- Associated Press - Sunday, November 27, 2016

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Weeks after his release from 10 year’s imprisonment, Eric Wynn stood where he was arrested for the crime that sent him away, recalling the day he finally got caught. His aunt and uncle’s bright pink house sticks out among the car lot and freshly demolished house that flank it on either side.

“This is where I got busted at,” he said. “This place was full with narcotics agents. I had Oxycontins in my pocket. I ran through the house, through the back and threw the pills.”

Narcotics agents found a quarter kilogram of cocaine (nearly a half pound) in Wynn’s Chevrolet Suburban that day. He was later tried for trafficking, found guilty, and because of habitual offender laws, sentenced to life in prison.

His family grieved at his sentencing hearing.

“Everybody was really emotional,” he said. “Crying, tears. … I was just tired. I was tired of this life.”

Tired because his twin brother Derrick had been murdered two years prior. Tired because his dad was never around. Tired because he grew up watching his mom prostitute herself to pay for her cocaine addiction. Tired because he and his older brother used to beg for change so they could help feed their three other siblings. And, tired because as a boy, he never dreamed of becoming a drug dealer.

Before getting sentenced in August 2006 to a life in prison though, that’s what he did.

Wynn sold cocaine and pills around Gate City, the public housing project where he was raised.

It’s a community known for its poverty and violence, one where R.I.P. was scrawled into wet cement instead of children’s initials. Everybody knew him there. He and his older brother were, “like Pablo Escobar, but without all the money.”

Even though he owns up to his actions, it seems almost inevitable to Wynn that they would wind up as anything other than Gate City’s Escobar. With no dependable father-figure to model themselves after, they turned to the streets for guidance on how to survive.

“I grew up in an environment where (selling drugs was) all I knew,” he said. “That’s all I understood. It was embedded in me. I always felt like I was trapped in this environment because that’s all you see. And as a young person, as an immature person, you felt like this is what you’re supposed to be doing because you see so much of it. Wasn’t any lawyers or doctors around when I was 13, 14. I’ve seen more drug dealers than I’ve seen firemen.”

This childhood that he was born into, this environment bereft of stability, was perhaps Wynn’s first trial on this earth.

As he walked away from childhood and toward the prison system, facing trial would prove to be a reoccurring theme throughout his life.

He started out in Bibb County Correctional Facility, then was transferred to St. Clair, and eventually spenttime in each of the state’s prisons during his 10 years leading up to his release on Aug. 29.

Prison was chaotic, but in some ways he felt at peace there. Chaos is what he was used to.

Wynn kept hustling when he first got locked up. He smoked weed, sold it, and made a good bit of money in the process.

Four years into his sentence he had the option to go on Kairos, a Christian non-denominational retreat, at the Staton Correctional Facility. Like most who sign up for the weekend, Wynn went for the fresh cookies and homemade meals brought in from the outside.

Then he sat down next to Brad Zimanek, consumer experience director and sports editor at the Montgomery Advertiser.

It was like killing two birds with one stone, Wynn said: getting a break from prison food and getting to talk about sports: Auburn, Alabama and his beloved Dallas Cowboys.

But throughout the weekend, Wynn felt himself shifting. Like a weight was slowly being lifted.

“I was becoming more spirit and less flesh,” he said to a congregation at Snowdoun United Methodist Church about his Kairos retreat, nearly six years after participating in the weekend.

As he drew nearer to God, people around him started to notice the shift too. He went from being a guy who would cuss you out over a football game to someone who would casually say, “Hey man, I love you,” to the other men in prison.

“I’ve seen a maturity level in Eric that wasn’t there before. Eric was very self-centered before he got incarcerated,”said Patrick Wynn, Eric’s older brother who is serving a life sentence. The two served time together at one point while Eric was still imprisoned.

“When I got the chance to spend time with (Eric) in 2015 at St. Clair, I saw how his growth was so positive. He was trying to de-escalate any violence. He was always preaching a positive message,” Patrick Wynn said.

Coming into one’s faith though, especially in a prison environment, is a trial of its own. Violence is routine. Access to worship services, compared to the free world, is limited. Old temptations are still present but support from a robust faith community is not.

Wynn remained tethered to his relationship with God.

Two years prior to his release, he wrote Zimanek, who is also the pastor at Snowdoun, and said he would give his testimony on the Sunday following his release from prison. And, that’s exactly what he did.

During his incarceration, he became passionate about preventing men young and old from going down the path he went down, and he conceptualized a foundation called: We’re All Related (W.A.R) aimed at helping them.

“All of these guys (at St. Clair) were killing each other, stabbing each other over nothing. I’ve seen people die over a pack of cigarettes. I said, ‘We’ve got to stop this, man.’ It’s like we’re at war with ourselves, so I came up with the term in prison that We’re All Related.”

As Wynn’s faith was deepening, his parole hearing was also nearing. Early parole opportunity would signify his chance for freedom, his shot at redemption, his opportunity to share what saved him.

It wouldn’t come without complexities.

“(Recovery classes offered in prison) tell you in order to change your ways, you’ve got to change your environment,” Wynn said. “Your environment can trigger some of the old habits you have inside of you. You want to be in a clean, safe, positive environment when you get out.”

He wanted a fresh start once he got out of prison, but a lot had changed in the 10 years since he’d been in.

He and his wife were now separated. His siblings were raising children and didn’t have room for Wynn to stay with them.

He said there wasn’t a program available to him to help him find housing.

Given he had no income to pay for an apartment, that left the pink house for him to return to - the place where he was arrested for trafficking cocaine a decade ago.

His first steps into the free world are still something he can’t really put words to. Beautiful. Overwhelming. Exciting. Amazing. Everything falls shorts of fully describing what walking free feels like. What hugging his 10-year-old niece, who was a baby when he got locked up, meant to him.

More than two months have passed since he was released, but things free world people don’t notice consistently fill him with awe.

Not having to use the bathroom in public. Walking to the refrigerator. Going to the grocery store. Getting stuck in traffic.

“I love being in places like Walmart and just seeing people shop on the grocery aisle or the appliance or what not,” he said. “In traffic, just seeing people pull up at the red light without a care in the world. It’s exciting. Because for so long it felt like you were in a box. It’s like the world stops when you’re in prison. There’s no traffic. There’s no everyday people.”

Still, he is tested in his everyday. Trials are woven into the fabric of his freedom.

He doesn’t have a car. He can’t get his license because he still owes almost $400 for fines he accrued before going to prison. Some people from his old life expected him to still be who he was before he fell into his faith. He needed to get employed quickly before old habits could creep back in.

After applying at two different jobs, he found someone who would hire him, despite having to check the box labeled “felon” on the application.

“People don’t just come in and tell you they’ve done time,” said Robert Joiner, who hired Wynn at a sprinkler installation company. “You have to pull it out of them. But (Wynn) just came in and told me his history, from when he was a kid to how he made mistakes in life.”

“(Wynn) said, ‘I’ve got to turn my life around.’ When he got through talking to me he had sold me. I just believe in giving people opportunities. God gives us the opportunity. We all make mistakes, so who am I not to give a man an opportunity?”

All the while, Wynn found it hard to concentrate on anything other than spreading the message of W.A.R., of wanting to change the way Gate City and communities like it live. There’s an urgency in his voice when he talks about getting through to guys emulating his old life.

“I was in these guys’ shoes,” Wynn said. “Now I have a passion for (helping) guys who are in the streets because I know where they’re going. I know what it’s like. They’re not going to listen to a preacher. They’re not going to listen to a police officer. They’re going to listen to one of the guys who did what they did . I want to be an example for them that you can go through adversity and you can make it out.”

Helping right now isn’t that simple though.

Wynn knows that he has to get out of the “midst of the jungle” and rehabilitate before he can really be of service to them.

“If you’re drowning in the water, you can’t save somebody else who’s drowning. You’ve got to get to foundation and then you can pull somebody else up. I’m trying to get out of the water. Once I get out I’m going to reach back and pull as many people out as I can,” he said.

It creates a near constant struggle - wanting to right the wrongs he unleashed in the community, but not being able to until he finds stable ground.

“Every day I get up and I go to work and on my way to work I see kids going to the bus stop I can see the desperation in their eyes,” he said. “I can see the hopelessness on their faces. It breaks my heart.”

He tries to stay optimistic, looking toward what he can accomplish in the future. He wants to widely sell T-shirts labeled W.A.R., creating the sense of unity you feel when you cross paths with someone wearing your team’s colors. With the proceeds he plans to get underprivileged kids out of their environment for a day on a trip to Six Flags. And he hopes to get married and start a family.

Right now he’s focusing on work and being active at his church.

A few weeks after he got out, he gave his testimony and participated in a short play at 37th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. His role - the Prodigal Son.

It’s a parable that Wynn has heard since he was a child.

The son took his inheritance from his father, squandered it on “a life of dissipation” and was left tending to pigs.

He returned home to tell his father that he didn’t deserve to be called his son, and would work as a servant. But when his father saw him approaching from a distance, he was filled with compassion and ran to embrace him.

Even though he knew the story well, something about acting out the part revealed God’s love to Wynn in a way that was new to him.

There is a certain loneliness to suffering, a feeling of abandonment in it.

As he went through the motions of returning home as the prodigal son, that loneliness began to dissipate.

“When you think that you have nobody, when you feel like your back’s against the wall, your father up in Heaven has you,” Wynn said. “He’s got your back and he’s going to walk side by side with you. He won’t forsake you. He’ll never leave you. You might try to leave him, but he’ll never leave you.”

___

Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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