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CITIZEN JOURNALISM: Ex-convict re-enters D.C. society

- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

Wayne Gray knew. He says he knew the moment he was sentenced for breaking the sixth commandment that he had to walk the straight and narrow.

Gray was 22 years old. Now on the verge of turning 50, he speaks with a bit of ease about how he was reared a Baptist, how he lost his way in the 1980s, a time when Washington and other urban areas were being ravaged by drugs and violence, and how, now that he is out of prison, he tries to do the right thing.

"My mom is Baptist, and that's how she raised us," says Gray, who has two sisters and a younger brother. "She taught us that with God, while sometimes we had little to eat, we were always full. She reminded us it was a blessing to have that because no one could reach as far as God."

Gray says he remembered that afterward.

He was imprisoned in 1982 on charges of first-degree murder while armed. He had killed someone he didn't know. On this subject, words don't come easily. He says matter-of-factly, however, that he was not alone when the killing occurred and he was high on marijuana.

He regrets that the consequences of his actions weighed heavily on his family.

Two of Gray's girlfriends at the time were pregnant. One was three months along, and the other was two months. Another was the mother of his 2-year-old son. His brother has Down syndrome, and he knew he was an important link in the family care network.

Gray looks skyward as he searches for the broken links of his own youth.

His father didn't live with the family.

"We moved around a lot."

He looks up again.

"I went to Mott Elementary."

"Walker Jones."

"Houston Elementary."

"Kenilworth for a minute."

"Roper Junior High" while living off Kenilworth Avenue.

Spingarn High School.

Did he graduate?

No.

Gray got his GED while behind bars at the old Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County. It was there that he began laying the groundwork for a way to turn his life around legitimately.

Early prison life is extremely difficult for nonbelievers who think they will be able to buck the system and get something other than "three hots and a cot," Gray says. Prisons are designed to reform criminals, he says; prisons are designed "to punish lawbreakers."

Gray says he resigned himself to reaping punishment for the crimes he had committed.

He was in Lorton for 15 years. Then a prison in Ohio. Then a prison in Lee County, Va.

In 2002, Gray, who says he was "keeping the faith," made his first appearance before a parole panel. He knew his record wasn't spotless because he had committed some infractions, and things didn't look good. Still, he kept doing what he had been doing to carry out his plan to reform himself by the grace of God.

GED.

Carpentry classes.

Anger-management classes.

He appeared before a parole panel again in 2007 and told panelists how he had been productively spending his time behind bars.

"I've grown, and I've matured," Gray says he told the panel. "I need a chance to prove that I can do this not only to myself but to you."

The panel agreed.

Gray was paroled to a halfway house in August 2008 and now lives with his mom in Prince George's County. Even after release, he says, he had to have a plan because prison doesn't "prepare you for freedom."

"I asked questions," Gray says, and self-preparation is critical.

He needed a birth certificate. Social Security card. Identification card.

Prison didn't prepare him for cultural changes, either.

Gray, who recently marked his first anniversary of freedom, says the District, the city in which he was born and raised, has changed a lot. He's still learning how to use public transportation, and he doesn't like the new "dress code."

"I'm not used to guys hanging around with their pants hanging off," Gray says.

A fan of the Washington Redskins, Gray says he recently attended a Mystics game. "I love it. Women playing pro basketball," he says.

But his voice trails off and he returns to what he calls his mission - focusing on and achieving his goals.

"No backsliding."

"Maintaining" Christianity.

Staying family-oriented.

Staying employed.

Mentoring other ex-felons.

Jubilee Jobs, a nonprofit, aids Gray in all those aspects.

He got a job with a construction company a few weeks after Jubilee orientation and counseling, and he wants to return the favor.

One of the most difficult aspects of re-entry after lengthy incarceration is re-connecting with family.

While in prison, Gray lost his oldest son to a fatal stabbing in 2000. The killer has yet to be identified and brought to justice. His other children are adults with children of their own. His younger brother is 31.

"My son and daughter are pretty levelheaded," says the proud father, adding that the re-connection "is a learning process for me."

Gray says when it comes to his family and walking a Christian path, "I pray everyday constantly - all day about everything."

The first thing he missed when he was locked up wasn't his freedom, getting high or socializing.

"My family was the first thing I missed," he says, and he doesn't want to lose them again.

He says he remembers the first time he walked into a church following his release last year. He says he was walking down the street and felt pulled into the church. He says he doesn't remember the name of the church or the preacher. He says he doesn't remember the theme of the sermon.

"I just had to go in there. I'm glad I did," says Gray. "It felt good."

Gray says it also feels good to be able to do something else. "To know Christ."

Sidney Davis is a writer living in Washington.