After decades in prison, finding new life mentoring at-risk youth

Michael Plummer, a Washington, D.C. man, works with at-risk youth to pass on the lessons he learned from more than two decades behind bars. William Brangham and producer Mike Fritz have been following Plummer's story for more than a year and a half since his release from prison. This report is part of our ongoing series, Searching for Justice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight, we began the first in a series of stories on the challenges many formerly incarcerated people face.

    William Brangham and producer Mike Fritz have this profile of Michael Plummer, who served more than two decades in prison. He was released a year-and-a-half ago and he now works with at-risk youth to pass on the lessons he learned.

    It's part of our ongoing series Searching For Justice.

  • William Brangham:

    For 42 year-old Michael Plummer, the reality of his freedom still hasn't set in.

  • Michael Plummer, Credible Messenger:

    You say, OK, is this real. You know, am I driving this car or am I at this restaurant? And so I'm used to being home. But, mentally, the mind is always there.

  • William Brangham:

    There is the 23 years that Plummer spent in prison for a murder he committed when he was 16. He was released in 2020, thanks to a Washington, D.C., law that freed some longtime prisoners if their crimes were committed as juveniles.

    He's now been out more than a year-and-a-half, and we have been following Plummer as he's rebuilt his life. He reconnected with his daughter, Mayana (ph), who was just 18 months old when he was arrested, and he became a grandfather.

    And he married Ramell Thompson, whom he'd dated as a teenager. He now works two jobs, one working for Clean Decisions, a company that hires formerly incarcerated people.

  • Michael Plummer:

    You want to get people in your corner to champion you. So, I champion you.

  • William Brangham:

    And another working as what's known as a credible messenger, where he counsels young people who are in custody in Washington, D.C.

  • Anthony Petty, Credible Messenger:

    You always have a choice in every matter.

  • William Brangham:

    Plummer's partner in that job is 47-year-old Anthony Petty, whom he met in prison.

  • Anthony Petty:

    This time right here, you're basically in a confined area. Use this time to do something. And what you do, you read, you learn.

  • William Brangham:

    When Petty was released last year, after being in prison for nearly 30 years for murder, Plummer helped him land this job and trained him how to do it.

  • Michael Plummer:

    He served a 30-year prison term. He reformed his life while in there. And even though he spent a lengthy time in prison, it didn't affect his mental capabilities of being stable. And so he's able to share with the youth a world of wisdom.

  • Anthony Petty:

    We went to jail when we were 16.

    So, one of the most important things that I want to do with the young people is, I don't want them to go through what me and Michael went through. That's the most important thing.

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

  • Anthony Petty:

    And by me being around Michael in his work for the credible message work force, you know, I learned a lot of things just by being around him.

  • Michael Plummer:

    When I was young, went down the path I went down.

  • William Brangham:

    Research suggests this type of mentorship can have a big impact on young adults in the justice system. One study found that, over a two-year period, a similar credible messenger program in New York helped reduce felony re-conviction rates by more than half.

  • Inmate:

    I want to get out, go home and have a good job.

  • William Brangham:

    One young man in the Washington, D.C., program told me these mentors are trusted because of their own backgrounds.

  • Inmate:

    They was incarcerated once. They ain't let the 25 years, the 35 years to life impact them on what all they got going on for the future. But they make us feel like we are in their shoes and that we can do bigger things with our life and we do have a future and we do have a family.

  • Anthony Petty:

    I know you, as a mother, you always, always worry about what your son going through and stuff like that.

  • William Brangham:

    And Plummer and Petty often meet with parents of the young people they see, like mother Ashley Angel Darton.

  • Ashley Angel Darton, Mother:

    To him, it's like, it's small, somebody tripping. He doesn't take accountability for his actions.

  • William Brangham:

    Darton says her son has been in and out of juvenile detention. They're trying to help her understand what he's been dealing with and how to help him.

  • Michael Plummer:

    Support him. But you definitely got to let him know look, man, this ain't going to be tolerated. You got some parents, like, they don't say nothing.

  • Ashley Angel Darton:

    It's kind of hard to try to deal with a child that you don't understand.

    So, it was — like, it was really good to work with somebody that understands where you're coming from, understands what you're going through, and they could just basically relate to everything you're doing.

  • William Brangham:

    While Plummer's long time in prison in some ways made him perfect for his job, it's not the same for his personal life.

  • Michael Plummer:

    I'm used to being an introvert, so, a lot of times, I will still be in isolation mode, even though I'm in society.

  • William Brangham:

    Plummer and his wife, Ramell Thompson, first met as teenagers. They both were single parents, they fell in love, and they even talked about marriage.

    But then Plummer was arrested, convicted of murder, and given a 30-year-to-life sentence.

    So when you find out that he's going to go away for a long time, what was your reaction to that?

    Ramell Thompson, Wife of Michael Plummer: I was mad. I was pissed off.

  • William Brangham:

    Pissed off at?

  • Ramell Thompson:

    Just the whole situation and him just leaving.

  • William Brangham:

    The two lost touch while Plummer was away, but when he got out, she says she'd forgiven him.

  • Michael Plummer:

    I don't know if I asked her out or she asked me out.

  • Ramell Thompson:

    You asked me out.

  • Michael Plummer:

    You sure?

  • Ramell Thompson:

    I'm positive.

  • Michael Plummer:

    I think you asked me out, but…

  • Ramell Thompson:

    No, he asked me.

  • Michael Plummer:

    But — but — so…

  • William Brangham:

    I'm going to go with her on this.

  • Michael Plummer:

    Oh, OK, we go with her.

  • William Brangham:

    Pretty soon, they fell back in love and got married.

  • Michael Plummer:

    There's going to be a lot of stuff to move out.

  • William Brangham:

    Earlier this summer, they'd just celebrated their one-year anniversary and were busy packing up their D.C. apartment for a planned move into a new house they were about to buy.

    Did this process feel natural to you from where you guys started and being apart and coming back together?

  • Michael Plummer:

    I know that, when you meet somebody again, that it's a process. Forget about what happened 20-some years ago. You have got to deal with the right here and now and see where it go from there.

  • William Brangham:

    But forgetting is not always the easiest thing in the world to do. How's that going for you?

  • Ramell Thompson:

    One year, it was kind of rough, because this is something I'm new to also, being married.

    So, I'm just — just one day at a time. I'm still learning him. He's still learning me. I mean, no marriage is perfect. We have our days.

  • William Brangham:

    But a few months later, the stresses on the relationship got worse. Plummer moved out, and is now living in a separate apartment. They didn't buy the house. He and Thompson are now in marriage counseling.

  • Michael Plummer:

    I don't think nobody automatically has all the answers to a relationship. It's a trial and error.

    You me going to prison, I didn't have a constant relationship with a woman. So, with that said, I'm not going to say it's me, I'm not going to say it's her. I'm going to say it's both of us just trying to dance around marriage and make it work between the both us.

    I'm a human being, I'm a returning citizen. And I'm going to have a normal life, the ups and downs of it. So I think, with this going on right here, I think this is going to bring us back together in a stronger bond.

  • William Brangham:

    He says this optimism and faith has been crucial to getting him to this point, and he hopes it will continue to pay off in the times ahead.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Washington, D.C.

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