PRISON BEYOND BARS: Back in the Picture

When Derrick Parnell returned to his mother's house after years in prison, he noticed something missing from her picture wall. Parnell tells James P. Larson about the meaning of a brand new, cherished photograph.

[Image] PRISON BEYOND BARS: Back in the Picture

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By James P. Larson

“Come on everybody, let me hear you,” shouted Derrick Parnell, calling the roll at a public meeting of Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope, or MICAH.

The crowd, which filled New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church on Milwaukee's north side, rose to its feet as Parnell raised his arms skyward.

Parnell, one of the first inmates granted early release from prison under Wisconsin's Act 28, is a 12-time felon. The new law, enacted to trim the state budget, set Parnell free last January, three weeks before his scheduled release date.

Parnell's freedom lasted less than two months his last time on parole, in 2006. He was caught with a crack pipe, his parole was revoked, and he faced another four years in prison.

“Man, I can't do this,” he thought as he returned from the judge's chambers to a holding cell. “Four years is a long time.”

“Nothing in the real world happened as fast as I thought it should,” Parnell said of his first parole.

“I tried for, like, 20 days, two or three weeks to find employment, but I just ran against that brick wall because I was under [the impression] that things was gonna happen like that,” he said, snapping his fingers,“and they didn't.” Frustration led to relapse, which led Parnell back to prison.

MICAH's Rev. Joe Ellwanger, former pastor of Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, met Parnell while transporting inmates from the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center, a pre-release facility, to services at Hephatha Lutheran Church.

Inmates at the Chaney Center who wish to attend church are put on a waiting list for the first church available, and Parnell “just happened to be one of the four I picked up that day,” said Ellwanger. Parnell continued to attend services and participate in a Sunday meal and Bible class at Hephatha until his release, when he became a member of the church.

Parnell said that his use of drugs and alcohol had a lot to do with his going to prison, and Ellwanger said that untreated addictions are a major factor in recidivism.

“Relapse is standard in recovery” from a substance abuse problem, said Ellwanger. “Very few recover without relapsing.”

Unlike many parolees, Parnell, the son of an Air Force chaplain, has a high school diploma and grew up in a stable family.

“A preacher's kids are the worst ones,” Parnell said.“That's because we was brought up in the church, and we want to see what's out there.”

“My mother's a good woman [and] my father's a good man, you know?” said Parnell. “I just chose to do what I do. I chose . . . the wrong way.”

Parnell's mother, Lillie Riley, said in a telephone interview that as a boy Parnell loved playing basketball, riding his bike, and wearing sharp clothes, but he began to rebel as a teenager, eventually getting into drugs and crime.

In addition to the misdemeanor drug paraphernalia conviction that ended his first parole, Parnell has 12 felony burglary convictions dating back to 1992 and has spent a large part of his adult life behind bars. Today, at age 40 and on parole again, he feels he still has time to make a life for himself.

Last July, Parnell got permission to visit his mother, who has custody of Parnell's 15-year-old son, Diamond, and now lives in Southaven, Miss.

“It was so good to have all of my children in the same room, for the first time in years,” said Riley.

 Riley said that while Parnell's family never gave up on him, they felt they had to “let him figure things out on his own a little bit this last time.”

“But I think the third time will be the charm for Derrick,” said Riley. “He's a whole different person now, and a fine young man, [though] we've never not been proud of him.” At his mother's house, Parnell was deeply affected by the fact that he was almost entirely absent from family pictures.

“The only pictures she had of me, in the last 10 or 15 years, were in prison,” said Parnell. “So, of course, she wouldn't put them on display.” He started taking pictures as soon as he could, and his favorite is a shot of him and his son after church. When Parnell returned to Milwaukee last summer, his son came with him and stayed for six weeks.

Following his release in January, Parnell quickly found a job at Liberty Tax Service wearing a costume and waving to attract customers. The job lasted about two weeks. Then, despite warnings from Department of Corrections officials that the media would be watching the first inmates released under the new law, Parnell had a setback.

“That's when I had the dilemma with the curfews,” said Parnell. Parole officer Mike Roehl confirms that it was violation of his 9 PM curfew and not a new crime that sent Parnell to the Milwaukee County Secure Detention Facility for two weeks. Roehl called Parnell and said the Department of Corrections wanted him to turn himself in while they investigated the violations.

“Honestly, I didn't take kindly to that, so I didn't turn myself in right away. I waited two days, and I turned myself in,” Parnell said. “It was a bad choice, because I made a situation that was semi-all-right . . . I made it worse.”

Logbooks showed that Parnell was with members of his church, in substance abuse support group meetings, and at Bible study when he missed curfew. Ellwanger and others who were with him at those activities spoke on his behalf. Still, Parnell paid for failing to take the curfew seriously. Upon his release from MCSDF, he lost his spot in a temporary living placement and had to go to a halfway house, where for the first two weeks he could only be gone for one hour per day.

Stories about the incident in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and on the website of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute made Parnell a symbol for critics of the early-release program.

“Curfew was the only thing that I did wrong, but to everyone in society, it was like, 'Here, we done gave this guy a chance,'” said Parnell. “'It's not even been a month and a half, and look. Now he's back, locked back up.'”

Once released from MSDF, he worked another temporary job at Goodwill. He's taken classes and learned office skills including Microsoft's Excel, Powerpoint, and Word programs, and is working as an administrative assistant at Project Return, a Milwaukee nonprofit that helps ex-offenders reenter the community.

Since then, Parnell has kept to the straight and narrow, aided by regular phone contact with family members (all of whom now live out-of-state), the support of his co-workers at Project Return, and the people at his “church home,” Hephatha Lutheran.

He lives, alone for now after a roommate got into trouble, in a Miracle House apartment where the rules include: no drugs or alcohol, no overnight company, and mandatory church membership.

He says keeping busy and taking on responsibility at Project Return helps him to continue making positive choices. He works as an assistant to Project Return's executive director, Wendel Hruska, who put him to work selling advertising space in the program booklet for the nonprofit's 30th anniversary banquet this fall.

While he was successful selling ads, the program, and the banquet itself, held a surprise for Derrick Parnell.

“We were at the banquet, and everybody was like, 'Derrick, did you look at the booklet?'” Parnell said.

“I was like, yeah, I was real proud to see my name listed under 'staff,' but I didn't know they were going to give me this award,” said Parnell.

Named for a founding member of Project Return,“(t)he Elijah O'Neal Achievment Award is given annually to a client who has grown the most in a given year and shown other former offenders that change is possible,” according to the 30th anniversary booklet.

David Fields, associate director at Project Return, said the nominating committee for the award looks for candidates who “rise above adversity.”

“Derrick strove to change himself, and he's really accomplished a lot in a short period of time,” said Fields. “And he's made no excuses.”

In addition to his work at Project Return and with MICAH, Parnell participates with other ex-offenders in a weekly Bible study called Table of Saints and attends support groups for substance abuse.

“It's hard, but it keeps me busy,” he said. “Because I'm not going to say that I don't have those thoughts of committing crimes, but I know today I have a choice, you see what I'm saying?”

For now, Parnell's future is uncertain. While his volunteer work at Project Return has led to a paid transitional position facilitated by the New Hope Project, he hasn't had that income long and has struggled with his bills. Buying a bus ticket to Mississippi for Thanksgiving, he said, “just about broke me.”

“He's making all the right moves,” said Dawon Holley, Parnell's case manager at New Hope. “I really don't see him needing our services beyond six months.”

Parnell is considering applying for a job as a MICAH organizer, though he knows he doesn't have the experience the nonprofit wants. He's engaged to a woman he met at Hephatha Lutheran Church and has strong relationships with Ellwanger and others in the congregation. He has a new job and his friends at Table of Saints, but his family wants him to come to Mississippi.

Riley said that while raising her grandson has never been a financial burden – “we have always been blessed,” she said – she would like to have her son come to Mississippi and be a father. She said that managing a grandchild is hard work, and if Parnell was in Mississippi to look after his son, she could take a vacation to somewhere warm, “where I could pretend I can still wear a bikini.”

“And I've also got an aunt, 80-some years old, who I haven't seen in about 10 years,” said Riley. “I'd like to go visit her before she's called home.”

While in Mississippi for Thanksgiving, Parnell visited churches, applied for jobs “just to see what the climate there is like for an ex-offender,” and took pictures of houses for sale in Southaven to bring back to his fiancee.

“My family wants me down there, but Pastor Joe [Ellwanger] wants me up here,” said Parnell.

“He'll make up his own mind, of course,” said Ellwanger. “But I think it would be wise for Derrick to take advantage of some of the opportunities he's got here in Milwaukee.”

While sorting and collating Christmas cards that Project Return sends to inmates at pre-release facilities, Parnell said that he'd like to help develop reentry programs in Mississippi so that ex-offenders didn't have to go to nearby Memphis, Tenn., for services.

Speaking at a MICAH fund-raising breakfast in December, Parnell said he hopes to make amends after “taking so much from my community.”

“It might be small,” Parnell said, “but if I throw enough pebbles, it'll build a wall.”

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