Is Redemption Possible for Former Prisoners?
The three women who were kidnapped and held hostage by Ariel Castro in a “house of horrors” in Cleveland, Ohio – tortured and sexually abused for roughly a decade – have been repeatedly praised for their strength and resilience since their rescue in May 2013, and were even presented with courage awards by Ohio Governor John Kasich at the end of his State of the State speech on February 24, 2014.
Members of the legislature stood and cheered for two minutes during the ceremony – the longest ovation of the evening – as Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 24, and Michelle Knight, 33, accepted their medals. It was the first time the three had appeared in public together since their nightmarish ordeal ended.
Castro, 53, was eventually indicted on 977 criminal counts, including kidnapping, rape and aggravated murder, the latter related to the deaths of five unborn children resulting from his repeatedly impregnating one of the women. Under a plea agreement, Castro pleaded guilty and was sentenced on August 1, 2013 to life in prison without parole plus 1,000 years. The following month he committed suicide by hanging himself with a bed sheet in his cell at the Pickaway Correctional Institution.
Castro had abducted the three women from the streets of Cleveland between 2002 and 2004 when they were 14, 16 and 21 years old. In presenting the awards, Governor Kasich said their story was one of hurt beyond imagination – and more.
“It is also a story of three women who found an inner strength and a courage that brought them through and sustained them,” he remarked near the end of his speech. “No one rescued them, they rescued themselves – first by staying strong and by sticking together, and then by literally breaking out into freedom.”
Kasich was referring to Amanda Berry, who broke through a door at Castro’s home and yelled for help. But missing from the governor’s comments was any mention of Charles Ramsey, a man whose voice and face had quickly become associated with the plight of the three women in the frenzied media coverage that followed their rescue.
Appearing on TV, Ramsey described how he had been eating at a fast food restaurant when he heard yelling from a nearby residence. Approaching the house, Ramsey discovered a woman, who turned out to be Berry, trying desperately to escape from where she and the other two women had been held against their will. Ramsey helped to get Berry out, and DeJesus and Knight were freed by police officers soon afterwards.
In recounting the incident, Ramsey remarked that he had to overcome a certain amount of hesitation before he decided to act. He was, he noted, a black man approaching a stranger’s house where a white woman could be heard screaming.
But instead of being rewarded for his part in rescuing Berry, Ramsey was vilified after the media reported he had a criminal record that included three domestic violence convictions resulting in prison terms.
Within days of the rescue of Berry, DeJesus and Knight, conservative Cleveland radio host Dave Ramos broke the news that Ramsey was nothing more than an ex-con – and certainly not someone deserving of praise or recognition. Ramos needed to set the record straight, he proclaimed, lest the public be “fooled” into believing that Ramsey had acted heroically. That simply was not possible, he felt, given Ramsey’s “checkered past.”
Ramsey’s ex-wife immediately came to his defense, writing on Facebook that “ppl do change and you shouldn’t hold the past against” them. “The [main] thing,” she opined, “is [that] Charles Ramsey did a good deed and those girls are safe.”
The name of Charles Ramsey has since faded from the headlines and his role in the rescue of the three women has been debated, but his story serves to highlight an issue that plagues ex-offenders and society alike: is redemption possible for former prisoners? Or are they doomed by their criminal pasts, destined to be condemned forever despite paying their debts by completing their prison sentences?
For Matthew Hurayt, a registered sex offender, the rescue of the three women in Ohio was bittersweet vindication. Two years after DeJesus disappeared, Hurayt was arrested when a tipster suggested that he had raped and killed her and buried her body under his garage.
Following up on that tip, police and FBI agents searched Hurayt’s house for 10 hours, digging under his garage and chopping the cement floor into sections. They found nothing to link him to DeJesus.
But after seeing his name in the news, many people continued to believe, even years later, that Hurayt was somehow connected to the case. They harassed him on a daily basis, broke his windows and set fire to his garage. The police ignored Hurayt’s reports of harassment and his claim for compensation for destruction of his property was rejected.
Not all ex-offenders face such negative reactions from the community, though.
Reynolds Wintersmith, 40, a drug dealer since the age of 17 when he needed money to help support his younger brothers and sisters, spent 21 years in federal prison following his conviction on drug conspiracy charges.
By January 2015, one year after his release from the Federal Correctional Institution Pekin in Illinois, he had a new life and new career – as a counselor at a Chicago high school. He makes no secret of his prison experience and talks freely with students about his time behind bars.
“I have 21 years worth of things to talk to them about,” he said.
Wintersmith feels he can do that at CCA Academy, a Youth Connection Charter School founded in a tough Chicago neighborhood to address high dropout rates on the city’s West Side.
“He has convictions that are really strong,” said fashion designer Barbara Bates, who recommended Wintersmith to the school after meeting him at a Salvation Army halfway house where he lived for months after being released from prison. “Convictions that most of us [who] have freedom don’t think about. We are just out here in the world. He doesn’t get excited about the stuff the rest of us get excited about.... He would only care if someone had a good heart.”
“We think the whole school has benefited,” added CCA Academy founder and principal Myra Sampson. “He is definitely a good person ... because of the way he listens and the way he helps to restore.... That is the word. When you feel that nobody hears you, or nobody wants to hear you, sometimes you have to get a little deeper with students. And I really think he hears.”
Sampson was so impressed by Wintersmith that she submitted his hiring paperwork to the charter organization despite his criminal record. His position as a counselor includes leading “talking circles” for students as part of the school’s restorative justice program, which substitutes dialogue and understanding for punitive measures when dealing with student conflicts.
“That is what I worked on every day in prison ... freeing my mind and doing my best to gain mental fortitude,” Wintersmith said. During his time behind bars, he earned more than a dozen certificates for completing courses on subjects ranging from computers to suicide prevention. He also tutored and mentored other prisoners.
“When I walked out of prison, it wasn’t like something clicked. I had been carrying this in spirit all along,” he declared.
Which indicates that redemption for ex-offenders is in fact possible, though it needs to start from within and may not be shared by others in the community who do not understand – or care – what former prisoners have to offer society.
Sources: NBC News, The Nation, www.chicagotribune.com, www.dailymail.co.uk, USA Today
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