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The poet and playwright Keith Antar Mason once said that life may have begun with the creation of atoms, but cultures are built with the telling of our stories.

“When you tell your story, you are also telling my own,” Mason said. 

April is National Second Chance Month, and if nothing else, the Bull City believes in the god of second chances.

Durham County district attorney Satana Deberry and officials at the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law School have partnered with local members of the clergy to present two events this week they hope will highlight the role communities can play in helping formerly incarcerated people lead successful lives.

At the heart of the events are stories shared by formerly incarcerated people, with the goal of creating “a more fair, safe, and just future for all,” according to a press release from the Durham County District Attorney’s Office.

One of the two events is a panel discussion on Wednesday in West Durham that will feature formerly incarcerated people living in the Bull City who have navigated relatively successful lives since their release from prison. 

One of the panelists, T. Lamont Baker, has quite a story to tell.

Baker, now 36, was 19 years old and days from starting his freshman year at UNC Charlotte in 2006 to study mechanical engineering when police charged him with second-degree murder and discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling.

Baker says he was with a friend who got into an argument with an acquaintance. The argument escalated into violence. Baker fired a gunshot that struck the headlight of the acquaintance’s car. His friend shot the man in the head and killed him. Even though Baker did not fire the fatal shot, under the state’s felony murder rule he was equally culpable for the victim’s death.

“It was definitely some very poor decision-making going on,” Baker told the INDY last week.

He was sentenced to 28 years, one month, and 25 days in prison, according to state corrections records.

Baker says he “read incessantly” while behind bars and ended up writing a book, A Convict’s Perspective: Critiquing Penology and Inmate Rehabilitation. The scholarly volume was published in 2014, six years after Baker was convicted in Durham County’s superior court. It’s available on Amazon, which bought the small firm that first published Baker’s work.

Baker was released in August 2020 after serving about half of his sentence. He credits his early release to the nearly 20 criminologists who used his book in their classrooms and the articles he wrote that were published in academic journals.

“It got the attention of people who wanted to see me free,” Baker says.

Deberry told the INDY that most people who serve time behind bars return to the communities “and never go back into the criminal justice system.”

“The recidivism rate in North Carolina is actually quite low,” she says.

Deberry adds that the individuals most likely to return to prison are among the community’s “most vulnerable” residents who struggle with health and substance abuse issues.

Among the most vulnerable are “young men who have been raised in a culture of homelessness and fear, with violence as a result.”

Deberry says, generally, young people are more apt to return to prison.

“As we get older our brains heal and we try a different way to live our lives,” she says.

Deberry adds that the biggest challenge formerly incarcerated residents face is finding a place to live.

“Homelessness is a very big deal,” she says. “A lot of people who went to prison didn’t have a home when they went.” 

The issue is even more daunting for individuals who serve long sentences only to be released and find everyone they knew is gone.

“The problem is exacerbated by difficulties in finding a job that pays a livable wage,” Deberry adds. She notes that Durham’s “ban the box” program allows the city and county to hire formerly incarcerated people on ground crews and the sanitation department. 

”Durham is doing a good job,” she says. “What people need is that first job to show a proven track record to get that second job. Communities can create opportunities, and from there we see people blossom. Once they are able to take care of themselves they marry, go back to school, have children, or take care of the children they already have.”

Wednesday’s panel discussion will be followed by a Thursday night theater performance by the Motus Theater, a Colorado-based nonprofit whose mission “is to create original theater to facilitate dialogue on critical issues of our time.”

Established in 2019, the Motus Theater’s JustUs Project amplifies the voices of “community leaders who are impacted by carceral systems to tell artfully crafted autobiographical monologues that expose the devastating impact of the criminal legal system and inspire action towards a vision of true justice,” according to the nonprofit’s website.

The Motus Theater’s JustUs Project has garnered the praise of Bryan Stevenson, the celebrated death row defense attorney and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

“I love these monologues because they shift the narrative that has enabled systems of oppression in the U.S.,” Stevenson states on the nonprofit’s website.

The staged reading will feature monologues written by formerly incarcerated people, including five members of the Motus Theater’s JustUs Project, who will arrive in Durham on Thursday.

Juaquin Mobley, the JustUs Project’s strategist, is a formerly incarcerated man who is now the vice president of the nonprofit Community Works, an employment agency that helps find employment for former offenders, people who live below the poverty line, and “others who are down on their luck.”

Mobley told the INDY that a great many formerly incarcerated people are in the same position he was in after he was released from prison in 2013.

“You’re locked out of opportunities,” he says. “You really have to know somebody to get into a decent job.”

Mobley says the most likely people to return to prison have not identified their purpose in life. Moreover, they have internalized society’s perception of them as a social pariah.

“You can see it in their faces,” he says. “They look defeated. They feel defeated.”

The JustUs Project members will share the stage in Durham with Deberry, along with Jay Augustine, pastor of the St. Joseph AME Church in the historic Hayti District, and Frank Stasio, a retired NPR radio personality who volunteers with the city’s Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.

Mobley and Deberry say they first met when the group performed in Los Angeles in 2021 as part of progressive district attorneys conference.

“It was just so powerful,” Deberry said about that 2021 performance. “I thought it was something folks needed to see. We rightfully uplift the voices of victims, but a lot of people coming from prison come back to the communities they left and we don’t often hear those voices.”

When Baker was released from prison nearly three years ago, he worked briefly for a law firm but dreamed of starting his own business. He decided to go into trucking but first got a job driving the vehicles “to learn the ropes.” He eventually started a trucking company and rented box trucks to make the business go. Now, Baker says he’s “close” to purchasing a trucking management company that would oversee the administrative operations for 25 trucking companies.

Before answering what he wanted audiences to take away from Wednesday’s panel discussion, Baker spoke of how he was in custody at the Johnston County Correctional Institution in Smithfield, where he had handwritten nearly 100 pages of his 192-page A Convict’s Perspective.

One day, a corrections officer searched his locker, where he found his manuscript and threw it away.

Baker says while after rewriting the manuscript, he would hide the completed chapters in the lockers of his fellow inmates. After completing the manuscript, Baker says he contacted a publisher who wanted to charge him $6 a book for 1,000 copies.

“My job in prison paid me 40 cents a day to clean toilets,” he says. “Where was I goig to get $6,000?” 

With the help of his mother, Baker self-published the manuscript and did his own marketing by writing to “a dozen criminologists and mailing them copies of the book.”

Baker says he applauds the services offered to formerly incarcerated people, but he says those services should be offered while the men and women behind bars are still serving time.

“There should be more substantive counseling, more educational programs,” he says. “I would like to make post-prison services obsolete. People should be released from prison as whole adults.”

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to Comment on this story at

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