North Neighbors: A second chance after being sentenced to life

 Darris shares a moment with Dr. Josie R. Johnson, "the beloved Godmother of the African American community of the Twin Cities," at his graduation from the African American Leadership Forum's fellowship program on Dec. 9.  Photo by David Pierini.

Darris shares a moment with Dr. Josie R. Johnson, "the beloved Godmother of the African American community of the Twin Cities," at his graduation from the African American Leadership Forum's fellowship program on Dec. 9. Photo by David Pierini.

A little over a year ago, Elizer Darris, 33, was behind bars at the state penitentiary serving time for a murder he committed when he was 15. Now, out on parole after having his sentence reduced, Darris is looking towards the future.

He leads unconscious bias workshops and works security at Seven Steakhouse Sushi. He is a public speaker and a mentor to young boys in the community through the Boys of Hope program at North High, and he was field director for Nekima Levy-Pounds’ recent mayoral campaign. He's also the co-founder of the Cleaning for Change initiative and a board member at Appetite for Change.

In prison, he earned his GED and Associate's degree. Now he’s working on a Bachelor’s degree at Augsburg University and plans to pursue a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology next.

This month, Darris spoke to North News about the transformation he underwent in prison and his goals for his future. 

By Ashley Powell and Myesha Powell | North High. Additional reporting by Talina Hill and Kenzie O’Keefe. 

Who were you at 15 that led you to be involved in a murder? When I was 14 I ran away from home with a carnival, Murphy Brothers, and traveled around the United States. I made my way back home, and then I left a second time. It was in the midst of that second time that I found myself in a heap of trouble of such a magnitude that I could not have envisioned. I was involved in a large fight. A gentleman ended up losing his life. I was responsible for the part that I took in it. Because of my refusal to testify against the other individuals who were involved in the case, the state ultimately ended up giving me a life sentence as a juvenile. At 15 I was put in with the adults at the adult correctional facility. Ultimately, I was sentenced to life at 16 and sent to the state penitentiary. I found myself inside that situation, languishing for many years, struggling trying to figure out my identity. 

Where did you grow up before you went away with the carnival? Saint Louis. Life was rough, really rough. I had a tough time at home. I never met my father. St. Louis was very violent. I saw a lot of things growing up. I attempted suicide growing up.

What was the first thought that popped into your head when you heard you were given a life sentence? I was feeling a crushing pressure. Just imagine a judge, some white dude in some white town way up North somewhere, no family in the courtroom, by yourself, saying “I sentence you to spend the rest of your natural life in the commission of correction.” It shook me. 

Did you have any remorse for the man that you killed? Of course. That is largely why I go as hard as I do in terms of serving my community. I’m filling a debt that I want to pay back that could never be paid back in full. [Because of that I have] a perpetual feeling inside of me to serve, to work, to do things to make my community better.

How would you describe yourself today? I’m a person who is determined to make an impact on the world, determined to uplift my community and challenge the powers that be. 

How did you turn your life around? There was a pivotal moment in my life where the choice to live or to die became abundantly clear. I realized that if I died, the only thing I would have left in my wake was pain and destruction. I was actually laying in toilet water because I had flooded my cell. I said – “I don’t want to die like this.” …I thought to myself: “If I get out, I’m going to change.” 

Did you have hope at that time? Hope wasn’t what was floating through my mind. What was floating through my mind was survival. Needless to say, I made it out of there.  Before then, a lot of the other inmates were giving me books. They wanted me to read. They wanted me to educate my mind. 

What do you think the other inmates saw in you? I was really rough around the edges. Every other word was a curse word and the N word. They saw something in me that I wasn’t quite seeing. I didn’t feel the strength to rise up to the level that they were forecasting me to get to. Oceans separated where I was then and how I saw them. These guys were talking about geopolitics, sociology, and holding debate groups. They were towering individuals and remain towering individuals in my life. I began developing myself spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally with these guys over many, many years. 

 Harris speaks at his graduation from the African American Leadership Forum's fellowship program this month.  Photo by David Pierini.

Harris speaks at his graduation from the African American Leadership Forum's fellowship program this month. Photo by David Pierini.

Where did you find the motivation to keep pushing forward? As I began reading and studying about my history, my heritage, and my culture, I began to learn about all of the things that were infected inside of it. It pissed me off. It fueled a desire to learn as much as I could and to start breaking down some of the lies and misconceptions that I was taught in school and even in family. I was learning with an impassioned anger. I was knocking books down like I was knocking these lies out of my mind. I was growing more into a man.  Anger began it, but it ultimately turned into a love of myself and a love of my people. 

You’re planning a speaking tour. Tell us about it. It's called the Speak Life tour. My idea is to go into high schools where it’s most difficult, most challenging, where there is not a lot of hope floating around or a lot of high expectations, and bust through some of that stuff. I’ll probably have the speaking tour sponsored by some entity that’s going to allow me to go across the United States – Miami, Oakland, Cleveland, Detroit, Mississippi – [to some of the] darkest, dankest, most raggedy places.  Because I was them. I was right where they are. Somebody like me came and spoke life over me. I have a duty to do the same.

Why have you chosen North Minneapolis to be your community? I know a lot of these people. I feel comfortable here. This is a beautiful community. I don’t feel uncomfortable or unsafe. I love the people. The people have embraced and accepted me as one of their own. It’s love. It’s respect. 

 Darris served as field director for Nekima Levy-Pounds' recent mayoral campaign.  Photo by David Pierini.

Darris served as field director for Nekima Levy-Pounds' recent mayoral campaign. Photo by David Pierini.

What’s one thing you learned from prison? What stuck with you the most? Resiliency – how to overcome difficult situations and come out ahead, come out thriving, despite what people say. 

You got married in prison in your late 20s. What was it like to be married in prison? It was a challenge; relationships in general are challenging. When you’re in a relationship, you are attempting to mesh two separate lives into a singular understanding of [how to move]. You have to have quite excellent communication. Communication is challenged in a correctional setting because you can only call and meet at certain times. You can only relate in certain authorized ways. 

What advice do you have for young people in the community? Whatever you involve yourself in, go hard. People are going to tell you what you can and can't do in this life, and if you listen to them, you’ll constantly be second guessing. There’s not too much in the world that can stop a made-up mind. But you have to be willing to stand up to the adversity that is going to come. 

What makes you want to talk about your life story? I feel driven to do it. I have to pour inside of others in the same way that people have poured inside of me. [I want to] challenge people to get to the next level, regardless [of what their] circumstances are. I was in the darkest, most difficult circumstances you can imagine on the Planet Earth, and I came out of them. Last year I was in the penitentiary staring outside of cell bars. This year I'm going to Washington D.C. and Arizona, and I’m speaking at Howard University and Carleton College, going hard.

 

Kenzie O'Keefe