don’t have any really good background in terms of raising a kid because you weren’t raised right to begin with. How do you suddenly become a parent? I mean, that’s, and different people have told me, you know, it is a matter of housing. It is a matter of having a livable roof over your head, where the house is not filled with people who are doing the things that are going to get you in trouble again, and we have so many things, just with the parenting issue. You come out, and you are a parent. Instant parent! Yesterday, you were behind bars and today you’re a parent. How do you become a parent when you really don’t know how to become a parent?

Eddie Ellis: Well, that’s true, but that’s no different than a new parent that’s on the street, because they can give you a book and a manual on how to be a parent, but actually will that manual work for you. You know, and that’s the same way when people come home from prison, and that’s why these programs are very important for them before they come home so they can understand certain stuff, understand how to take certain steps to learn how to be a parent.

Len Sipes: One of the things that is always confusing to me is why this is a difficult concept because it seems to me that the mental health issues need to be dealt with in prison. The GED issue, reading certificate or whatever it is, should be dealt with in prison. Everyone should come out and know how to work. Everybody should come out with a plumbing certificate or an electrical certificate or whatever, whatever it is that they want to do, and where they are going to find work. So, you have mental health, you have the GED and you have the plumbing certificate, and you have the parenting classes or whatever else there are. The research seems to indicate that you can lower the rate of recidivism considerably if you do these things. According to the statistics and according to the people that I talk to, very few people ever get what I’ve just mentioned.

Eddie Willis: Yeah, all of those are really important, but unfortunately a lot of prisons don’t offer these things.

Len Sipes: That’s my point, or they offer them in such small numbers that the waiting lists, or you’re a short-term inmate, and you are only there for 1-1/2 years, and by the time you get in these classes, it’s almost too late for you to ,

Eddie Willis: They won’t put you in there, and that’s the problem I have when people are complaining about these people who are not prepared. Well, when the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is making all this money for housing these men and women in prison, people think, you know, they don’t get anything. They do get something for housing people.

Len Sipes: Tax-paid dollars.

Eddie Willis: Yeah, it was like 52 dollars a day for like housing me, do you understand what I’m saying. That’s six years’ worth of money, and my problem is this, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is making all this money off these people, which is lower than minimum wage money that these people are making to make the things that they are making.

Len Sipes: Okay, so you are talking about the UNICOR which is what is loosely referred to as factories in prison where the offenders go and theoretically learn a skill and work while they are in the prison system?

Eddie Willis: Yeah, that’s what I’m referring to. They are making less than minimum wage payment, but they are making things that are being sold in government buildings and passed out in other institutions and things like that, and the problem I have is this, why do these men and women not qualify for these things when they come home and then they wouldn’t have such a hard time finding jobs? They’re qualified for something, but most of them are not qualified for it, and if they are qualified for it, they can come home and go to these places and say, “I’m qualified.” That doesn’t mean the place is going to hire them, but it can make their search more easier with their paperwork in their hands.

Len Sipes: And it’s also the inevitable issue of, the guy looks at you and says, “But, no man, you’re an ex-con. I don’t need the hassles.” Now, he may not say that out loud, but it’s there. I understand why that happens with some jobs, but I’m not quite sure it needs to happen with plumbing or welding or laying concrete, or there are a lot of jobs people in the prison system can come out and occupy to make real good money, driving a truck, that really don’t involve ,

Eddie Willis: Being a lawyer. I know people that came home and got law degrees, so it’s just ,

Len Sipes: I know people that have got out and are in sales and are making more money than I ever hoped to make, and that person, by the way, who has a wife and kids and a house in the suburbs was there for a violent crime. He still won’t come on and do my radio show, to this day, but he is a very interesting transformation. I want to mention the fact that you can read the Washington Post front page article on Eddie Ellis. You can go to our website, which stands for Court Services Offender Supervision Agency,, and it will be somewhere near the front of the page. You can contact Eddie at, and Eddie does sell these things because he does not have the financial wherewithal to give them away, and I don’t have the financial wherewithal to give them away, but there are reductions for multiple copies and we use them here at the Court Services and Defender Supervision agency, as other places do.

Eddie, any final comments? Every time I’ve gotten you on the microphone, it just goes by like wildfire, and I always feel that we never have enough time to fully explore this whole issue. Anything you want to leave with the citizens, the taxpaying hardworking citizen who support the both of us. They supported you while you were in prison and they support me through my paycheck, but is there anything you want to say to those individuals, and not necessarily about you but about people coming out of the prison system?

Eddie Ellis: Well, the first thing I want to say is, you know, those who are coming out of the prison system, most of them are convicted, whether they were innocent or guilty, have made some bad choices, and whether you want to or not, you are going to have to give them the chance to show that they can do good. You know, and I think that it’s important that people, you know, talk to their local council people about what effort can they make in their neighborhoods to make things better for these people, and a lot of citizens don’t understand that they can go to these local council people and request programs or ask them what can they do to better their neighborhood and allow these ex-offenders to be a part of these programs and allow yourself to see that some of us will do right, and just don’t turn your back on us because we need you all as well as you all need us, whether you want to believe that or not.

Len Sipes: Yeah, that’s an interesting observation, once again, we are all in this together, whether we believe it or not, whether we want to believe it or not, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we are stuck with each other. And some people are out there, way out in the ‘burbs saying, “I’m not stuck with it.” Yes, you are. Ten minutes away are a lot of people who have been in the prison system.

So, Ladies and Gentleman, this is DC Public Safety and our guest today has been Eddie Ellis. You can reach Eddie via email in terms of his new book, a resource guide for offenders coming out of the prison system, so that and again we are up to 122,000 requests for these radio and television shows every month. We greatly appreciate your input, and we greatly appreciate your suggestions for a better program. I’m Leonard Sipes your host. Have yourselves a very pleasant day.

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