A Real Shawshank Redemption: One Man's Journey from Prison Bars to the Bar Exam

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Attorney Daryl Atkinson of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice is known for passionate oratories on the need for criminal justice reform. An articulate man of bold stature and impeccable dress, one might never guess he was once a street hustler facing 99 years in prison for drug trafficking, nor that he gained his first experiences in law while still incarcerated.

As a youth, Daryl was a star athlete in Alabama until a college injury forced him to abandon his dreams. Frustrated and searching for the praise he'd once earned through sports, he discovered a talent for sales and began selling marijuana. "At first I did it so I could smoke for free," he says. "But then I saw I was good at dealing. As my status elevated, I moved up through the ranks and started dealing cocaine. Then one of my crime partners turned me in. I could have gotten 99 years, but I pled guilty in exchange for a 10-year sentence with a 40-month mandatory minimum for good behavior."

In 1996 Daryl entered a state penitentiary in Alabama. Inside, he continued selling drugs to prison guards and fellow inmates, but was still able to work his way down to a minimum-security facility on good behavior. His luck ended when he got into a fight with a white supremacist and was hauled off to a maximum-security prison where 60% of the inmates were serving life sentences without parole.

"It's hard to stay out of trouble in a place like that," he says. "A sense of hopelessness and frustration permeates everything and I was forced to make life or death choices [with regards to fighting] all the time. If I fought, I could serve the entire 10-year sentence, but if I didn't, someone might kill me."

Daryl spent the first two months in his new home locked in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. He was given two meals, two pairs of boxers and two t-shirts. But in some ways, the experience was a turning point in his life.

"In solitary confinement, I did a lot of thinking," he says. "In high school, I'd felt validated through sports. Then turned to success as a street dealer to feel good about myself. But in prison I had no money or status, so I learned how to be validated from the inside, based on character and principle."

Released from solitary confinement, Daryl met James, a fellow inmate serving life without parole who had created an ad-hoc law firm within the prison's own library. As most prisoners have exhausted their resources to hire a lawyer, it's not uncommon for other prisoners to file litigation on their behalf, even while incarcerated. "Some do it for altruism, others for money," says Daryl. "James did it to start a movement."

Under James' tutelage, 40 inmates, including Daryl, spent their recreation time in the prison library reviewing legal documents and working on cases. "In my two years with James I saw him get 18 men out of prison because their parole had been erroneously revoked or there were mistakes in their cases," says Daryl. "Everyone who worked with James had to drop his [gang affiliations] and learn Alabama's constitutional rules of procedure. I learned the power of the law and it planted the seed for my later career."

In the end, Daryl was released for good behavior after 40 months. For many formerly incarcerated people, getting out prison is just the beginning of a long and arduous fight to regain standing in society. People with a criminal record face discrimination in everything from employment and housing to federal benefits and education. For many, the disenfranchisement is so severe that they turn back to crime in order to make a living. In this respect, Daryl was lucky. He had enough family support to put a roof over his head and food on the table while he pursued his new passion for law.

"My saving grace is that I had a family and connections to people who could look past my criminal record and offer me a job," says Daryl. "Since I couldn't qualify for student loans (due to his record), I had to pay my way through college once I found one that would even accept me."

After earning his law degree, Daryl moved to North Carolina where he currently works as an attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ). At SCSJ, Daryl raises awareness about the collateral consequences of the criminal justice system and represents clients who, like himself, face legal barriers to reintegration after leaving prison. Even now, 17 years after his conviction, Daryl is barred from voting in Alabama.

Over the past two years, Daryl has urged more public knowledge and transparency about the barriers facing formerly incarcerated people. He helped create a website detailing the collateral consequences of a criminal record and how they contribute to higher rates of recidivism, or re-incarceration for new crimes.

"If people can't participate in the mainstream, it drives them back to the criminal lifestyle," Daryl explains. Some of his recent efforts to provide legal relief to formerly incarcerated people include ban the box initiatives (efforts to delay criminal background checks until later in the hiring process so that people with convictions can be assessed for other qualifications before an employment decision is made); providing certificates of relief (that allow people with low-level crimes a measure of relief from collateral consequences); and advocating for marijuana decriminalization.

Attorney Atkinson is now a well-known face in the justice movement for formerly incarcerated people and continues to use the same powers of persuasion once he used for drug hustling to convince lawmakers and key players within the penal system to emphasize rehabilitation over punishment.

"The only reason I'm not out there with the other brothers who can't find a job is because I had a family to support my journey to rehabilitation," says Daryl. "Now I'm here for the people who don't have that."