- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009

It’s been said that birthdays don’t matter after 21. But for Eddie B. Ellis Jr., 34, every birthday is a gift because he is free.

Released from the “Supermax” federal prison in Colorado in August of 2006, on the highest level of parole, Ellis has since used his freedom to make a name for himself by advocating on behalf of prisoners and returning ex-offenders.

Ellis held a lecture on June 20 at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Northwest Washington to encourage a roomful of listeners who “want to make a real change.”

“I had to rehabilitate myself. Prison didn’t rehabilitate me. I was in an environment that I didn’t think could breed change. I wanted to change, and I had to make it myself,” Ellis said.

In 1991, Ellis, at 16, was sent to prison for 15 years on a D.C. manslaughter charge, although he pleaded self-defense. The last six years, before returning to the District, were spent at the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo., known as “Supermax,” or “the Alcatraz of the Rockies.”

His fellow inmates have included FBI spy Robert Hanssen, Mexican mafia leaders, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and terrorists convicted of the first World Trade center bombings in 1993.

Throughout criminal justice reform circles, Ellis is attempting to ring bells, loudly.

“I’ve spoken to more people who have not been to prison than those who have,” Ellis said.

Although he speaks about his life experiences in learned venues, such as classes held at Georgetown, George Mason, George Washington and American universities, Ellis expresses reservations about academics and policy wonks, who have a tendency to “statistic you to death,” and ignore the individuals behind the “staggering” statistics on the number of District residents who have had contact with the criminal justice system.

According to the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), about 2,500 men and women released from prison every year come under the supervision of the federal agency. Overall, the agency supervises 15,000 men and women in the District, with roughly two-thirds on probation and the remaining one-third on parole.

Cedric Hendricks, acting deputy director of CSOSA, has known Ellis since they met at a hearing about the struggles of D.C. inmates convened on Capitol Hill in the fall of 2007 by District Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Ellis had penned his own initiative, a “resource guide for released offenders,” which he drafted upon returning home, to provide information about housing, health insurance, parenting classes, community and faith-based programs, GED preparation and job training. He handed a copy to Mr. Hendricks and to a member of Mrs. Norton’s staff.

After reviewing Ellis’ handbook, Mr. Hendricks invited him to attend a meeting of a faith-based committee whose focus is on helping men and women successfully return home from prison.

Mr. Hendricks remembered that “Eddie was provided editorial assistance which, to his credit, he willingly accepted.”

The 75-page, “Window of Opportunity Pre-Release Handbook” has since been updated twice and used by CSOSA as a compliment to the 235-page “Directory of Resources” provided by the D.C. Public Defender Service (PDS).

Mr. Hendricks said that Ellis’ handbook is “more user-friendly and from an ex-offender to ex-offenders.”

“It is a nice compliment to what PDS makes available,” he said.

Ellis has also appeared on three podcasts for Internet-only shows on D.C. Public Safety Radio giving “candid conversations” about his experiences, said Leonard Sipes, senior public affairs officer for CSOSA, which runs the programs.

John Muller is a freelance writer who lives in Montgomery County.

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