My story is about two second chances. The first is mine – I got one. I spent 11 years in prison, and I was released a little early because of the First Step Act. The other one I want to tell you about is a second chance that I wish someone else could get. His name is Dawan Maynard, and he’s still behind bars, for another 17 years.
I caught my sentence in 2008, when I was 24. Now I’m 37. I was sentenced to 180 months — 15 years — for drug trafficking, crack cocaine, and gun possession. Looking back years before my arrest, I can see how things kind of led me to that point. My dad had an addiction to crack cocaine, and my mom was an alcoholic, so that played a big factor in my upbringing. They made sure I had food and clothes, and they were supportive and went to all my sporting events, things like that. But it was chaotic.
When I went to college, I got involved in the drug conspiracy that would take me down. I wanted things that I never had. Before I realized it, it was way out of my control. I graduated with my bachelor’s in social work in 2006, but then everything went seriously downhill and I was in and out of trouble for seven years, including two run-ins with the law before my last conviction. I hate to say that I didn’t wise up sooner, but when you’re young, you kind of have to bump your head a bunch of times to realize what’s right in life.
After I was arrested, charged, and convicted, they sent me to the U.S. penitentiary in Hazelton, West Virginia. At that point in time, it was one of the worst penitentiaries in the country, a very dangerous place. Right from the start, I saw that I could easily just lose myself and become someone I really didn’t want to be. I realized that it was about time I started turning this ship around and making my life right.
I became a tutor. I’d never thought of being a teacher before – especially math, because I hated math – but I saw the need, and I had a college degree. In teaching my classes, I never played games – I took it very seriously. In there, you have a lot of jokesters, people who want to come in there just to pass time. I figured out how to weed that stuff out, how to keep people going. I would talk to a lot of guys about their kids, how they should be doing this for them. I would have people sometimes who didn’t know how to read very well, and pride is a big thing. We would take it very slow. And a lot of times, it’s just that people need somebody to listen to them. My strategy is to find out what it is that they need, and try to teach to that.
I realized soon that I loved to teach, and I’m actually pretty good at it – even math. More and more guys signed up for my classes. And that’s how I met Dawan Maynard.
Dawan and I are from the same area in Pennsylvania, and that’s the dynamic of prison. If you’re from Pennsylvania, you hang out with Pennsylvania people. Dawan was 42 then, and he didn’t have his GED. Dawan is a pretty quiet guy, he keeps to himself, but he told me, “I heard good things about your teaching.”
Dawan, now 48, was sentenced in 2014 to 25 years for conspiracy and distribution of cocaine and crack. He had two prior convictions for robbery and attempted murder, which made him a “career offender” and triggered the long sentence he now is serving. At his sentencing, his attorney asked the court to give Dawan “some hope, some light at the end of the tunnel,” but that wasn’t possible, at least in terms of his sentence. Dawan will be 65 when he is released. But Dawan did find hope – in the classroom.
My life now is a miracle because I got a second chance.
For people like Dawan – older, slammed with a long sentence and given a harsh label – some people might just give up. Especially since it seems like the system has given up on them. But Dawan didn’t give up, and I didn’t give up on him. At one point, he told me he was frustrated, that he didn’t know if getting more education was for him. I told him, “You’re actually smart, man. This stuff is just a matter of taking the time to do it. It’s not like you can’t get it done.” And so he got his GED on the first try, and he was ecstatic. I was so proud.
Later on, Dawan told me that I helped him “see the me I couldn’t see.” Well, he did the same for me. He taught me that what I had to offer was worthy, and that I could make a difference.
Eventually, I asked Dawan to be a tutor with me. He said, “Man, I don’t even like talking to a lot of people.” I’m not even a religious person, but I told him, “If you think about it, you’re doing God’s work here, man. You’re doing this for you.” I kept working on him, because in prison, you practice a lot of antisocial behaviors. It’s just the nature of it. And him teaching would be a way to do something positive and good.
I don’t know exactly what I said to Dawan that made him change his mind, but eventually he did. And he took to teaching like I couldn’t believe. He just ended up being a very personable person, and people opened up to him. Like me, he’s not the type of person to go for any type of B.S. He would say to people, “I’m not here to play games. I’m not here to waste my time.” Both of us, we would come in the classroom and do what we had to do, and tried to make the best impact that we possibly could.
On March, 21, 2019, I was released early because of the First Step Act, the part of it that made the crack sentencing law retroactive. March 21 is my fiancée’s birthday, which made it perfect. Samantha and I got together two years before I went to prison, and she supported me the whole 11 years I was inside. She definitely signed on to something that is impossible for lot of people.
Reentry is always tough, but I’m fortunate. I got a good job as a welder, a millwright. I got my CDL permit soon after I got out, so one day I’m going to become an owner-operator with my own trucking company. And Samantha and I got engaged. Life is good.
I haven’t forgotten about teaching — if I had my way, I would be teaching right now. Some day I would love to go back to it. Ideally, I would be teaching to nontraditional students. I can speak their language. I know how because I’ve been doing it for so long. Recently, I reached out to a few people to see if I could volunteer. Hopefully, I can make it work sooner or later.
And I haven’t forgotten about Dawan Maynard, not at all. Now, he’s at a prison where COVID is rampant. He has diabetes and asthma problems, and I really worry about him. He’s such an amazing guy. He’s working as the head tutor now. I know that he is doing great things inside, and he would be so impactful back in his community.
My life now is a miracle because I got a second chance. I’m never going to forget about all the people like Dawan who won’t get one — and I’ll keep fighting for reform of prison policies and laws so that the system is better. Seeing what Dawan has been through and how far he’s come made me see firsthand that the system shouldn’t be throwing people away. There’s got to be a way for people with charges and sentences like Dawan’s to have some hope, some chance to prove themselves. In Dawan’s own words: “I have been scratching and clawing all my life in this cruel world, but I don’t blame anyone but myself because I do know right from wrong, and I was wrong more than I was right in life. I do except full responsibility. I’m a work in progress. I’m better today than I was yesterday, and I promise to be even better tomorrow!”
Do you want to support people like Dawan and fight for policies that will help him to continue his education and help others in prison? Join us – together we can make reform happen!
Staff in the education department at FCI Cumberland agree that Gerald Tarboro was a huge asset to the program and that Dawan Maynard is following in his footsteps – with solid success. One staff member had this to say: “When an inmate starts teaching and helping people, they begin to open up. It takes you out of your own head. It helps you stop worrying and thinking about all the bad things in your life – it gets you outside of yourself. The people who work as teachers and who succeed at it – they have it inside of themselves to start with. They just need the opportunity. And when they see that, they think, ‘Maybe I can take this skill that I have and help others.’ It’s in the act of giving help that you help yourself.”