By Darnell Epps
Mr. Epps, a student at Cornell University, served 17 years in prison.
I can speak for both myself and my older brother, Darryl, when I say that March 8, 2000, was the most regrettable day of our lives. On that day, I accompanied Darryl to an encounter with a gang member who, days earlier, had sexually assaulted Darryl’s wife. We were both armed. Rather than report the assault, we set out for a confrontation. Within seconds, the situation escalated and Darryl fired several shots in a struggle for the gun, wounding the gang member and himself. Darryl and I survived. The gang member did not.
Months later, we stood shackled and handcuffed inside a muggy Brooklyn courtroom. I was 20 and Darryl was 21. We had every reason to think we’d spend the rest of our lives in jail. But Justice Gustin L. Reichbach did something unexpected, something that probably saved both our lives: He did not impose the maximum prison sentence of 40 years to life — the equivalent of life without parole — and instead sentenced each of us to serve 17½ years to life.
We were taken to Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, to serve our time. That Darryl and I were in the same prison gave us both real advantages. Friends and family could visit us in one place, helping us maintain a connection with the outside world. We were able to reflect together on where we had gone wrong and to commit ourselves to turning our lives around. Seeing each other every day provided a constant reminder of the worst choice we’d ever made.
We made a pact not to ever do anything that would separate us. We became partners in accountability, supported each other during difficult times and deepened our faith with the help of wonderful chaplains there. We also had the guidance and wisdom of several “old-timers” — prisoners decades older than us, some serving life sentences, who committed themselves to keeping us out of trouble. It worked. After seven years of good behavior, Darryl and I were granted permission to become cellmates and spent the next 10 years sharing a bunk.
In 2017 Darryl and I were paroled just after serving our minimum sentence. This was rare. When we entered the system in 2000, only a very small percentage of violent offenders — by some estimates, roughly 3 percent — serving life sentences in New York had been paroled after serving their minimum sentence. That aversion to parole, together with tougher sentencing laws, has contributed to what is now an aging prisoner population, with New York housing more than 10,000 inmates age 50 or older.
Today, I’m a full-time student at Cornell, majoring in government, while Darryl is making his mark in the Justice-in-Education program at Columbia. The most frequent question Darryl and I get is: “Exactly how did you guys do it?”
Evidently, the notion that convicted felons can ascend from the lowest depths of maximum security to the Ivy League is counterintuitive. But I’m quick to deny that Darryl and I are somehow exceptional. In prison, we shined because of, not despite, our circumstances, especially the presence of the “old-timers” who helped guide us to our coming-of-age. We owe them tremendous credit.
In his time as a prisoner, he has earned a bachelor of science degree, led alcohol and substance abuse training for other prisoners, and served as a peer and youth counselor. Today Mark is losing his vision and battling hypertension, and has several other physical ailments. This reunion was certainly bittersweet, with me as a visitor and Mark still wearing the green prison garb I so eagerly left behind.
Mark did a monologue at the performance, and referred to his role as a guide and a caretaker. “As a youth I was often neglected and overlooked,” he said, “often left to look after my younger siblings. It’s 2018 and life is still the same.”
Leaving Auburn that night, I was deeply saddened knowing that so many of the old-timers, like Mark, whose volunteerism and institutional accomplishments surpass my own, will probably die in prison. Their 50-, 75- and 100-year minimum sentences are the result of America’s “tough on crime” era — when the War on Crime pushed aside the War on Poverty, substituting mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws for antipoverty programs.
For these men, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is the prospect of finding a seat in what Rayford Gibson, in the movie “Life,” jokingly called “the upper room” — the place where they’ll rest eternally free from the bone-crushing reality of lifelong imprisonment. It’s clear that our prison population is aging, but we cannot die ourselves out of mass incarceration.
The Justice Department has reported that in 2016 roughly 160,000 prisoners held in state and federal prison were older than 55. New York’s own numbers are appalling, leading some lawmakers to support geriatric parole legislation and broader use of the governor’s clemency power.
Thomas DiNapoli, the New York State comptroller, recently reported that although the state’s prison population declined by 17.3 percent over the past decade, the number of prisoners aged 50 or older increased by 46 percent. Warning that this problem “is not unique to New York State,” Mr. DiNapoli faults the extraordinarily high “number of prisoners sentenced to and serving long periods in prison.”
And while his criticisms are undoubtedly motivated by fiscal concerns — namely, the $381 million in annual health care costs for inmates housed in state prisons — there is no avoiding the moral question.
We must seriously consider whether society would benefit by letting reformed offenders re-enter their community, and whether it’s economical and humane to punish solely for the sake of retribution. When I hear of all the gun violence on Chicago’s South Side, for instance, I can’t help wondering what would happen if Illinois’s many reformed old-timers, who hail from those neighborhoods, were granted parole with a mission of working to reduce the violence. It’s not unreasonable to think they’d have a better chance of reaching the younger generation than the local police or federal law enforcement.
“We have so much to offer,” Mark told me, referring to the many reformed old-timers behind the wall. “It makes more sense helping younger guys understand their anger and addiction out there,” he said, “than dealing with it in here.”
I know that among the nation’s enormous prison population are untold numbers of incarcerated men and women who are remorseful and have proven over many years that they are ready to enrich any community they live in. They are truly remarkable and would have plenty to give on the outside. We need to begin working toward more-just alternatives to long-term incarceration, so that there can be more stories like mine and Darryl’s, and fewer young people making the mistakes that get them sent to prison in the first place.