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  • Writer's pictureBreaking Barriers

From life in prison to political activist: Education inspires Elizer Darris

Article from SC Times by Clairissa Baker

At 15 years old, Elizer Darris expected to die in prison. Now, after spending most of his adult life behind bars — he was convicted of second-degree murder — he uses his time to effect political change. Darris, 34, started his own business, Darris Consulting Group, and works to advocate for prison reform. Darris deals with topics ranging from racial disparities in prison to education, health services and voting rights restoration. 

He has worked with organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union and with political campaigns. 

Seventeen years in the prison system changed his world view. 

As a teen, Darris ran away from home and joined a traveling carnival. It was his second time on the circuit. A fight within one of the groups in the carnival led to the death of a man, Darris said. According to court records, the 15-year-old beat a co-worker to death and left his body in a ditch. Darris was arrested and faced felony charges in Minnesota — a state he was not from and was not familiar with. He was convicted of second-degree murder while committing an aggravated robbery and was sentenced to life in prison. 

Juvenile with a life sentence

"I was told by a judge that I was going to die in there," said Darris. "I kind of believed him, but in my spirit, I didn't really think I would spend the rest of my life in prison." The prison system did not wait for Darris to get older. At 16, he was living in the adult inmate population. It was the highest level of vulnerability, according to Darris, and he was angry. 

After participating in spurts of violence, he was sent to Oak Park Heights, the highest-security prison in the state. It was an unlikely place to find signs of hope. While there, he met people who encouraged and challenged him to learn.  He filled an emptiness inside him, he said, with education. 

First, he obtained his GED. When it came to him in the mail, he ran his fingers across it. "It probably saved my life because it helped me see my intrinsic value," said Darris. 

It was the first public recognition of him that was not in a negative light. 

In prison, according to Darris, college classes are not easy to enroll in. There can be periods of time where classes are not offered, he said, and restrictions may be placed on who can take the courses. But Darris found a way. He fought for his education, he said, and he found people willing to give him the chance. 

"If a person is going to better their life, it is because they're going to do it," said Darris. "I spent years fighting for college classes." 

The first college class he took was a democratic citizenship class taught by Elizabeth Scheel-Keita, a professor of sociology at St. Cloud State University. 

The class Scheel-Keita taught at the St. Cloud prison looked, sociologically, at political structures and social actions. "Nobody thought that I could have prisoners do social learning," Scheel-Keita said. "Even the students were very skeptical." She encouraged her students to look at how they could get involved in the community and required each student do a project as part of the class. "It was just a way of asking them to think about, no matter what we have available to us, that each of us have something to contribute to society," said Scheel-Keita. 

Some prisoners, she said, tutored students in the general education program. Others gave haircuts to fellow prisoners who couldn't afford it. 

Darris chose to knit. His finished products were sent to women's shelters for survivors of domestic violence. "I was an organizer in prison. That class really fundamentally shifted my world view," said Darris. Scheel-Keita recognized that many had not been given the same opportunities to turn their lives around, she said, as she or others had. 

"They were so eager to change their lives and make it for the better," Scheel-Keita said. "I knew that they were still going to face a lot of barriers that would make it very challenging." 

Some of those barriers included finding housing and jobs. 

Darris received CompTIA A+ certification in prison, a starting point for information technology services. And even though he secured a job before he was released from prison after serving 17 years, re-entry was still a challenge.  It was difficult, Darris said, to convince people to open up housing for people who had been in prison — "shockingly difficult." He was offered re-entry services for only a couple months before his release date, he said. The informational pamphlets available in prison, which listed various re-entry services, were often not accessible. Sometimes, housing and job sites that were listed as sources for the prisoners were not even aware they were on such a list, said Darris. 

Finding humanity

Being in prison means being placed in a situation where your humanity is secondary to the system, said Darris.  "We need to make sure others recognize the value that we have," said Darris. Correctional officers were required to refer to inmates as "offender" before saying their last name every single time they spoke to someone, according to Darris. When administration would need to speak to a person, they would often call by their cell number. For Darris, it was "cell 302." When they called for cell 302, he said, he wouldn't go. After multiple attempts to call him by his cell number, a correctional officer would have to go personally get him. It was his "mini-rebellion," according to Darris. People had to intentionally protect their own humanity, said Darris. "Even if it's just little rebellions, they matter." 

'Disrupt. Dismantle. Destroy.'

Politically, Darris has been as engaged as anyone since his 2016 release. He works for the legislative arm of the ACLU Minnesota and works on restoring voting rights for convicted felons. As of now, people in the state serving a felony conviction sentence — including probation, supervised release and parole — are not able to vote. 

Darris has worked to get people to polling stations to vote, he said, while he himself cannot exercise that right until 2025, when his probation is up. Darris speaks at middle schools, high schools and colleges. He teaches young boys leadership skills in the Boys of Hope program. He was a 2017 Josie R. Johnson leadership fellow. And he was flown to Washington D.C., where he met members of the Congressional Black Caucus. He took his message to St. Cloud State University last week.

In the last month, Darris has met with dozens of Minnesota legislators to convince them to push forward legislation that he believes will improve prisons. In particular, he supported a bill that would remove life sentences for juveniles. It's one aspect of his three-part focus on what needs to be addressed for prison: sentencing reform, prison reform and re-entry reform. 

Minnesota has high racial disparities in its prison population, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that works to increase effectiveness in the criminal justice system.

The state ranks fourth in the nation in terms of the racial disparity between black and white incarceration rates as compared to the state's population; Minnesota is sixth in the nation on the same measure of Hispanic imprisonment. That manifests in issues of health care, psychological care and more, according to Darris. "There is no cultural relevancy," he said, and the system is very Eurocentric.

Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences is also important, said Darris. They were created to get rid of disparities but have only led to more inequality, he said. 

And importantly: ban life sentences for juveniles, he believes. Darris supported a bill this legislative session to get rid of sentencing juveniles like him and people he met in prison to life. 

The bill was not passed.

"One person had the ability to kill the whole bill," he said. But he won't stop there. 

Providing more therapists of color and infusing culturally relevant practices into inpatient treatment need to be addressed, as well. Health services and education need to be fixed. 

"What are we telling people," said Darris, "about their humanity?" And, just as important, re-entry services should be more robust. People are going to leave prison, said Darris. That's the reality. Approximately 90 percent of people in prison will re-enter the community, he said. When education and re-entry services are provided, former prisoners can be safer, more productive members of the community. 

"Who do you want to come out?"

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