It’s an unfortunate reality, but prison changes people. Years in isolation sever your ties to the outside world; inmates emerge like time travelers, forced to make their way in a society that has moved on without them. For some, the challenge is too great to overcome. In April 2018, one New York man was granted parole after 27 years behind bars. Once he was free, however, he immediately make one bold move. Nobody expected that he would do something completely life-changing so quickly after being released.
A rough beginning
Lawrence Bartley grew up during a dangerous period in New York City history, one that put him at a disadvantage from the very start. Unfortunately, that environment started to poison his personal life and sent him down the path towards ruin.
“It was a community wrought with the typical symbols of urban ghettos,” Lawrence recalled, speaking about his Jamaica, Queens, home. “Sneakers strung on telephone lines, drug paraphernalia-littered streets, and barely kept apartment buildings.”
As a teenager, he started hustling, doing whatever he could — regardless of its legality — for a shot at a better tomorrow. Unfortunately, those efforts caught up to him in a life-changing way.
In 1990, Lawrence was sitting near the intersection of 150th Street and 89th Avenue when a motorcycle pulled up to the corner. The passenger pulled out a gun and shot Bartley four times.
After some time in the hospital, Lawrence recovered and tried to return to normal life. The shooting affected his mental state, however. The teenager was living in fear. The streets weren’t safe; a gunman could be lurking around any corner.
He decided that he needed to take matters into his own hands. Lawrence purchased a gun and began carrying it regularly. He would be ready if his assailant ever returned.
One fateful day
One day, Lawrence and his friends went to the movies. After the teens sat down with their popcorn, however, their innocent outing quickly took a turn for the worst.
After the film started, another group noisily entered the theater. Several patrons told them to be quiet and, before long, tempers started flaring. Someone lunged towards Lawrence and his companions.
In the line of fire
Someone brandished a gun and started firing. In the heat of the moment, Lawrence pulled out his weapon and fired one shot into the darkness. He then escaped the Sunrise Cinemas and headed home.
Blood on his hands
Lawrence turned on the news that evening to learn that four people had been shot in the theater. His bullet had struck Tremain Hall, who died several hours later. Lawrence was a murderer.
Two days later, the 17-year-old was arrested and charged. A judge sentenced Lawrence to 27 years to life behind bars; the infamous Sing Sing Correctional Facility was his new home.
The transition was tough, but Lawrence adjusted to his new life of tight quarters, strict rules, and constant supervision. But he also found a way to make good use of his time on the inside.
Making the best of it
Lawrence dedicated his time to self-improvement. He completed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree behind bars and spent countless hours performing community service. Those efforts, he hoped, would help him regain his freedom.
The parole board, however, disagreed. No matter how much Lawrence had improved himself, he was still the man who shot an innocent bystander in the movie theater. Lawrence was crushed.
Free at last
That rejection hurt, but Lawrence wasn’t deterred; he appealed the board’s decision. In April 2018, after nearly 30 years behind bars, Lawrence was granted parole. The rest of his life was waiting outside the prison gates.
Life on the outside was exciting, but also intimidating. After years of isolation and routine, Lawrence was now the captain of his own soul. He had to decide what he would do next.
The wider world
Just like he did as a teenager, Lawrence hustled, taking on every opportunity that he could. This time, however, he was sure that his work would have a positive impact on the world.
The Marshall Project
Before long, he landed a job with The Marshall Project, “a nonprofit news organization focused on criminal justice issues.” He used that role to help current inmates in one concrete way.
A magazine like no other
Lawrence created News Inside, a publication covering criminal justice news that is distributed inside of prisons. As a former inmate himself, Lawrence understood what a simple magazine can do for someone behind bars.
An important message
“If I could let the guys read this and the girls and the children on the inside, I knew it would change their life because I know what they care about,” he explained. Of course, that wasn’t the only purpose of the publication.
The project also takes on a much more personal tone for Lawrence. It’s his opportunity to show that second chances exist; your past, no matter what happened, never defines your future. “Now that part of my life is over, and now it’s my turn to do something that is that is positive,” he said. “I can rebound from where I came from and other people can rebound.”
No one suspected
Lawrence’s mission is especially noble because so many incarcerated people shouldn’t be behind bars in the first place. In fact, there are people like Annie Dookhan who have ruined countless lives with their dishonesty. She started out as a young girl born in Trinidad, who moved to Massachusetts with her parents at an early age.