When he was 19, Kevin Yates was locked up for first-degree murder. The case was dropped due to lack of evidence, and when Yates was released, he felt invincible.
“Did I do it? No,” he said. “But in my mind I had beat a system that I had watched imprison so many people like me, and it gave me a false sense of superiority or invulnerability. So back in the street, I became even more vicious, even more cunning, even more insidious, more destructive to the very community that I lived in.”
Known as “Monsta,” Yates went on to deal drugs, battle addiction and homelessness and serve four years in prison on two counts of robbery. Today, the Richmond, Virginia, native owns two businesses, including a community action organization. He is also a father, a friend and a sponsor for others who, like him, are in recovery from addiction, he said.
On Feb. 2 in Blow Hall, Yates was among about a dozen people who have experienced the criminal justice system to share their stories with small groups of William & Mary and local community members as part of the Daily Work of Justice conversation series.
Sponsored by the Office of Community Engagement, the Lemon Project, the Daily Work of Justice committee and campus ministries, the series aims to explore issues by having people share their lived experiences, “as a way of providing space for others to engage with empathy, understanding and action,” according to the website.
“We didn’t want to bring in a lot of big speakers to talk to us about the issues,” said Warrenetta Mann, director of the W&M Counseling Center. “We wanted to begin to engage with the issue. For that reason, we were very intentional to create a format of intimate conversation with the focus being people’s lived experience.”
Thursday night, students, faculty, staff and community members gathered around tables with a guest speaker and facilitator at each. After Mann opened the evening by sharing some statistics about the criminal justice system in the United States, each small group listened to the speakers share their stories and then had the chance to ask questions and discuss their own experiences.
Yates told those gathered at his table that when he was incarcerated for the robberies, he began going to the law library where he started learning about the history and current state of the justice system and studied documents including the U.S. Constitution, the 13th Amendment and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn the truth, not what is being propagated for social nicety,” he said. “I wanted to learn who I really am, where I really am and why [the justice system] is run this way.”
When he was released, he had difficulty finding work because of his status as a felon and ultimately went back to crime to make ends meet.
“You talk about living under stress, anxiety, depression, even to the point of suicide – the only thing I knew that would alleviate or sedate was drugs,” he said.
His addiction brought him to skid row, where all that mattered to him was getting high. At a homeless shelter, he was introduced to a 12-step program that “taught me a new way to live and deal with life on its own terms,” he said.
Sadie Meadows ’17 was among those at Yates’ table. Heroin is prevalent in her hometown, and she knows someone who was incarcerated for stealing so that he could pay for the drug – and is incarcerated again now. She saw this person struggle to find work, like Yates did, after initially being released.
“Something I’ve observed, there is a community and it feeds on itself, and no matter how many times other people try to step in and say I want to help or I want to be able to give you what you need, the fact of the matter is that is unless the whole community does it or everyone within the smaller community steps out, there’s no way to break down that system,” said the psychology and gender, sexuality and women’s studies major.
Yates opened her eyes and expanded her perspective, Meadows said, because she was hearing from someone who had personally experienced the system — instead of just hearing from those affected by the actions of someone who had experienced the system.
At another table, Kim Green '14, William & Mary Office of Community Engagement fellow for education programs, shared her own story of being charged with possession of marijuana while a student at the university in 2013. She participated in Virginia’s First Offender Program, which included six months of probation that restricted her from leaving Virginia — something that felt akin to incarceration but gave her time for reflection, she said.
“I’m happy that the Daily Work of Justice happened,” Green said. “I think a lot of people benefitted from hearing from people who have been incarcerated or have family members who were incarcerated, and I think our stories are rare and unique. So as a member of the planning committee, I was really shocked and overwhelmed in a good way that the room was so full. That means a lot to me.”
The Feb. 2 event was the first of three conversations that are taking place as part of the inaugural installment of the series. On Feb. 9, the guest speakers will be people who work within the criminal justice system, such as police officers, judges and attorneys. The Feb. 16 event will feature people who work alongside those in the criminal justice system — advocates, chaplains and representatives with nonprofit support programs. More information about those events and how to register may be found online.
At the end of the evening, Melody Porter, director of the Office of Community Engagement, offered resources for people who wanted to learn more about the issues that were discussed and encouraged the attendees to continue to listen.“Listen in your lives ahead,” she said. “Listen to share your own experience and to see what that means about the action you want to take in the world.”