Man goes from prisoner to activist

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — At 15 years old, Elizer Darris expected to die in prison.

Now, after spending most of his adult life behind bars — he was convicted of second-degree murder — he uses his time to effect political change.

The St. Cloud Times reports that Darris, 34, started his own business, Darris Consulting Group, and works to advocate for prison reform. Darris deals with topics ranging from racial disparities in prison to education, health services and voting rights restoration.

He has worked with organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union and with political campaigns.

Seventeen years in the prison system changed his world view.

As a teen, Darris ran away from home and joined a traveling carnival. It was his second time on the circuit.

A fight within one of the groups in the carnival led to the death of a man, Darris said. According to court records, the 15-year-old beat a co-worker to death and left his body in a ditch.

Darris was arrested and faced felony charges in Minnesota — a state he was not from and was not familiar with.

He was convicted of second-degree murder while committing an aggravated robbery and was sentenced to life in prison.

“I was told by a judge that I was going to die in there,” said Darris. “I kind of believed him, but in my spirit, I didn’t really think I would spend the rest of my life in prison.”

The prison system did not wait for Darris to get older. At 16, he was living in the adult inmate population. It was the highest level of vulnerability, according to Darris, and he was angry.

After participating in spurts of violence, he was sent to Oak Park Heights, the highest-security prison in the state.

It was an unlikely place to find signs of hope.

While there, he met people who encouraged and challenged him to learn. He filled an emptiness inside him, he said, with education.

First, he obtained his GED. When it came to him in the mail, he ran his fingers across it. “It probably saved my life because it helped me see my intrinsic value,” said Darris.

It was the first public recognition of him that was not in a negative light.

In prison, according to Darris, college classes are not easy to enroll in.