BALTIMORE – Paul Banks squinted in the beaming April sunlight and stopped to catch a glimpse of freedom.
Carrying two brown bags full of papers and Bible study materials, he stopped briefly to contemplate his independence as the wind whipped pear blossoms around him. He grinned nervously, then sauntered down the stone steps of the Metropolitan Transitional Center, walking with a release officer towards the prison’s accounting office — the last stop before freedom.
Other prisoners cat-called and yelled at Banks from the prison windows, their words echoing past the stony walls. After paperwork and a quick ID check, a clerk handed him $25, the balance of his prison bank account.
Banks, 21, was now a free man.
Behind was prison, where he spent the past 12 months and four days. There, he was known to some inmates as “valedictorian” for his quiet, well-spoken ways — and the fact that he could read at all.
In front of him was the street where Banks used to live the hustler life, the “a yo-boy lifestyle of standing on the corners” that ultimately led to his drug and gun convictions.
“I’m just going to stay clear of all the people who were a hindrance to me before. I’m not going to let (my life) go down the tubes,” Banks declared as he stood outside the fence.
He was a different man than the thug who was pictured in his prison mug shot from just a year earlier. He was much different than the boy who used to dodge imaginary bullets with his younger brother, using their mother’s East Baltimore house as the backdrop for a regular game of “policeman.”
“I wanted to be part of the solution,” he said, remembering his childhood role as the “good cop.”
But by 13, the “good cop” was smoking pot. By 14, he was selling cocaine.
“I forfeited my childhood. I wanted to be older at a younger age. (I had) a dream of being an adult,” he said.
Banks was making “good money” on the street, but the pressures got to him and a robbery by another hustler almost pushed him over the edge. He had a gun and was ready for revenge, but said “a higher power got a hold of me then and I just stopped.”
For the first time in his young life, Banks decided it was time to change. He picked up the paper the next morning and began to look for a job. A home security company gave him a sales position.
Soon, he said, he was a successful salesman. Within two years he had been transferred to St. Louis, then to Cincinnati, then to Philadelphia. But when his job transferred him back to Baltimore, the old “mentality” started creeping back. He pulled together enough money to buy a block of heroin.
“I guess I really wanted money. I thought the lifestyle would elevate me,” he said.
But Banks got arrested before he could begin selling the heroin and was convicted on drug and weapons charges. He said the 12 months in prison gave him time to take a long, honest look at his former life on the blocks of East Baltimore.
“I’ve never done hard time, but I’ve done hard time on the streets,” he said as he neared his release date. “I know that I am going places. I would never come back here.
“This is one of the best experiences to take me to the next level in life, but it is one of the worst things I have been through,” he said, his smooth hands pulling on state-issued jeans.
For the second time in his young life, Banks decided it was time to change.
In prison, he participated in a seven-week program aimed at preparing inmates for life outside the fence. He won a coveted spot in a post-release program at the Patrick Allison House, a transitional housing center in Baltimore City that will help him reach that “next level” of self-sufficiency.
As he checked out of the prison April 24, the guard who opened the last door wished him luck. Six prisoners in the yard wished him well and shook his hand, including Banks’ cousin, Terry Paige, also serving time for drug offenses.
Paige, a small man with a shiny gold front tooth, reached up to hug his tall, lanky cousin, but admonished him to stay clean.
“Stay home, man,” Paige shouted as his young relative turned to walk out of the penitentiary gate.
“I’ll write to you, dog,” Banks yelled back, as he turned one last time to look at his cousin and the prison yard that caged him for over a year.
After his release, Banks was back on a Baltimore street corner — but this time he wasn’t hustling, he was waiting for a ride to the detox center.
After a mandatory month-long stay at a drug treatment center, Banks will live for eight months in the shelter, where he will have to hold a job, pay rent and attend daily drug treatment and therapy sessions.
As he waited for his ride, Banks met Archie Hill, an ex-offender who directs the Barnabas Ministry, a weekly support group for prisoners. Hill smiled as he saw Banks in an oversized prison-issue T-shirt. Together, at the gates of the prison yard, they joined hands and prayed, asking God to bless them both and give them strength to succeed in life.
Hill hugged the new ex-convict and said, “I love you,” then turned to enter the prison yard.
“I love you, too, man,” Banks said.
“This is confirmation today,” he said to Hill. “Now that I’m actually out here, I’ve gotta take the things I said and make them work for me,” Banks said, quietly.
He pointed to the public housing units where his mother lives, just a few blocks away.
“I could just go down there, but I won’t,” he said, still waiting for the ride.
As he waited patiently in the cold spring breeze, Banks said he knows that the road to success may be long and hard. But he knows the alternative — before his release, he said his life “can’t get no worse than here.”
“That’s my aim to be a successful person,” as he stood outside the fence. “But nothing comes overnight.” -30- CNS 04