While serving a 21-to-life sentence in a New York State prison, Gerrod thought coming home was a pipe dream.
“At some point you want to be released,” he recalls, “but sometimes you lose focus of what home looks like because your worldview starts to form around your environment.”
Gerrod often felt lonely but not alone. His family rallied around him. His father visited twice a year, and his sister and her children (who refer to Gerrod as “Uncle Dad”) came four times a year. His kids would call him to ask permission to go to sleepovers, and if they messed up in school, he would call their teachers from prison. His wife would bring the family to visit, and he would help the children with homework. It is a family effort to maintain that bond and all sense of hope, no matter how far and long the distance.
Back when his youngest was about four years old (she was eight months old when Gerrod went in), they were having a family reunion visit, or “trailer visit.” Those visits are bright spots in Gerrod’s memories. He had the children outside playing and laughing, and he decided to go to the trailer for something to drink.
Suddenly, everything went quiet – the dribbling basketball and the laughter had stopped.
“Usually when children are being quiet, they’re doing something wrong,”
Gerrod says, smiling. “So I go outside and they’re all in this huddle. And I say, I wonder what they’re doing. So I go and I sneak up to them and surprise them, and they go, Shhh!”
“Quiet, Daddy,” they’d said. When he looked down, he saw they had spoons in their hands. They explained, “We’re digging a tunnel so you can escape.”
Gerrod’s eyes welled with tears. “I can’t run because then I wouldn’t be able to see you anymore,” he said.
His children replied, “No, we’re going to run with you.”
Gerrod reflects on that moment. “It didn’t hit me until that night. I said wow, they were in so much pain, and the only way that they could escape from that pain was to run. And I was the cause of that.”
Gerrod was forty-seven years old by the time he first went in front of the parole board. He had served twenty-one years at that point, during which he had started a youth assistance program and served as its chairman for ten years, participated in “Scared Straight” programming, went back to school for his bachelor’s, and was the chairman of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, where he facilitated back to school projects, feeding the hungry, and “coats for tots” for the city of Auburn.
Still, no matter how positive a person’s record, going in front of the parole board is a distressing process. Often the board focuses on the initial crime committed and not what the person has done since. Prior to his appearance before the parole board, Gerrod garnered 750 signatures from community members urging his release. Still, the board denied him with the explanation, ironically, that his release wasn’t “compatible” with the well being of society.
Gerrod slinked back to his cell and, unable to face anyone, closed himself inside. He had to be the bearer of bad news to his family, though he tried to provide words of encouragement. “I had to tell them to be strong, even when I didn’t feel strong within myself. I felt very weak and vulnerable,” he recalls. But within the dank, grim realities of prison, there was encouragement. Other prisoners would pass him and offer their own words to ease the pain. I’ve been there, they’d say. Keep your head up.
“People don’t wake up and decide to be criminals,” Gerrod says. He depicts a childhood with loving parents who tried endlessly to discipline, even sending him to Fresh Air Camp and out of the area. He joined the National Guard at a
young age, where he served several years before an honorable discharge.
Still, the culture of his neighborhood in Brooklyn had a strong lure. As a kid, all the men receiving positive attention seemed to be in and out of prison: girls loved them, guys respected them. They embodied a sense of power and respect that Gerrod coveted, so he started mimicking them and vying for their respect.
“I struggled with the person that I knew I wanted to be and the type of person I thought other people wanted me to be,” Gerrod explains. “I was raised to know better, but the more I knew, the more I did the opposite.”
At age twenty-seven, he did know better, he says. After his service with the National Guard, he reconnected with people in his neighborhood and started dealing drugs. One night, he and three accomplices decided to rob a former associate, but the plan went awry, and the victim was killed. Gerrod took the harshest sentence, not for pulling the trigger but because he was the “ring leader.”
“For years I thought, I’m in prison because my co-defendants told on me, but honestly I was in prison because I had no right to do what I did.” Gerrod expresses deep shame reflecting on this time in his life. It is something he will carry forever.
But he has also made strenuous efforts to prove himself to his family and the community.
Gerrod was able to get a second parole hearing when he realized the board had not performed a risk assessment, a standard practice to objectively assess whether a former offender is a danger to society. On his second time, Gerrod recalls shaking when he sat in front of the three people who were to determine his fate. Contradictions and questions fluttered through his mind. What do they want to hear? What do they want me to say? If I tell them the truth, will they think it’s a lie?
That time, he was successful.
If you ask Gerrod what it was like to step foot out of prison, you will see gratitude flush through his face. He is picturing that day, when he was greeted by his father, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews, all present to embrace him, all exuding support.
In his first two months after release, Gerrod would get up every morning and act like he had somewhere to go. He dressed for the job he hoped to get; he read at the library; he offered to work for free. He approached one nonprofit health agency several times to volunteer, each time hitting dead ends.
Eventually, he met someone who connected him with a supervisor, who offered him a paying job. Gerrod started as a part time patient advocate (along with working night shifts at another part time job), and by the end of 90 days, he was offered a full time position. Every day, he walks an hour to the bus stop, no matter how cold, and is sure to always arrive early. Meanwhile, he is finishing his Bachelor’s in Health and Wellness and serving on two boards: one for the Erie County Reentry Task Force and another the Erie County Stakeholders.
The future holds great promise for Gerrod. He works hard to maintain the connections in his life, particularly with his daughters, now 28 and 22 years old.
He hopes to get married again, to find mutual honesty in his relationships, and is soon moving into his own apartment. There are times when the “outside” is full of discomfort, as the world is a different place from 1994, when Gerrod was sentenced. Dating and communication have changed; people have changed.
Still, Gerrod is earnest and resolute in his goals.
“I’m never going back to prison, for nothing and no one.”