From Behind Bars to Taking the Bar

by Liana Stinson

One might assume that the typical of life of a lawyer started by that person graduating high school, then going on to college to graduate and apply to law school. Maybe that person played sports in college or was the star of the Mock Trial team. Maybe that person started off a little rocky in college but then was able to become refocused and graduate with honors. For Daryl Atkinson, none of those scenarios ring true.

For Daryl, high school centered around him being a basketball star with a large circle of friends. Eric Tucker, Public face of US re-entry effort speaks from own experience, The Associated Press (Apr. 26, 2016), https://apnews.com/d1d974836ced4534ac194752debebd2c/public-face-us-re-entry-effort-speaks-own-experience. Growing up in Alabama, his family was deeply devoted to public service. Id. Daryl went on after high school to the University of Tennessee where he played basketball. Id. Tragically, an injury ended his basketball aspirations at the University of Tennessee where he was forced to return home to Alabama. Id. With his basketball career over and having nothing to do back at home, Daryl realized his talents in the area of sales. He began selling marijuana. Tessie Castillo, A Real Shawshank Redemption: One Man’s Journey from Prison Bars to the Bar Exam, The Huffington Post (Nov. 30, 2015), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tessie-castillo/a-real-shawshank-redempti_b_4057959.html. Daryl first begin selling to “smoke for free” but then he says, “I saw I was good at dealing. As my status elevated, I moved up through the ranks and started dealing cocaine.” Id.

Daryl continued selling drugs until one day, one of his crime partners turned him in. Id. “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.” Id. Daryl entered an Alabama state penitentiary in 1996. Id. He then continued to sell drugs to both prison guards and inmates while inside and eventually, got himself into a minimum-security facility because of his “good behavior.” Id. However, Daryl was transferred to a maximum-security prison, where 60% of the inmates are serving life sentences without parole, when he got into fight with a white supremacist. Id. Daryl remarked about the incident that it is “hard to stay out of trouble in a place like that.” Id. “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.” Id.

While in the maximum-security prison, Daryl spent the first two months in solitary confinement. In solitary, the prisoner spends 23 hours a day in the cell alone. Daryl was given “two meals, two pairs of boxers and two shirts.” Id. U.S. prison officials use solitary confinement to punish and control difficult or dangerous prisoners, such as those engaged in fighting, that they needed to be kept apart from the other prisoners. Erica Goode, Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life, The New York Times (Aug. 3, 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/04/health/solitary-confinement-mental-illness.html. Solitary confinement has been linked to worsening mental illness and producing symptoms in prisoners who did not start out mentally ill. Id.

Solitary confinement has been viewed as a form of torture, however, for Daryl, it was the source of a turning point in his life. Tessie Castillo, A Real Shawshank Redemption: One Man’s Journey from Prison Bars to the Bar Exam, The Huffington Post (Nov. 30, 2015), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tessie-castillo/a-real-shawshank-redempti_b_4057959.html. While sitting in his cell, Daryl had a lot of time to review the events of his life and how they led to a life behind bars. Id. “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.” Id.

After spending those two months in solitary confinement, Daryl met James, a fellow inmate who created an ad-hoc law firm within the prison’s library. Id. For many prisoners, having their own lawyer was a luxury they did not possess. So to plead their case, prisoners utilized the resources in this library to research and file litigation on their own behalf while they were incarcerated. Id. James set up this law firm while spending his life in prison without the possibility of parole to “start a movement” says Daryl. Id.

Forty inmates, including Daryl, have utilized their recreational time while imprisoned in the library working on their cases. James required these men to drop their gang affiliations and learn Alabama’s rules of procedure. While incarcerated, Daryl saw James help 18 men get out of prison due to “their parole had been erroneously revoked or there were mistakes in their cases.” Id. Through working with James in the prison’s “law firm,” Daryl “learned the power of the law” which “planted the seed” for his later career. Id.

Fortunately, due to his good behavior, Daryl was released after serving just 40 months. Id. Alabama has a very high recidivism rate at 30% of newly released convicts will return to the prison system. Alabama Public Radio (May 6, 2017), http://apr.org/post/best-documentary-and-justice-all-alabama-public-radio-0#stream/0. For many newly released people, getting out is actually more terrifying than being incarcerated. These people face discrimination in employment due to their criminal status and discrimination in housing, federal assistance, and education. Tessie Castillo, A Real Shawshank Redemption: One Man’s Journey from Prison Bars to the Bar Exam, The Huffington Post (Nov. 30, 2015), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tessie-castillo/a-real-shawshank-redempti_b_4057959.html. That is why newly released people turn back to the life of crime they once knew instead of constantly fighting for a job and to make ends meet.

Daryl was luckily not a part of that 30% that returned to a life of crime. With the support of his family in both supplying him a place to live and food to eat, Daryl was able to pursue a career in the law after being released. Id. Daryl obtained his “Associate in Arts, Bachelor in Science, and Juris Doctor Degrees.” https://www.communitysuccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/CSI_Speakers_Daryl_Atkinson.pdf. He has also passed both Minnesota and North Carolina’s Bar Exam. Id.

However, Daryl did not completely escape the discrimination that accompanies being a former convict. While applying to law schools, Daryl was rejected at all but one law school because of his criminal record. Eric Tucker, Public face of US re-entry effort speaks from own experience, The Associated Press (Apr. 26, 2016), https://apnews.com/d1d974836ced4534ac194752debebd2c/public-face-us-re-entry-effort-speaks-own-experience. The University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis accepted Daryl and said, “[w]e like to think of ourselves as a nation that’s open to rehabilitation and reformation.” Id.

Throughout his years of law school, Daryl was an exceptional student. “[Daryl had] an unmatched sense of righteous indignation about injustice,” said Artika Tyner, one of Daryl’s supervising attorneys in a family law clinic. Id. Daryl ended up being the commencement speaker at his graduation and graduated in the top third of his class. Id.

Currently, Daryl lives in North Carolina and works as a staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (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” at SCSJ. Tessie Castillo, A Real Shawshank Redemption: One Man’s Journey from Prison Bars to the Bar Exam, The Huffington Post (Nov. 30, 2015), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tessie-castillo/a-real-shawshank-redempti_b_4057959.html. Daryl is a “founding member of the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance, a burgeoning statewide coalition of advocacy organizations, service providers, faith-based organizations and community leaders that have come together to achieve the safe and successful reintegration of adults and juveniles returning home from incarceration.” Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, White House Honors Champion of Change Daryl Atkinson, Southern Coalition for Social Justice (Jun. 27, 2014), https://www.southerncoalition.org/daryl-atkinson-champion-of-change/.

In June of 2014, the White House honors “Champions of Change” who work to facilitate employment opportunities for those formerly incarcerated. Id. Daryl received a “Champion of Change” award for the work he does at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Id. Daryl said when receiving the award, “[t]his award is a huge honor … [t]o me, it really demonstrates the potential of every formerly incarcerated individual to achieve their dreams if they have the proper support.” Id.

Widener Commonwealth Law School was lucky enough, in 2016, to have Daryl speak at the Diversity Forum “Justice: Healing for the Past; Opportunity in the Future.” Daryl is now the public face “of the Justice Department’s efforts to help convicted felons re-enter society.” Eric Tucker, Public face of US re-entry effort speaks from own experience, The Associated Press (Apr. 26, 2016), https://apnews.com/d1d974836ced4534ac194752debebd2c/public-face-us-re-entry-effort-speaks-own-experience. He joined the Justice Department as the Department’s first-ever Second Chance Fellow where he helps to “develop a re-entry policy that the Obama administration sees as a vital component of its broader effort to reshape the criminal justice system and the handling of nonviolent drug offenders.” Id.

Daryl has committed his life now to helping remove common barriers faced by former convicts in restarting their lives. Also, Daryl advises a federal re-entry council that represents about 20 agencies and together, they develop strategies for assisting former convicts in getting a fresh start. Daryl wants to identify people who, like him, found success after incarceration and wants to add the stories to an online digital “story bank.” Id.