Inspired by a Commitment to Community and Centering Impacted Voices

Aug 21, 2021   |  By Eric Borsuk

“A jail is a lockdown, but prison is a community,” says Charles, citing the work of famed prison reform advocate, penologist, and longtime warden of Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Lewis E. Lawes.

Over the 40 years of his incarceration, Sing Sing was just one of the many institutions where Charles was held, in fact, he was there twice. After all of those years, he says that what he ultimately found was a sense of community.

Charles started out working in the facility’s law library and eventually became a paralegal. He also assisted with conflict resolution in grievance programs. In his words, he became “a conduit between the administration and the inmates.” In time, Charles found himself building community as he mentored individuals from all walks of life, particularly young gang members.

“They were confused, troubled youths with bad upbringings, just like me—I related to them. I would get them involved in programs and into the law library to work on their cases.”

For Charles, a major turning point was when author Antoinette Bosco visited his facility to deliver an address on peace and forgiveness. Following the tragic murder of her son and daughter-in-law, Ms. Bosco became an outspoken opponent of capital punishment and was ultimately honored for her major contributions to the repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty in 2012.

“I tortured myself for years until I met Ms. Bosco. I felt her pain when she talked about losing her son and daughter-in-law. She didn’t want the murderer to have his life taken away, too. She forgave him. Through that, I was able to start forgiving myself. It changed my life.”

After their initial meeting, Charles and Antoinette became close friends. Antionette dedicated her book, Choosing Mercy: A Mother of Murder Victims Pleads to End the Death Penalty, to Charles, as well as all her “imprisoned friends,” she wrote, “who have so inspired me to see the truth.” Charles calls meeting Antoinette his “aha” moment. After that, he converted to Buddhism and became heavily involved in theater programming.

“Theater was my savior,” he says. “In theater, you learn to live truthfully in an imaginary world, and that’s what prison was, an imaginary world.”

Over the years, Charles was involved in many theatrical productions, from “West Side Story”, to “Bang the Drum Slowly”, and “Fathers and Sons”. As part of the Lifers Group organization, he wrote and presented a play about a father visiting the incarcerated individual who murdered his son, which he calls “restorative justice for the stage.” Through theater programming, Charles says that he was able to develop a more accepting view of his fellow incarcerees, a diverse cast of individuals from different races and backgrounds, who in time became his new brothers.

“They were more brothers to me than my biological brothers,” he says.

While incarcerated, Charles used his time productively without knowing if he would ever be released. Now he is using the life lessons learned within the prison walls to better the outside world. Charles says that he is fortunate to have a second chance at life.

“When I got out, having access to the services provided by the Center for Employment Opportunities was a game-changer,” he says. “They got me employment, taught me how to drive again, and how to go to work every day. They believed in me.”

Working for CEO’s Transitional Work Crew, Charles performed such duties as mowing lawns, clearing garbage, and collecting leaves.

“I was helping to clean up the neighborhood. It felt like I was doing the right thing.”

Charles says that one of the major changes he has noticed after 40 years of incarceration is a marked increase in the homeless population. Inspired by a commitment to community and a call to serve at-risk individuals, he applied for a position at a local homeless shelter, and much to his delight, he was hired for the job.

“I’m giving back to society, just like I said that I would before the parole board.”

Charles will turn 68 years old in November but doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. He recently enrolled in classes at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, majoring in Law and Society, with a minor in theater. This August, he performed in the production of “Kid Stuff”, in collaboration with Acting Out, a class for formerly incarcerated individuals to continue their theater training upon release.

Charles hopes to soon produce a play incorporating the theatrical talent of the homeless population, as a way of raising awareness to the issue, while building community and providing a voice to those in need.