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Free from prison after 23 years, but facing new challenges during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has upended the lives of all Americans but it’s been especially hard on individuals known as returning citizens -- formerly incarcerated men and women who are re-entering society. William Brangham has the story of one man in Washington D.C. who is trying to beat the odds as part of our series, "Searching for Justice."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight we take a look at the challenges many formerly incarcerated men and women face as they reenter society.

    The coronavirus pandemic has upended the lives of all Americans, but it's been especially hard on individuals known as returning citizens.

    William Brangham tells the story of one man in Washington, D.C., who is trying to beat the odds.

    It's the first in a series of reports this week called Searching For Justice.

  • William Brangham:

    After 23 years behind bars, this was the moment when Michael Plummer became a free man.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Michael Plummer:

    It was a great feeling. I got released on February 10 of this year. It's William Brangham stepping into a different world. You live in a world. You are stepping into a different world.

  • William Brangham:

    Plummer is now 40. He was locked up in 1997 for a murder he committed when he was 16. Growing up in a violent neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Plummer says his story was, sadly, pretty common.

  • Michael Plummer:

    A lot of my friends and family members was killed. And then those who did went to jail, they did 10 years, they did 15, 20 years. And some of them are still serving life sentences.

    So, my mother, she fell victim to using drugs and so forth. My dad, he went to prison for a long time.

    I moved around from family members to family members. Sometimes, I was homeless or we would live in like shelters and stuff like that. So, when I started getting a little older, like sixth, seventh grade, and that's when I had my first brush with the law. And that's when I got into the streets.

    And, initially, it's for like, OK, I need shoes, I need food. But then you actually do become a product of your environment, though.

  • William Brangham:

    Plummer recently took me back to his old D.C. neighborhood, just a mile from the U.S. Capitol, and now transformed by gentrification.

  • Michael Plummer:

    Further down the street down here, this is where I operated. We sold cocaine or weed or whatever else we had.

  • William Brangham:

    As a kid, he joined a small neighborhood gang, known as a crew, and it became like a family. And one night, when his crew clashed with a different crew, Plummer shot and killed another teenager.

  • Michael Plummer:

    And I wish like a million times I could have went back and thought about it and had a better outcome than what came about.

  • William Brangham:

    Two years later, when Plummer turned 18, he received a 30-year-to-life sentence for that shooting.

  • Michael Plummer:

    And the whole time, I'm just thinking man, is this going to be my life? You know, I definitely made a bad decision in what I did.

  • William Brangham:

    During more than 20 years in prison, Plummer says he began to slowly turn his life around. He got his GED. He did job training programs, earned a college diploma, and he converted to Islam.

  • Michael Plummer:

    I grew up in prison. And growing up in prison…

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think of it that way? Do you think of growing — that you actually did grow up in prison?

  • Michael Plummer:

    Sure. Some people grow up in orphanages. Some people grow up in society. I actually was raised in prison. I spent my time wisely in there, despite me being in that predicament.

  • William Brangham:

    Plummer also says he wanted to prove to his daughter, Mayana (ph), who was born when he was just 15, that he had changed as a man.

  • Michael Plummer:

    The things that I did while I was in the street, I reflected upon. And, in retrospect, it was hideous. It hurt my heart. And I want to show my daughter that just because a person has traveled down a path and made a mistake, that this mistake won't label them forever, and that you can change. There's room for redemption.

    And so no wrong can't be corrected. And I wanted to correct that.

  • William Brangham:

    Plummer was eventually released thanks to a Washington, D.C., law allowing judges to free certain longtime prisoners whose crimes were committed when they were juveniles. More than 50 men have now been released since 2018.

    However, his new freedom brought new challenges. The pandemic hit just weeks after his release, and all the places that could help him get back to some semblance of normal life were closed.

  • Michael Plummer:

    You got to get a birth certificate. You got to get a Social Security card. So I was gone for 23 years, and both parents passed away. So, these documents was lost. And so I had to go and get them again.

  • William Brangham:

    He had no credit history, no credit cards, never applied for a loan of any kind.

  • Michael Plummer:

    That's the first thing they ask for, your credit, how long you been employed. So, these things are nightmares for me when I want to go and purchase a vehicle or try to get an apartment. It's horrifying.

    And they want to check your credit score and so forth. And not knowing this coming out is a disadvantage.

  • William Brangham:

    Plummer did find housing with his brother, and with the help of his lawyer, he was able to reestablish his identification.

  • Michael Plummer:

    So, to own these documents myself, a driver's license, to get a Social Security card, to get a bank account, I was overjoyed. I was integrating myself into society slowly, but surely. And I felt like a citizen again.

  • William Brangham:

    Michael Plummer is, in some ways, a best-case scenario. When he was locked up, he took advantage of programs the prison offered. But not all prisons offer those programs.

    When he got out, he had family to help him find a house. But formerly incarcerated individuals are 10 times more likely to be homeless and five times more likely to be unemployed. And if you don't have a job and you don't have a house, it's very hard to lead a normal life.

    That's partly why so many, more than four in 10, cycle back to a life of crime.

  • Michael Plummer:

    I have been here where you have been at, right? And I'm a returning citizen.

    William Brangham

  • Michael Plummer:

    I don't want you to have to do 23 years in prison or life in prison. It's going to start right here, right now.

  • William Brangham:

    He got a full-time job at a nonprofit that works with young people in custody within D.C.'s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

    Norman Brown is the program manager who pushed for Plummer to get this job.

  • Norman Brown:

    When people come before us to be interviewed for these type of roles, my heart is into believing and knowing that people can outgrow certain behaviors. And we're willing to give you a chance, just like someone gave me one.

  • William Brangham:

    Brown spent 24 years in prison himself for selling crack cocaine. He says people like Plummer, who they call credible messengers, have a legitimacy with young people because of their own backgrounds.

  • Norman Brown:

    He panned out to be exactly what we needed to add to our initiative.

  • William Brangham:

    On many days, Plummer is back inside the city's juvenile detention facilities.

  • Michael Plummer:

    You got to make the judgment that's right, even if your peers dislike it. I'm going to do what's right.

  • William Brangham:

    He offers advice. He shoots hoops. Sometimes, he even leads prayers for those interested.

  • Michael Plummer:

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

  • William Brangham:

    But he's also here to share his own story.

    When you're meeting a young person for the first time who might be facing a very long time behind bars, what's that conversation like initially? How do you approach somebody?

  • Michael Plummer:

    You tell them what you have been through.

    And a lot of times, when I tell a youth that I did 23 years in prison, they can't believe it. And so then I asked them, how old do you think I am? And so when I tell them that I went in when I was 17 and I didn't come out until I was 40, they eyes get big, because now they're starting to click that this can maybe be them.

  • William Brangham:

    Officials asked us not to use these young people's names or to discuss their crimes, but they did allow us to talk with them about why they trust someone like Michael Plummer.

  • Inmate:

    We don't have a lot of people like Mr. Plummer coming around you and giving you the tools that you need.

  • Inmate:

    He actually come from where we come from, been through it, know what's going on, stuff like that, because, at the end of the day, somebody who don't know what you got going ahead of you, they might not know exactly what to tell you and what advice that you really need.

  • William Brangham:

    Plummer also meets with formerly incarcerated adults, like Isaac Carey. The 24 year-old was released from prison late last year, but has struggled to find steady work.

  • Isaac Carey:

    Selling drugs to like going to — getting a real job, you know, the money is different. So, that's like a hard transition.

    So, Michael helped me. He sent me like job applications and stuff like that. He even helped me towards documents and stuff, like helping me get my I.D.

  • William Brangham:

    Now, nine months after his release, Plummer says he is rebuilding a relationship with his daughter. And he recently got married to a woman he's known since he was a teenager.

  • Michael Plummer:

    Upon me coming home, we got back in contact with each other. I asked her out for a date again. And from there, she winded up putting a chain on my leg and locking me down.

    And so we got married. And we're newlyweds right now, and we're just enjoying each other.

  • William Brangham:

    He's leading a life Plummer says he never could've never imagined 23 years ago.

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

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