Second Chances Give Convicted Felons a New Start
Richard Walker Uses His Story to Fuel Reform and Help Convicted Felons Get a New Start
At the offices of Newport News nonprofit Bridging the Gap in Virginia (BGV), 60-year-old Richard Walker sits listening intently to a young man’s story. Released days before, Leroy Jones, 28, has essentially been imprisoned since his 18th birthday.*
“I’d just turned 18, and my girlfriend, she was turning 16,” Jones recounts. “We skipped school, and the cops found us smoking weed at a swimming hole. … They arrested me for possession and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”
The parents filed charges of statutory rape. With a history of juvenile offenses, Jones was painted a habitual offender and sentenced to three months in jail. “When I got in this guy kept giving me crap,” he says. Suffering from what Jones now recognizes as depression, he snapped. “Before I knew it, I’d hauled off and punched the guy in the face.”
The blow shattered the inmate’s eye socket. Slipping into a coma, he nearly died. Jones found himself again in court, and what started as an ill-advised date with a teenage girlfriend spiraled into nine years of incarceration.
As a convicted felon who’s experienced just two weeks of freedom as an adult, Jones struggles to envision a future that brings happiness, much less success.
Walker nods. “I know the feeling because I’ve lived through it,” he says. A tall, broad-shouldered African-American with a shaved head and thick mustache, Walker is built like an athlete. Though his gaze is intense, he exudes a fatherly assurance. “I’d like to say it’s gonna be easy, but it’s not,” he continues with a sigh. “In fact, it’s gonna be real hard. But if you’re determined to do what it takes, you can make a fresh start and you can be successful.”
Walker speaks from experience. He was imprisoned for two years in the early 2000s. Released in late 2005, he discovered the battle of reentry firsthand. Learning more than 56 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are rearrested within three years, and 75 percent within five years, he dedicated himself to curbing the trend.
Since founding BGV in 2008, Walker’s organization has grown to include seven full-time employees and locations in Richmond and Newport News. BGV helps convicted felons successfully reenter society through partnerships with realtors, government agencies, counseling centers, rehabilitation clinics, colleges, private employers and more. The group has secured gainful employment for more than 550 people in the past year alone. In his free time, Walker lobbies for legislative reform. He was instrumental in passing laws and ordinances expediting the restoration of rights for well-behaved felons, holding judges accountable for breaking sentencing guidelines and banning employers from asking about felony convictions on job applications.
“I am intimately familiar with the realities of incarceration and the challenges that come after,” says Walker. “But when you talk to someone that knows what it’s like, that’s been where you’ve been and has made it to the other side, that’s when you listen.”
Richard Walker shares his story openly and frequently. How he tells it depends on the audience: With Virginia legislators, it becomes an indictment urging reform; with ex-convicts, an invitation for help and support. Either way, the takeaway is the same: People make mistakes. If they pay the price, they deserve a fair shot at a second chance.
“In America we have this myth where if you go to jail you’re a bad person,” Walker explains. “Most people go to jail because they were brought up in impoverished, criminogenic environments and made dumb mistakes when they’re too young to know better,” he continues. Others get caught up in drugs or violate probation. “The truth is less than half of all incarcerated felons were convicted of violent crimes. And at least four out of 10 shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place.”
The statements are corroborated by a 2016 exposé in TIME that found at least 39 percent of the U.S.’s 2.2 million-person prison population would be better served by alternative programs or treatments. Walker’s story gives the stat a human face and provides a positive example for reentry.
Educated in a prestigious northeastern private school, he earned a BA from Virginia State University. After 20 years in middle management, he became a middle school English teacher. At the time of his conviction for felony possession of cocaine in 2002, he was married, owned a home in Richmond and had zero criminal history. On paper, he was an anomaly.
“Truth is, I was introduced to narcotics in high school and struggled with addiction my whole adult life,” confides Walker.
After losing his job at a New Jersey electric company in 1981, he enrolled in rehab at the age of 24. “Things would go well, then something bad would happen and I’d fall off the wagon,” says Walker. “Eventually, I’d get clean and move to another place. It became a cycle.”
Landing in Richmond in 1998, he had two years of sobriety under his belt. Married, working a job he enjoyed, things looked great. But three years later addiction struck again.
“I went on a weekend bender, and when I came back, my wife had locked me out the house,” he says, recalling the night of his arrest. Driving to a nearby quarry, he commenced hitting golf balls, drinking Cisco, smoking crack. At 2 a.m. he was tackled by a detective.
With his record, Walker got supervised probation. But the addiction was in full swing. He tried to get himself clean but was scared to reach out for institutional help. Eventually, he failed a drug test. The mistake led to a felony conviction and two years’ imprisonment. Inside, Walker was confronted by the realities of recidivism.
“Most guys got out and came right back in,” he says. “It bothered me so bad, I started talking to them about what was happening. They’d tell me how hard it was, that the system was rigged. But I didn’t know what they meant until I experienced it myself.”
Walker got out and devoted himself to changing his life. He enrolled in a drug treatment program and attended Narcotics Anonymous. Looking to reestablish himself professionally, he got jolted: His experience and college degrees didn’t matter. All employers saw was a conviction.
“The biggest issues you face when you get out are things most people take for granted,” says Walker. Namely: food, shelter, clothing, hygiene, transportation and employment. “It’s even harder when you don’t have a supportive environment to come back to.”
If a former inmate returns to the same places, associates with the same people and is around the same activities that got them in trouble in the first place, they’ll invariably wind up back in jail. Many have to start from scratch. Lacking access to counseling services, they’re typically coping with the pressures of reentry alone. Former drug users are particularly at risk.
Walker wanted to make a difference. He returned to school to become a counselor and obtained certification as an offender workforce development worker from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He made political connections and served on the Richmond Regional Reentry & Community Collaboration Council. He taught reentry workshops at various prisons. In 2015, the Office of Community Wealth asked him to council former Richmond inmates facing reentry. In 2016, he opened BGV’s offices in Newport News.
These days, Walker is turning his eye toward reform. Consulting with legislators, he hopes to craft legislation that will keep good people out of jail.
“More than 60,000 people are imprisoned in Virginia and another 60,000 under criminal justice supervision,” says Walker. African-Americans make up nearly 60 percent of that population. “We presently spend $1.5 billion a year perpetrating systemic racism and imprisoning people that don’t belong there. I’m of the opinion that money can be better spent helping folks live better, happier lives.”
Arlene Edwards Spent More than a Decade Parenting Four Daughters from a Prison Cell. Since then, She’s Devoted Her Life to Helping At-Risk Moms Avoid Doing the Same.
Arlene Edwards lived a typical, middle-class childhood in the 1950s. Her father—a big, broad-shouldered, church-going man—loved to laugh and play with his daughters after work and on weekends.
Then things went wrong. Arlene’s dad died of a heart attack at the age of 48. She was 12 years old.
“It was such a shock I couldn’t comprehend what’d happened,” she says. Worse, no one talked about it. “There were so many emotions going on. Now I know I was grieving. But back then there were no counselors to go to. The attitude was kind of like, ‘Suck it up and move on.’”
“I didn’t know how to go on like nothing bad had happened,” she says. Feeling ignored, she rebelled. It started with refusals to follow directions but quickly escalated to running away from home. “I’d leave and try my best not to come back,” she explains. “But the police would always find me and drag me back home.”
Appearances in juvenile court became a feature of the Edwards’ life. After two years of second chances, the judge had had enough. “He looked at me and said, ‘This has got to stop. We can’t have you running around on the streets like this anymore,’” explains Arlene. “Then he sentenced me to a year in juvenile detention.”
Inside Arlene was exposed to serious criminals—kids incarcerated for violence, robbery, prostitution, selling drugs and more. “Spend enough time around people that did crimes way above what you’d ever thought about doing and it shifts your thinking,” she explains. “I was in there so long I started picking up their attitudes and identifying as a criminal.”
Returning to school, Arlene was a pariah. Seeking social acceptance, she associated with dissidents and outsiders. By 17, she’d dropped out of high school and moved away from home. “I was hanging with a bad crowd,” she says. “They taught me to live on the streets and make money as a thief.”
The money was lucrative and allowed Arlene to buy an automobile and live a life of relative luxury. At 19, she met a handsome, smooth-talking drug dealer and all-around hustler, whom she married in 1966. That same year, she spent three months in jail for shoplifting.
“When I came home we got pregnant,” she recalls. “I told myself I was gonna change my life and live straight.” But that’s not how things went. “I was around the same people, in the same places, doing the same things,” she says. “My friends would hear I was looking for a job and laugh in my face. I was back stealing within a month.”
The return to criminality coincided with another major event. Curious about her husband’s use of intravenous drugs, Arlene became addicted. Combined with her first adult incarceration, a terrible cycle ensued.
“I spent 15 years struggling with drug addiction and trying to quit the criminal lifestyle,” says Arlene. When she divorced her husband in 1980, she had four daughters and had spent nearly as much time in jail as she had outside. “I knew I didn’t want my girls growing up in that environment, so they lived with my mom almost exclusively. And I was grateful—that gave them some sense of normal.”
Despite everything, Arlene wanted to be a part of her daughters’ lives. The feeling was more potent following jail time. “I’d tell myself, ‘This is the time you pull things together and be a real mom,’” she says. “I’d help with homework, and we’d go play in the park, and everything would be amazing. Then something would pull me back in. It was horrible to do that to my girls, but I just couldn’t keep straight.”
In 1982 Arlene fell in love with a man who specialized in armed robbery and started accompanying him on jobs. Following a botched department store stickup, the two were pursued by a policeman on a motorcycle. The boyfriend shot the officer in the helmet and knocked him off the bike. (Luckily, the officer wasn’t killed.) Upon their apprehension, the two were convicted of armed robbery and attempted murder. Arlene was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment. The boyfriend got life.
When Arlene went to prison her oldest daughter was 14, her youngest, 8.
“They couldn’t understand the severity of it,” she says. Overwhelmed by shame and remorse, she wanted to give up. Then a counselor mentioned parole. “The hearing was 10 years off, but I thought, ‘I’ll get out and lead a completely different life,’” Arlene explains. “So, I started focusing on education, on building relationships with my daughters, on understanding what’d happened to me and planning ahead for how to make it when I got out.”
But parenting from jail wasn’t easy. Though Arlene’s mother brought the girls for monthly visitations, the process was stressful. “They had to go through rigorous security—” including strip searches—“so they got to me fragile and frustrated,” says Arlene. The sessions lasted an hour and she was attending to four children at once. “They were so angry with me it made getting through to them hard. But I knew I had to make those face-to-face moments count.”
Arlene supplemented visits with phone calls and letters. Initially, the girls were emotionally guarded. Convincing them she intended to be a real mom was tough. “I let them know they were on my mind by writing tons of letters,” says Arlene. Writing their teachers, she acquired textbooks and brushed up on the subjects her girls were studying. “That way I could talk to them about what was going on in class and help out.”
Arlene also exchanged letters with her mother to discuss parental and household decisions. Ultimately, the strategy paid off. The girls embraced the correspondence. As they got older, conversations grew more intimate.
“They asked me about my life and why I wasn’t there,” confides Arlene. “It was tough, but I felt like telling my story would bring us closer together. I thought, ‘If they know I’m being truthful with them, they’ll feel safe being truthful with me.’”
In 1992, Arlene made parole. On the day of her release, her daughters were waiting with open arms.
Since leaving prison Arlene’s life hasn’t been easy. As a 45-year-old felon with no résumé to speak of, she was starting at worse than scratch. But she persevered. “I got into transitional housing in Richmond and took whatever work I could get,” she says. “All that mattered was seeing my daughters on the weekends. That kept me going.”
Today, Arlene is 71 and has 11 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. She takes pride in attending birthday parties, babysitting and maintains relationships with them all. Additionally, she plays a special role: If a family member starts to slip up, Arlene gets called in for a sit down.
“I tell my story as a cautionary tale, but it also opens the door to honesty,” she says. “People hear what I’ve been through and feel more comfortable talking about their struggles.”
Arlene wields her story similarly at work. After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she became a nationally certified peer recovery support specialist and took a position at Bridging the Gap in 2012.
“Not a week goes by that I don’t talk to a young mom who just got out of jail and think, ‘If I could’ve run into somebody like me when I was her age, things could’ve been different,’” Arlene reflects. “I know what these women are going through, and I feel blessed I can use my mistakes to help them. When I see a mom get a second chance, that tells me I’m making a difference—seeing that gives my life a bigger purpose.”