Derrick Redd left prison on March 23 after over two decades years behind bars. Until recently, he thought he would be there for two decades more.
Instead, he walked out into a “beautiful” rain – and a pandemic.
Many longtime prisoners struggle to adjust to modern society after release. But for a pandemic, prison primed Redd well.
“I was ready. I was ready physically and mentally for this,” said Redd, who was convicted in 1997 of holding up three banks in Prince William County, Virginia and attempting to rob a fourth. “Being locked down, that’s just quarantine right there. Being in one place, one store, one laundry, one kitchen, one gym. That prepared me for what’s going on right now.”
Living with his elderly mother and stepfather in his hometown of Philadelphia, he is taking no chances. Anyone coming into the Mount Airy ranch house decontaminates in the basement first. He is aggressive with the Lysol wipes. He’s already used to wearing gloves and a mask from working in the prison laundry. He does not mind spending a lot of time at home. He is excited just to clean his mother’s bathrooms, not the way most people clean the bathroom – “really getting in the corners and everything.”
People want to come by for hugs and handshakes; instead he sticks his head out just to prove that, yes, after more than two decades in prison, he is really there.
“A lot of people don’t believe I’m home,” said Redd, joking that he “almost had to call the police to get the paparazzi out of the driveway.”
He made an exception for his daughter, now 30.
“We had to hug – that’s my only child,” he said. He has also embraced his brothers and sister. When they stopped by his older brother’s home on his way back from the prison, he hid in his mother’s car so he could surprise his sibling and had to convince him he wasn’t a “hologram.” His mother, he said, will come into his room to touch him in his sleep, amazed he is really there.
“But the rest of the people, we stay at six feet,” he said.
Having followed news of the coronavirus crisis from prison, Redd feels incredibly lucky.At Fairton prison in New Jersey, groups are no longer allowed to congregate for meals or recreation. Older inmates are terrified.
“Everybody was trying to figure out how to get out,” he said. “A lot of guys in there are really scared because they can’t . . . two, five years left feels really long now.”
He can’t visit the friends he still has behind bars.
Though his movements are restricted, there are still new things to experience. Like many Americans, Redd is discovering the wonder of video chat.
“When I left, I couldn’t see nobody on the phone,” Redd said. “When I come back, I can see six people on one phone. I didn’t know what to say – I was looking at all of them.”
He cannot meet with his probation officer, but he reached out by phone and sent a photo of himself.
“I told him I’m serious about staying home” – a phrase that now carries more than one meaning. It could be months before Redd starts the job that has been waiting for him for years, at a security firm run by his high school friend, Roger Leysath. Or before he explores the new buildings that have cropped up all over his city, so many he wonders whether he should take a bus tour.
“I want to pick up Derrick and just take him for a ride in the city,” Leysath said. “I just wanted to show him the changes in the landscape of the city. Regentrification, new construction. But you’re not supposed to go out.”
Everything is closed. And, Roger said, his wife reminded him that it might be a good thing “not to give him too much, too fast.”
Leysath has spoken to Redd on the phone, and his old friend seems upbeat. But he wants to see him in person, to talk about how much they have both changed in the past 24 years. When Redd went to prison, Leysath was just coming out of his own drug addiction.
“The eyes are the witness to the soul,” he said. “I want to remind him, before your fall, you were on your way to doing certain things. He’s at a new beginning, a new threshold.”
Redd was once a promising basketball player. He went to Philadelphia’s Kutztown University on an athletic scholarship and was trying out for the National Basketball Association. A knee injury that summer destroyed those plans. A move to Northern Virginia did not help. Court records describe a history of alcoholism, drugs and petty crimes, ending in a string of armed bank robberies around his then-home of Lake Ridge.Three of those four crimes happened within 45 minutes of one another. They netted him $5,500 and 50 mandatory years in prison.
For two decades, Redd repeatedly appealed that sentence and was repeatedly denied. His only winning argument was that he was too poor to pay fees for all of his other losses. He made his way down from Leavenworth in Kansas (“a gladiator outlet”) to Hazelton in West Virginia (“rough”) to Fairton, where his family was only 45 minutes away and for the first time he was treated “like a human being.”
In 2013, during one of his thrice-weekly trips to the prison library, Redd came across something unusual, even unprecedented. A federal judge in New York had persuaded a prosecutor to cut down a 57-year mandatory sentence.
Like Redd, Francois Holloway had rejected a plea deal and been convicted at trial of multiple armed robberies. But at the judge’s urging, U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch agreed to withdraw two of Holloway’s gun convictions and release him three decades early.
“Cases like Holloway’s produce sentences that would be laughable if only there weren’t real people on the receiving end of them,” Judge John Gleeson wrote in his opinion. “Even people who are indisputably guilty of violent crimes deserve justice.”
Redd wrote to Gleeson to thank him for his decision. He wasn’t the only one.
“Word travels fast in prison,” Gleeson said. He described the people serving these “bone-crushing” gun sentences as “the high-hanging fruit of sentencing reform” – left out of efforts aimed at helping nonviolent offenders.
But the First Step Act of 2018 offered them a chance to campaign directly to judges for relief. Gleeson, who had stepped down in 2016, became not just an inspiration, but an attorney for Redd and many like him.
“One would also hope that the covid-19 problem might induce judges to act sooner rather than later,” Gleeson said. “May as well do it before these guys fall victim to the dissemination of the virus in the institutions.”
The Justice Department argued that despite changes in the law, a lengthy sentence that would not be imposed today is not “extraordinary and compelling” enough to justify release of prisoners who got those punishments decades earlier.
“If that’s all it takes for him to get compassionate release, then that truly would open up the floodgates,” a prosecutor in Alexandria federal court argued last fall at a hearing in Redd’s case.
“If that opens the floodgates, so what?” Gleeson responded. “There’s no such thing as too much justice.”
Judge Anthony J. Trenga agreed, and last month ordered Redd’s release.
Redd is now 64. After years of prison food, he is “trying to get my high school body back.” He spent two days drinking nothing but juice. Now he’s eating a lot of shrimp and vegetables. He wants to cook for his family, but they won’t stop cooking for him. His mother, Edith Brown, wants him to help less and rest a little more.
“He’s a good child,” Brown said, before catching herself: “But he’s no longer a child.”
Then she changed her mind. To her, he’s still “quite a young man.”
“He’s a good child,” she repeated. “Yes, he is.”
And what advice does Redd have, having left confinement by law for confinement by public health mandate?
“Stay in the house,” he said. “Listen to the CDC.”