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Imprisoned as a Teen, a Local Man Ushers Others Down the Path Toward Freedom

Community groups work together to expand re-entry mentoring program at the county jail

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Eddie Ellis

Via Eddie Ellis

Updated 9:36 a.m. Thursday: When Eddie Ellis was released from prison after 15 years behind bars, he was determined to get to a gas station and buy a pack of the Doublemint gum he’d been craving.

Beyond that, he didn’t have much sense of what his future would hold.

Ellis, who’d lived in Silver Spring before his arrest, was dead-set on staying out of trouble and getting a job, but accomplishing those goals with a manslaughter conviction on his record would be no easy task.

“At times, I almost gave up, because I was denied jobs like 10 or 15 times,” said Ellis, who was 31 years old at the time. “I was like, ‘If I can’t get a job, then what am I going to do?'”

But he kept persisting. And 12 years later, Ellis has a job, a wife and kids, a home in Olney and a purpose: To help other inmates succeed upon their release.

Wednesday night, at the Silver Spring Civic Building, Ellis shared information about the re-entry services he provides at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds and at other facilities in the region. He also began recruiting volunteers to join him in the effort.

The Takoma Foundation has awarded a $2,000 grant to Ellis’ organization, One by 1, so that he can train 15 community volunteers as re-entry mentors for inmates at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. Beginning this fall, the volunteers will spend three months meeting their mentees at the jail to prepare them for release. They’ll stick with the same mentees for another three months after they leave the facility.

The mentors will walk the inmates through a One by 1 workbook designed to help them understand their needs and plan for their future. The volunteers will also help their mentees connect with community resources that can support them during their transition.

The Montgomery County Correctional Facility, a jail with space for up to 1,028 inmates, holds men or women who are either awaiting trial or serving sentences of 18 months or less. Last year, the county released 4,447 people from incarceration, some of them more than once because they had multiple arrests, according to the county’s department of correction and rehabilitation.

The department has a reentry services unit that coordinates education, substance abuse treatment and workforce development programs for inmates.

But Ellis said there’s a need for increased support for re-entering individuals, who have to navigate everything from getting a driver’s license to finding housing.

Shayla Davis, a Takoma Park Mobilization leader who helped organize Wednesday night’s event, said it’s also important to offer some continuity in the services provided inside and outside the jail walls.

“We’re trying to explore to see if folks are coming back to Takoma Park and Silver Spring who don’t have the access to resources they need,” she said. “I think people need a little more hand-holding.”

Davis said she hopes the pilot program with the 15 volunteer mentors will grow into an ongoing initiative, perhaps even spreading to other jurisdictions.

Ellis and Davis said the barriers to successful re-entry are many and varied. Davis said many people struggle to balance their job search with other priorities, such as seeking out mental health services. Some people grapple with keeping up on their child support payments as they search for employment, Ellis said.

After his release from a Pennsylvania prison, Ellis spent about six or seven months getting turned down for jobs at paint stores, Home Depot and construction sites before he finally landed a position with a company that provided cleaning services.

Several years later, in 2008, Ellis founded his nonprofit One by 1 to provide mentoring and personal development tools to young people and adults and to work with reentering inmates throughout the D.C. region. Earlier this year, he took a position at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth as a coordinator for the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network.

Wednesday night’s meeting was sponsored by Takoma Park Mobilization and the Montgomery County chapter of the ACLU. Those who couldn’t make the meeting can learn more about becoming a mentor on the One by 1 website.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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