Karl Green,a former heroin addict and street enforcer in Richmond’s inner city has found a new life. Photo credit: Scott Elmquist, Style Weekly.
From the toughest tier at the city jail to new jobs and a fresh start, Kingdom Life Ministries gives inmates a second chance.
by James A. Bacon
Karl Green recalls committing his last act of violence as if it were yesterday. Three years ago he was serving time in the Richmond City Jail. A veteran of Virginia’s correctional system, he had a simple survival strategy: Don’t take nothing off nobody. “I was like a beast in the jungle,” Green says. “I had to become wild to survive.”
When he wanted to watch something on TV, he changed the channel. If someone didn’t like it, he threw the TV on the floor. He used the phone whenever he wanted. If someone objected, he yanked the phone out of the wall. Kindergarten rules don’t apply in jail, he says: “There are wolves snapping at you!”
Prison authorities had stuck Green in a small, high-security tier for beating up a man in a poker game. The street enforcer, now 52, quickly established his dominance over the younger men; they called him “uncle,” a term of respect given to older inmates. Then a new guy showed up. This dude was big and strong, and he acted like he ran the show. Picking fights, he intimidated the younger guys. “He thinks he’s tough,” Green told himself. “I’ll show him who the real five-star general is.”
One day the new guy was watching television. Green turned the knob to a different channel.
“He said, ‘Man, what you doing?’ I said, ‘Nigger, I don’t want to look at that.’”
He changed the channel. Green changed it back. “I said, ‘I know you’re a talker now. We don’t have to do the dance with the TV. I’m challenging you. I’m going to beat your ass to submission.’”
Half a lifetime of heroin addiction had sapped some of Green’s natural strength, but he still had quick hands and lots of street-fighting experience. After some more posturing and trash-talking, the two men grappled. The younger man tried to grab him in a bear hug. Green hit him with an upper cut and again in the cheek. He slammed his head into the prison bars and, as the fight rolled around the tier, into the commode.
“He started crying, started pleading to the little dudes to pull me off him. I was stomping him on the back. He rolled under the bed. ‘Uncle, I don’t want no more. You’re the best.’”
One of the younger men in the cell asked Green to stop. And he did. He sat down on a table. “I started to cool off,” Green says. “The blood-red veil came off from my eyes like a curtain lifting.”
That night he lay in his bed. “I prayed that Jesus would come into my life and I would never have to do another violent act,” he says. He was getting bone-tired of dealing drugs, beating people up, floating from place to place and having few true friends. He stayed up that night reading the Bible. The next morning, the guards said, “Pack your bags.” They were moving him to a different tier, the so-called McCovery tier.
The McCovery tier was a section of the jail where outsiders put on self-improvement programs, including Narcotics Anonymous, anger management, Bible study and preparing for life on the outside. Green fell into a circle of men involved in a program that later would be called Kingdom Life Ministries.
“I got serious about reading the Bible,” he says. “The more I did, the more I saw my life becoming free, clear, with more promise, more hope and more purpose.” He says he started shedding his aggressive behavior “like a snakeskin.”
After a while, the authorities moved Green to the state prison system. He missed the fellowship of the inmates on the McCovery tier, and worried what would happen when he was released. If he moved in with family or friends, as he’d done before, Green feared he would drift back to the streets. He wanted to reconnect with the men on the program tier. As luck would have it, when his sentence was up, Kingdom Life Ministries had an empty slot at its transition house near Virginia Union University.
Moving in, Green committed to remain there a year and promised to live by the strict house rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no women. He studied the Bible and went to church. He found a job, went to work every day and paid his share of the rent. After his year was up, he found his own place.
Does Green ever fear he’ll slip back into his old ways? “That doesn’t even cross my mind. I won’t go back,” he says. “I’m three years clean, and I’m not going to give that up. I want to stay in God’s grace until he calls me home.” Continue reading.
This article was first published in Style Weekly. Click here to see the original layout with all of Scott Elmquist’s great photography.