James Dunn: Denied parole, now a ‘violence interruptor’

I grew up in the northeast section of D.C. – in poverty, during the crack epidemic. Like a lot of kids, I was easily influenced by my peers and my surroundings. At home, I was going through a lot of stuff. My mother and I had a very close relationship until I was 12, when she married a man I didn’t like. That’s one of the reasons I took to the streets, trying to find love, I guess.

At around the age of 13, I started to sell drugs. It started with older guys manipulating me into holding things for them or delivering things to different places.

Around this time, D.C. started to become very violent. In fact, it was considered the murder capital of the country. As a child, I didn’t realize the effect it was having on me. Every day, somebody I knew was getting killed and it was all over the news on TV. When I was around 15, one of my best friends was killed. That traumatized me, to say the least. I told myself I wasn’t going to let anybody kill me. So, I started carrying a gun.

I had never been arrested until I was 16, and it was for a gun charge. Then I got locked up for another gun charge and it eventually led to me committing a murder. That small window between 15 and 17 is when my life of crime started. Something triggered in me.

17 and charged as an adult

GunI was 17 years old when I was jailed. I was charged as an adult for the murder and while out on bond, I was charged with a drug deal. I pled guilty, getting 10 years for the crack charge, which was federal time, and 15 to life for second-degree murder. I went to prison at the age of 19. I did the federal sentence first, serving eight years and nine months before I even started on the 15 to life.

I went to about maybe 10 different prisons, from Georgia to California; the longest I stayed in one place was 10 years. Many inmates are moved whether they want to or not, but to keep my sanity, I wanted to move; I moved so I could take classes. For example, I took a correspondence course in HVAC and I wanted to continue to educate myself in this field. So, I got sent to South Carolina. Then once I was in South Carolina for three years and had taken all the programs they had, I put in for another program at Leavenworth, called the Life Connections Program. It’s a faith-based, 18-month program that helps you follow the tenements of your faith, but also alter your thought processes—like identifying alternatives to violence and managing emotions. I had already been on a journey of change, but that was the missing piece. It helped me put everything in its proper perspective. I met mentors there with whom I’m still in contact with today. It was transforming for me.

Unfortunately, the feds have eliminated a lot of those programs. Leavenworth, for instance, no longer offers Life Connections. They are constantly defunding these programs. There’s nothing for inmates to do to better themselves. We used to say, “You’re doing dead time.” So, inmates run what they call “adult continuing education classes,” which means they teach them themselves. For example, I taught a stock market class. But those classes are not recognized. They’re not considered marketable certificates out in society.

The mirage of parole

I became eligible for parole because of my clean record and all the education I completed. My first parole hearing was in 2010, when I had been locked up approximately 20 years. The hearing examiner recommended I be given parole, but the parole board denied me, saying I was a serious risk because of the nature of my original crime. No attention was paid to my record during the past 20 years. They gave me a three-year set-off [waiting period before being allowed to come back]. I returned for another hearing in 2013. Meanwhile, I didn’t have any infractions. I participated in programming. But again, the examiner recommended parole, and again I was denied. This time I was told to come back in five years.

I went back in 2018. But it was the same thing all over again. I was delayed 11 years until I finally was released due to IRAA [D.C.’s Incarceration Reduction Act, which offers a “second look” to residents incarcerated as kids and have served at least 15 years].

It was devastating—not just for me, but for my family. My mother and sister stood by me all that time, even when it was hard for them to travel to see me. I hit some very low points. It was to the point where I felt I couldn’t go on. I was wavering on the brink of sanity. I believe my spirituality is what kept me going. I have a connection with God. I just continued to pray about my situation, saying “Please, God, just keep me strong.”

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