Life after lockup: An inmate's first year out

Elizer Darris looks out his front door on his first day of work.
Elizer Darris looks out the front door of his home in Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood before leaving for his first day of work at a telemarketing firm on Oct. 24, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

One day when he was 19 years old, Elizer Darris reached a turning point.

He was lying on the floor of his prison cell, awash in water from an overflowing toilet, with smoke billowing over his head.

"I don't want to die like this," he thought.

That day comes to mind now, as Darris finishes his first year outside the prison system that was home for more than half his existence. His life seems full of possibilities now, but it is also full of risk: notably, the chance that, like so many parolees, he will wind up back behind bars.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Darris knows the risks as well as anyone. Still, nothing on the outside seems as dangerous as that day when he was 19, facing suffocation in solitary confinement.

Elizer Darris sits for a portrait the day after being released.
Elizer Darris sits for a portrait in the living room of his home the day after being released from prison on Oct. 18, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

He had reached that critical moment through events of his own making: At 15, he killed a man and left his body in a ditch. He led a violent life while locked up, getting into fights in the St. Cloud prison and helping to incite the riot that now threatened his life.

With no more than a seventh-grade education, and having left what he called "a wake of destruction," Darris seemed likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars — what there was of it.

"I found myself laying in a little bitty cell in a little bitty town I'd never heard of, in a little bitty prison," he recalls now. "I decided to just kind of get it together."

He started paying attention to older inmates who had reached out to mentor him. He finished his high-school education, earning a GED. That led to an associate of arts degree. And he got married — to a woman he met and corresponded with from prison.

It was his wife, Shaundelle, who came to pick him up when he was released on Oct. 17, 2016. She thought her husband would want to savor the moment. "I thought you'd want to go outside and look at the trees and nature," she recalled. "And you were like, 'No!'"

Elizer Darris eats breakfast prepared by his wife.
Elizer Darris eats a breakfast of eggs, pancakes, grits, coffee, orange juice and turkey bacon prepared by Shaundelle before his first day of work. Shaundelle hates turkey bacon, "But he loves it, so I cook it," she says.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"Trees and nature?" echoed Darris. "I didn't want to see the trees, I didn't want to see the birds. I wanted to see the road."

Nor did he waste any time in disposing of his old wardrobe. "It's in the trash, actually," he told a visitor on his first full day out of prison. "I just took it and — shoes, shirts, socks — it's gone."

Darris had left the free world as an eighth-grader, and was returning as a 32-year-old. He and Shaundelle were kind of like newlyweds, living under the same roof for the first time. But Darris said everything felt natural.

"I'm just happy to be here, happy to be free, happy to have woken up with a lot of natural light in my apartment," he said. "It's a beautiful apartment. I have a beautiful wife."

Sunlight falls through the living room window on to Elizer Darris' shoes.
Sunlight falls through the living room window on to Elizer Darris' first new pair of shoes since being released from prison.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Darris might never have made it here. He was what they call a lifer, just like the dozens of offenders still serving life sentences in Minnesota who were under 18 when they committed their crimes.

After the murder, Darris was certified as an adult and originally sentenced to life in prison. The only possibility of parole would come after 30 years. He appealed the first-degree murder charge and won. A second-degree murder charge stuck, and he was resentenced to 25 years.

In Minnesota, with good time, inmates can be let out after serving two-thirds of their sentence and finish the remaining third on supervised release. That doesn't sit well with the family of Cornelius Rodgers, the man Darris killed.

"I can't accept that," said Kenneth Connelly, the victim's brother-in-law.

"I don't care if you're 13, 14, if you commit a murder like he committed at 15," he said. "And you're out at 32? Come on."

Darris doesn't expect the family to forgive him, or to believe he deserves a second chance. All he can do, he said, is focus on doing right. Not just for himself and his family, but for his community.

"And then hope, not demand, but hope, that people will see — and that his family members would see — the absolute effort that I have put in, and that I continue to put in, in order to make things different," he said.

Power of People members gather at the end of a weekly group meeting
Power of People members gather at the end a weekly meeting to support men getting out of prison in north Minneapolis on Jan. 24, 2017. Darris joined the group while in prison, connecting with friends and mentors, many of whom he still sees.
Evan Frost | MPR News

An inmate's first year of freedom is a significant milestone. Figures from the Justice Department say 4 in 10 released prisoners are rearrested during that time.

But if they can stay out of trouble that first year, their chance of recidivism drops. In his first year out, Darris ran into some bumps — but he also enjoyed some remarkable successes.

For starters, he had a job almost from the moment he walked out the prison gates. In fact, he landed the job while he was incarcerated, after he cold-called the employer from the Stillwater prison. A week after his release he was at work, selling magazines by phone.

Elizer Darris trains volunteers to canvas.
Elizer Darris goes over a map of south Minneapolis with a group of volunteers before hitting the streets to canvas for Nekima Levy-Pounds' mayoral campaign in Minneapolis on March 25, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But he had bigger ambitions, and soon he was applying for other jobs. In the year since his release he has sold watches, worked as a bouncer at a nightclub and started a consulting company. And though he can't vote until he finishes his supervised release, he landed a paid job in politics as field director for Minneapolis mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds.

At the same time, he's been trying to smooth the path for others who are coming out of prison. He meets with people in power — like prosecutors and judges — to offer an insider's view of criminal justice. The access he's been given is mind-boggling, even to him.

"I was just in the joint!" he marveled. "I was sitting on a hard cot looking at the TV, probably thinking to myself, 'When is Matlock coming on?'"

Darris found another calling, and one that pays: He became a motivational speaker. Nonprofits, schools, colleges and corporations have invited him to share his story of personal redemption. In classrooms, he tells kids to make good decisions now, while their lives are still on track.

Elizer Darris speaks to a group at the Lutheran Social Services offices
Elizer Darris speaks to a group at the Lutheran Social Service offices in St. Paul on Sept. 10, 2017. "I'm not here to convince you that racism exists," Darris says at the beginning of his presentation about overcoming adversity.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Yet even as Darris was racking up professional successes, his marriage was heading off the rails.

One of the advantages Darris had coming out of prison was the home life that awaited him. He and Shaundelle had been together for 10 years, despite her family's objections.

"I made the decision, you know, to stand by him," she recalled. "And made sure my family knew this is my decision, this is what I'm going to do ... . You're going to support me or you're not, but I'm still going to be with this man for the rest of my life."

By the end of the year, that future no longer appeared so certain. After spending so many years in prison, Darris seemed to be trying to make up for lost time: door-knocking for the election, organizing neighborhood cleanups, arguing for lighter sentences for juvenile offenders.

"I am just getting out of prison. I am professionally attempting to grow myself out," he explained. "These are agendas that I've set and dreamed about for many years, and I'm able to push these now without asking for someone's permission. I can just do it."

And he began to feel that Shaundelle wasn't there for him.

Elizer and Shaundelle Darris sit together in their living room.
Elizer and Shaundelle Darris sit on the couch of their Minneapolis home after a day of work, a year after he got out of prison.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"One of my biggest surprises has been the lack of support," he said during a joint interview to mark the anniversary of his release. "You know, here I am, I'm literally flying around the country now. I've been invited into just unbelievable spaces. And so when I look to my left, Shaundelle's not there. And while I look to my right, Shaundelle's not there. She wasn't at Howard University when I was speaking."

"You're able to do those things because of what I'm doing in the back," she replied. "You got to speak at Howard because I drove 17 hours to get you to Washington. I can't go to you speaking at high schools ... because I'm working."

"I apologize I can't be there at every event that you do," she said.

Shaundelle added that, while she's proud of Darris and his accomplishments, "I focused so much on you, I fell and lost myself."

"Where do you see us in five years?" Darris asked her.

"The P.R. answer is 'together,'" she answered. "Happy, loving. Hopefully a child, at least one. The reality? I honestly don't know."

Elizer Darris stands on the front porch of his home.
Elizer Darris stands on the front porch of his Minneapolis home between an interview and a Power of People meeting on April 4, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"Me either, quite frankly," Darris said.

As tears ran down Shaundelle's cheeks, Darris hugged her. But the hug didn't last long. Darris had to run off to another speaking engagement.

Exactly one year out of prison, he needs to keep moving.

Editor's note (Nov. 3, 2017): A photo that originally ran with this story has been removed and replaced with a new photo.