By: Christopher Washington, Functional Analyst
2020 was a historic year, and thousands of people have taken to the streets to speak out on the issues that affect them the most, including criminal justice reform. The reason why I’m so passionate about criminal justice reform is because I’m a product of the system. In 2019, I was released from federal prison after serving nine years for weapons charges. During my sentence, I was away from my family and friends and missed my kids growing up. I went months without making a phone call and years without receiving visitors.
When people hear my story, I do not want their sympathy or their hate. I simply want empathy and for them to understand that anybody can make a mistake. One wrong decision should not completely ruin someone’s life.
I grew up in Washington, D.C. during the 1980s and 1990s; drug abuse, violence, and murder were all around. I told myself that I would be better, rise above my circumstances, and not fall victim to the streets. I turned to sports as my avenue to get away from the chaos that I saw and experienced all around me.
When I was 12 years old, I had a football coach who took me under his wing and treated me like his son. Coach Bird pushed me to be the best that I could be and told me that one day I’d be playing in the NFL. I took his words to heart, working hard to make myself and the team better every day. He was my role model.
One day, Coach Bird’s wife came to practice and told us that he had been murdered as he was going to the store to buy diapers for his newborn. I was devastated, and the pain and disappointment have stayed with me. After that, I had problems with finding role models and had a consistent fear of disappointment, but I continued to play football and maintain good grades. After high school, my plan was to go to Virginia State University, and I did.
My first semester at Virginia State University was one of the best times in my life. I got good grades, I was independent, and I knew I would make something of my life. However, my mother could no longer afford to pay tuition after that first semester. I was heartbroken and decided to take matters into my own hands. I was desperate, so I decided to break the law, just like so many of my friends had, to make money. Even though I had good intentions of paying for my education, that one decision sent my life into a downward spiral. I never anticipated the consequences of my actions.
After I was arrested on Father’s Day in 2011, I knew I had to change the way I was living. An education was not the only thing missing—I lacked purpose in my life. I needed to find something bigger than myself in which to believe, something to transport me out of the jail cell in which I found myself.
I went to church as a child but never connected to the message. Nevertheless, I decided to give God an opportunity to change my life. I will never forget the day I got on my knees with a simple prayer: “Please give me something to focus on while I’m here in prison.”
The next day, I had an idea that changed my life. I started writing a book about a female prophet preaching God’s word. I began reading the Bible every day for understanding and praying to God for guidance. I made a promise to myself that I would publish this book and begin spreading love instead of hate. I would give my friends and family a reason to be proud of me.
I started reading every book I could find—books on religion, finances, business, and self–improvement. My newfound knowledge made me look at my past actions in a new light and reevaluate the way I saw myself and the world. I was willing to cut corners. I did not show empathy. I knew those things had to change.
I began teaching my fellow prisoners the things I knew—basic reading skills, financial literacy, how to trade stocks, how to form a business plan. This was my calling—teaching people what I knew and helping them turn this experience from bad to beneficial.
I knew that many released prisoners returned to a life of crime. I saw it with my own eyes as dozens of people returned to the facility, claiming that they lacked the resources to build a life without resorting to illegal activities. I wanted to get out and stay out, so I began searching for all the resources I could during my last year in prison.
After I was released, I was sent to a halfway house with nothing but the knowledge I acquired. Some of the people I thought would help me needed help themselves, so I reached out to my community and asked for support from anybody who was willing to help me stay on the straight path.
I found Free Minds Book Club, which is a nonprofit that helps the community by visiting prisoners, helping them read books, and write poetry. Upon release, they help returning citizens integrate back into society. They provide a wealth of resources, such as resume writing, job training, and apprenticeship programs. They told me that with my college background, I would be a perfect fit at the Georgetown Pivot Program.
After a rigorous acceptance process, I became a member of the Georgetown Pivot Program’s second cohort. The Pivot Program was designed to help returning citizens receive a college education, job training, and entrepreneurial skills. I loved the experience of being surrounded by like-minded individuals who were trying to make a difference in their lives, their community, and society. The program not only provided an education, it provided introductions to influential individuals in the community who cared about the same issues and wanted to make a difference. We participated in open panel discussions with CEOs of companies, city council members, judges, prosecutors, and even the commissioner of the WNBA.
I will never forget the day they told us that Deb Alderson, the CEO of GTL, would be coming to speak with us in an open panel. From my personal experience, I had a low opinion of GTL as a business focused solely on profit. However, when I spoke to Deb Alderson, she was so sincere in her efforts to change the image of GTL that I was convinced to give her a chance. Then Bob Fragola, GTL’s VP of Business Resources, interviewed me for an internship. After we brainstormed and talked about the experience that I could gain at GTL, I was accepted as an intern for five months.
During my time as an intern, I learned so much about GTL and their plans that I decided that I wanted to be a part of their future. I was hired full-time in May 2020. This was what I prayed for: an opportunity to help people in prison, to give back to my community, and provide for my family.
I have found purpose in my life.