Pubdate: Mon, 14 Nov 2005
Source: Winston-Salem Journal (NC)
Copyright: 2005 Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.
Note: The Journal does not publish letters from writers outside its 
daily home delivery circulation area.
Author: Patrick Wilson


Friendships, Jobs Are Hard After Prison

By the afternoon of the day he got out of prison, Damian Watson was 
back on the street. But not in the way he once was. Watson had two 
things on his mind that day, Feb. 26: Find a job and pay child support.

His new attitude after serving 6 1/2 years for robbing a convenience 
store was something that his older brother, Tommy Ray Watson Jr., 
didn't understand.

He asked his younger brother if he wanted to go out Saturday night, 
probably to a club.

Damian Watson told his brother he didn't want to be around drinking. 
He also turned down his brother's offer of money.

"I can't be around none of this," he said.

That tension was just part of the struggles facing Watson, who left 
prison wanting to transform his life and resist the ways of his past.

The chances of success are not in his favor. A 2002 U.S. Department 
of Justice study showed that 67 percent of inmates released from 
state prisons commit at least one serious new crime in the three 
years after their release. And 70 percent of inmates convicted of 
robbery commit new crimes. The study found that the recidivism rate 
had increased 5 percent over the previous 10 years.

Watson was determined to break the pattern.

The crime

It was Jan. 19, 1999, and Watson had been selling drugs, shooting 
dice and playing cards. He had gambled away what he had. He needed money.

His friends were surprised when he approached them about wanting to 
rob the City View One Stop store on Old Greensboro Road. They 
wouldn't go with him. He didn't care. He would do it alone.

Wearing black clothes and a ski mask, he pulled out a .22-caliber gun 
and pointed it at the woman behind the counter. He ran into the woods 
with $750 in cash and $25 in food stamps.

Not long after, the police called.

He was charged on Jan. 28 with armed robbery and possession of a 
weapon by a felon.

Watson had begun drinking at 12. By 16, he was smoking marijuana. A 
year later, he was selling it.

He went through boot camps and court programs, and his mother 
lectured him about his life. He refused to change.

Before he graduated from Carver High School in 1995, Watson went to 
live with his father, Tommy Ray Watson, in an attempt by his mother 
to get him away from bad influences. His father ran a cleaning business.

He still didn't change.

"If I wanted something, I'm going to get it. If I had a pistol, I'm 
going to pull it."

Even though he had committed the robbery, Watson wanted a trial, 
thinking that he could beat the rap. His attorney told him that he 
risked more time if he didn't plead guilty. He had already been 
convicted of breaking and entering, assault on a female and 
possession of a firearm.

So Watson entered a plea and was sentenced to six to eight years in prison.

Prison life

In prison, Watson's friends wanted nothing to do with him. His mother 
was the only person who cared.

She visited him regularly, sometimes bringing his daughters Lakira 
and Deshare, both 7, to see him. He also has a son, Sakil, who is 9. 
All three children have different mothers.

Watson saw how his incarceration hurt his mother. He talked to 
inmates who had spent years behind bars. They told him that life was 
about more than parties and women. He realized that, unlike inmates 
serving life terms, he would get another chance.

"People don't understand when something important gets taken away 
from you. You can't get up and do what you want. It's miserable."

Watson was transferred from the Catawba Correctional Center in Newton 
to the Forsyth Correctional Center on Aug. 15, 2003, to finish his 
sentence. He signed up for Project Re-Entry, a program run by the 
Northwest Piedmont Council of Governments. It teaches inmates about 
the difficulties of returning to life outside prison. They are taught 
to control their behavior, how to find a place to live, get a job and 
transportation, and where to get drug-abuse counseling. They learn 
how to set goals, handle a job interview and deal with stereotypes.

They are told - over and over - that the temptations they will face 
on the outside are tremendous.

Watson graduated Feb. 18, a few days before his release. He spoke at 
that time about what he expected to find when he got out.

"I know they're going to call," he said of his former friends. "I 
know there's going to be temptations out there. It's not going to be easy."

But he had begun studying Islam in prison, and he believed that his 
new faith would help him find the strength not to be tempted into 
doing something wrong.

He told his mother not to tell anyone that he was coming home. The 
fewer people who knew about it, he thought, the better.


Watson entered his mother's small house off Carver School Road at 11 
a.m. on Feb. 26. The door was unlocked.

She was making her bed, not expecting her son to be there until later 
in the day.

"Hey, mom," Watson said, as she hugged him with excitement.

Maggie Watson is a custodian at Kernersville Elementary School who 
works hard to make payments on her house. She doesn't own a computer or a car.

She was thrilled to see her son again but worried that he would get 
into trouble. She wanted to keep him away from the boyfriends of the 
mothers of his three children.

Watson's daughter, Lakira, was home when he arrived. He hugged and 
kissed her before calling a few of his old friends. That afternoon, 
he greeted his half-brother, Derrick, 24, with a big hug, amazed at 
the weight Derrick had gained.

"Man, he got big."

Later, Deshare's mother dropped her off, and Watson's two daughters 
laughed and played.

They giggled and did cheers in the front yard as Watson smiled.

For the first time, he was a father hearing requests from his children.

"I want some toast!"

"I want chocolate milk!"

"I know I'm going to have to get me some Tylenol," Watson said.


Within a few weeks of his release, Watson got a job with Greystone 
Tech Walls, building retaining walls for $8 an hour in a new 
subdivision in Kernersville. His first day of work, March 22, he 
awoke about 5:30 a.m. and caught a ride with another worker.

He got the job thanks in part to Project Re-Entry. He felt as if he 
had changed his life. But Rebecca Sauter, the program manager for 
Project Re-Entry, had one big concern.

Watson told her how he had gone to Lakira's school with her mother, 
Ellen Leak. He also told Sauter that he had reconnected with Leak and 
moved in with her.

That was one thing Sauter that didn't want to hear. Romantic 
entanglements can add stress and emotion to a former inmate's life, 
she told him.

"It's going to get overwhelming, especially when the women start 
coming," she told him. "I am one, so I can say it - they bring drama."

Watson insisted that he was working and staying out of trouble.


By the end of April, Watson was living with his mother again.

Someone told Leak's landlord that Watson was staying with her. 
Because her rent was federally subsidized, he had to leave.

At his mother's place, Watson felt as if he was being nagged. At the 
same time, he was notified that he needed to start paying child 
support for Lakira, his daughter with Leak.

He calculated that after his child-support payments and a $30 monthly 
fee for his probation, he would have $180 to $190 left from his 
monthly wages. Not enough to pay rent on an apartment.

Soon that would not matter. After two months on the job, Watson was 
laid off. A supervisor at the construction company said that he did 
good work, but the company's next project was more complicated and 
Watson did not yet have the skills.

By late May, things were deteriorating. When Deshare's mother brought 
her to visit one Sunday, Watson got into an argument with the 
mother's boyfriend.

Watson's mother said she is sure that her son had been drinking that 
day - he was "arguing and tripping and acting silly, wild like he 
used to," she said.

Watson said later that he had not been drinking. But he admitted he 
lost his cool.

"Before you react, you need to think about it. And that night, I 
didn't.... I was back to the old D."

Despite the troubles - and his mother's fears - Watson followed the 
rules. He was home when parole officers checked on him at night.

By the end of May, he was applying at fast-food restaurants, with no luck.

"One minute, I'm working, I'm going good, and this minute, it's like 
I've fallen off," he said.

Hanging in

In mid-June, Watson was living with a new girlfriend in her apartment 
off Peters Creek Parkway. He had started a second construction job, 
but it lasted only a few days. He hated the thought of his mother 
having to pay his child support.

"If I get a job, I'd think I won the lottery. That's how bad I want 
to work," he said.

Although potential employers didn't say that his felony conviction 
was hurting his chances, Watson said he believed that it was the 
reason he couldn't get hired.

He thought about his old drug customers, who could lend him $500 in a 
heartbeat. He didn't call them.

Finally, at the end of July, again with help from Project Re-Entry, 
he got a part-time job earning $5.15 an hour folding socks at 
Goodwill Industries. It wasn't what Watson wanted, but he was glad to 
be working and earning money.

He was learning to be patient. But he admitted that he failed to show 
up at an interview where he might have been hired as a cook.


Watson's six-month intensive parole ended Aug. 26.

At the end of September, his girlfriend's brother, Joshua Covington, 
helped him get a job as a cook at Upper Crust Pizza on Silas Creek 
Parkway, where Covington was working. The pay was $5.15 an hour. He 
worked almost 40 hours a week, walking 30 minutes to get there each day.

He arranged to have child support deducted from his paycheck and 
talked about finding a second job.

But it didn't take long for things to go bad again.

On Oct. 15, Watson claimed that Covington tried to hit him with a car 
at their apartment complex and pointed a gun at him. Watson said that 
he and Covington had been at odds over whether Covington should be in 
Watson's apartment.

Watson said he tried to think before he reacted. The old Watson, he 
said, would have come back with a gun. This time, he simply told the 
police what happened after they arrived.

Then he went to the Forsyth County Magistrate's Office, where 
Covington, 20, was charged with assault by pointing a gun.

Watson missed a day of work because of the altercation. He called the 
owner of Upper Crust the next day to explain why he hadn't shown up, 
but he was fired anyway.

Watson knew that there were other reasons. He had trouble answering 
the phone, taking orders and cooking at the same time. And he didn't 
know how to use the computer.

They were things he had never done before.

In a recent interview, Watson pulled out an application he planned to 
take to another restaurant.

"I'm not mad," Watson said. "I'm not disappointed. It's just making 
me stronger to keep going. I'm not going to give up."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth