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.
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.

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5 responses to “Saving Grace”

  1. larryg Avatar

    I give credit to the Kingdom Life Ministries and I do appreciate the vignette detailing a part of Karl Green’s life and how he is climbing out of a dark time.

    it said he got a job – which brings up questions.

    what kind of job?

    what is his education level?

    where did he go to school?

    how did he first get drawn into the criminal justice system?

    we need more Kingdom Life Ministries but we need them when Karl is 4 or 5 so he grows up with a good education and a good job finds him so he does not get drawn into the criminal justice system which is an abomination when it comes to young poor urban kids.

    I wonder how Kingdom Life Ministries feels about universal Pre-K programs ? I’d be interested in hearing what
    Kingdom Life Ministries thinks needs to happen earlier in the lives of the Karls to put Kingdom Life Ministries out of business at the other end of the cycle?

  2. Karl made it through the 11th grade in Richmond City schools and says he maintained a B average. He now works for Ashley Furniture in some capacity as an assistant to, or trainee under, the wife of the franchise owner. I don’t know what his criminal charges were that pulled him into the criminal justice system, but he engaged in drug dealing, robbery and assault. (That’s just what he admitted to.) Meeting him now and seeing his demeanor, you would never imagine it. If he can turn his life around, one would think that anybody can.

  3. larryg Avatar

    Thank you Jim. I congratulate Mr. Green on doing something that most who end up in his circumstance do not have much success at.

    It takes a truly special person to be able to climb free of the criminal justice system these days.

    and if this is something that Kingdom Life Ministries had something or a lot to do with, I applaud their efforts.

    I’m still concerned that we seem to have a lopsided percent of minorities drawn into the criminal justice system which basically grinds many who have that experience.

    I continue to believe that the best way to deal with this is PreK-K-3 where kids’ fates are often largely determined.

    A teacher recently told me that K-3 is where kids learn to read and K4-6 is where they read to learn and if they leave elementary school successful at reading – they have an excellent chance to find middle and high school a worthwhile experience no matter what else is going on in their lives.

    if they have hope.. they know there is opportunity.

    we have many discussions on education and higher ED.

    I remain convinced that if you promise a kid guaranteed college if he stays in school and maintains a C or B average that they are smart enough to know that that is their ticket to a better life.

    we cannot save them all .. and it’s actually wrong to think about it as “saving” anyone because at the end of the day – we are saving ourselves the money that we’re going to have to spend for incarceration, rehabilitation and entitlements.

    Again, congrats to Mr. Green and the ministry.

  4. By his own description, Karl was a “B” student through the 11th grade. He did not drop out of school because of difficulty at school. He dropped out because of the allure of the street. I think that’s the hard reality that most thinking about criminal behavior fails to reckon with. It’s just a whole lot more fun/exhilarating to drink, drug, party, have sex, act macho, enagage in violence, etc., than it is to go to school. The more feminized the standards for school behavior get, the harder time young males will have.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      I suspect it’s hard growing up today most everywhere. I suspect for inter city males in the poorest neighborhoods the challenge is nearly insurmountable absent luck in encountering unexpected help that far too few of these kids get.

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