After spending 10 years in prison, I was released at the beginning of 2003. While I didn’t leave empty-handed, the $200 gate money I received (about double what most exiting inmates get) wasn’t much to start a new life. I got that much because of my completely impoverished state and the lack of support from my family.
However, my family is not poor. My oldest son is a lawyer, as is his wife and my cousin. My younger son is a jet pilot and my sister is a real estate executive who heads a major association. And then there is me, who landed in the slammer for white-collar corporate crime and false accusations of sexual shenanigans.
Upon my arrest, I was offered a misdemeanor plea. It would have allowed me to escape the label of being a felon while also giving me a short probation term instead of a long prison sentence. But in my naiveté, or as my mother would say “idealism,” I felt I was entitled to a trial. That decision cost me and my family dearly, something they have yet to completely forgive me for. I’m still trying to come to terms with their rejection of me.
My mother died during my eighth year in prison. She had been the glue that held my family together. “Dennis is an idealist,” she’d say. Not that she saw me as a saint. She always had a kind word to say about everyone. When she died in June of 2001, my family applied other labels to me ranging from overbearing to foolish to crazy. They also said I was not worthy of sharing in my mother’s estate.
As if my going to prison weren’t bad enough, I showed little remorse while there. Why should I when I felt I had hurt no one? And even if I did – and I continue to question if I truly did – shouldn’t I have been given the opportunity to compensate them? Putting an able man like me on ice for 10 years seemed nonsensical. So I constantly preached to my family that it was the law, not me, that was wrong and badgered them to do something about it. Their reaction was to distance themselves from me. My outcast status was confirmed when my lawyer son and later my sister acted to have a court order issued against me to keep my distance from them. Ten years in prison and the increasingly antagonistic letters we sent to each other completed the process of separation.
On the morning of January 6, 2003, I finally left prison and arrived that evening in Washington, DC with my most important possession—my guitar. During my decade behind bars, I spent a lot of time learning how to play. Guitar playing helped me keep my sanity. It also kept my dream alive of someday playing and teaching music for a living.
The bus ride from Petersburg, Virginia, to Washington, only took two hours but I had delayed leaving town so I could walk around and get my first taste of freedom. It was during that walk that I realized I had no place to go. Still, I was determined to use that free bus ticket the prison had given me to get to DC. Yet when I arrived at the Greyhound bus terminal, my money was already rapidly eroding. During my 10-year absence, everything had gone up in price: food, transportation, telephone calls. I was even charged for directory assistance, something previously unheard of. I then call three or four homeless shelters. Surely they could help me.
I looked at my cheap prison watch while dialing and realized I ate free in prison. Harsh chow calls and my hard cell bunk bed never looked more appealing. After a series of calls, junk snack, and further depleting my finances, I walked to the Community for Creative Non-violence (CCNV) shelter on 2nd Street in NW. When I first walked into the CCNV, the folks treated me well. True, I didn’t have much basis for comparison but still they seemed to care.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, they – Gregory Irving, Lloyd Baylor, George Woods, Deborah Robinson, Abdul Nurriddin, Donald Page and several others – helped me in many ways. They showed me where to get food stamps so I could buy healthy food. They gave me access to the music studio in their Mitch Snyder Arts and education Center so I could keep up my musical skills, They also put me to work to receive valuable training.
A year and a half has passed since then and I’m happy to say that many doors have opened for me. I’m active in a church that values my music and I regularly perform at fundraisers for the CCNV. There’s also a good possibility I will soon reunite with my family. My son and I have gone through mediation sessions. At times it’s been story, but I think our overall goal is to move forward and put this period of bickering and unrest behind us. My sister has also made overtures, telling others that she indeed loves and cares about me.
I have also found meaningful work in helping to develop an organization called the Prisons Foundation, which promotes the arts and education in prison as well as alternatives to incarceration. It is allowing me to do more than just complain about what’s going on in America, where we imprison more men and women than any other country.
I never intended to be homeless, but then I never expected to go to prison either. Life sometimes hands you cards you would not choose yourself. Yet being homeless doesn’t mean you have to be heartless. Look out for yourself but also look out for your fellow human beings. Above all, you have to be proud of who you are, what you do, and what you are capable of doing.