Edwin Eddie Ellis served 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, but he never let that get in the way of living a life of purpose.
In prison, Ellis became an advocate for prison education and, following his release, went on to have a distinguished career and helped other formerly incarcerated people find stability and success.
In 1969, Ellis was director of Community Relations for the New York City branch of the Black Panther Party when he was caught up in the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which systematically targeted radical groups.
A year later he was convicted and sentenced for killing James Howard, a man Ellis had never met, despite there being no evidence linking him to the crime.
He was sent to Attica Prison, where he witnessed the notorious riot there in 1971.
He was then transferred to Greenhaven Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison where New York’s infamous electric chair “Old Sparky” was stationed.
At Greenhaven, Ellis and a group of men successfully lobbied to have college programs made available to inmates, and persuaded the warden to house the participants together in the same area of the prison.
A college dropout, Ellis said he was motivated by his parents to return to his studies. In prison, he earned two associate degrees, a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Marist College Greenhaven (magna cum laude) and a master’s degree from New York Theology Seminary (summa cum laude).
Leval “Positive” Chambers, who was serving time for murder, said he heard about a “good time” bill that Ellis was seeking to allow long-termers to be considered for parole after serving two-thirds of their sentences. A watered-down proposal eventually passed the state legislature.
“I got involved in this movement, and I stuck around Eddie for wisdom and knowledge,” said Chambers, who took college classes with Ellis’ support. After he release went on to serve as the president of the NAACP Brooklyn chapter and currently is a general inspector for Reliable Optics, a professional eye care service in Brooklyn.
“Eddie sees things that people don’t see and I pushed others to attend college, because Eddie pushed me,” Chambers said.
By 1992, Ellis was in a work release program at Lincoln Correctional Center in Harlem. Two years later, he re-entered mainstream society and continued his advocacy work.
While still in prison, Ellis, Warren Harry and George Prendes set up the Prisoners Parolees Anti-Crime Organization. It eventually became the Community Justice Center and Ellis became executive director after his release. Harry and Prendes were deputy directors. The center provided housing, education opportunities funded by the state and federal government and assistance from social services programs.
In 2002, it became the Nu Leadership Public Policy Group, concentrating solely on justice and prison conditions, employing workers who earned post-graduate degrees and PhDs.
“The Director of the Center of Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, Esmeralda Simmons, was excited and located us on campus,” Ellis recalled.
In 2008, the public policy group became the Center for Nu Leadership on Urban Solutions, a criminal justice think tank, headed by center director Devin Pryor, PhD.
Ellis has traveled the world on behalf of the center, lecturing at Yale, Harvard, Stanford, in London, South Africa and Scotland on crime and conditions in the community that keep people in poverty, and how the community produces law abiding citizens. “We look at the larger picture, both economically and socially,” Ellis said.
A former adjunct professor at Medgar Evers College, Ellis, now 70, works at home writing and researching. He lobbies state and local legislators on behalf of the unemployed, provides briefing papers to lawmakers and trains parole officers, police officers, social workers and clergymen how to deal with at-risk youth. He also is working on a major campaign to end the practice of charging teenagers under 18 as adults.
Ellis’ raspy voice – a result of a paralyzed vocal cord – can be heard on “On the Count,” a 90-minute weekly, public affairs radio program on WBAI FM 99.5. It is the only radio talk show in the country produced by formerly incarcerated employees who have post-graduate degrees, two of them with PhDs.
Ellis, author of “The Real War on Crime,” said thousands of formerly incarcerated, educated people reshaping the world don’t get the respect they deserve because their former status continues to define them after they’ve paid their debt to society, even though research shows recidivism drops significantly for African Americans who earn a degree while imprisoned.
The former director of Metropolitan Prison Ministry at the historic Riverside Church in New York, has received a number of honors, but said he didn’t do it alone.
He was a recipient of the Citizens Lifetime Achievement Award; the Joseph L. Galiber Award from Black and Puerto Rican legislators, and recently the Human Justice Award presented by entertainer and human rights activist Harry Belafonte. “This award was the highlight of my career, but to receive every accolade is attributed to teamwork and staff,” Ellis said.
Ellis is emphatic that there is positive life after prison, but one must be prepared with education and employment skills.
To learn more about Nu Leadership on Urban Solutions, visit www.mec.cuny.edu/.