OKLAHOMA CITY – Prison, in the common vernacular, is known as “crime school” where convicts learn new techniques for breaking the law. But at least one Oklahoma felon has turned his life around while behind bars, and has learned a legitimate trade he’s eager to practice.
Jeffrey C. Young has paid dearly for his mistakes – and blames no one but himself despite a dysfunctional childhood spent with several foster families and in group homes. The 49-year-old Missouri native has maintained a positive outlook even though he’s been locked in prison more than half of his life.
“Prison doesn’t have to be the end; it can be the beginning,” he said during a videotaped interview several years ago. “A school is where you learn or teach. Prison is a school.”
But what makes his case truly extraordinary is that Young has developed a thriving business in leatherwork and artwork while in prison – and he’s been approved for parole in large part because of a chance meeting with a Shawnee woman.
Young was 26 in 1992 when he and three companions were arrested in connection with two robberies and an attempted heist in Enid. In all three instances, Young was “the wheel man,” driver of the getaway vehicle; two of the men were lookouts; and one committed the actual crimes by handing the store clerks a note that read, roughly, “We’ve got a police scanner, so don’t call the police. Give me the money.” No weapon was employed in any of the three incidents.
Court documents indicate the gang first robbed a motel in Enid, which netted the four bandits perhaps $500 to $600 apiece.
Then they moved on to an Enid convenience store. The holdup man handed the clerk his note and said he wanted to see the manager. When the clerk picked up the ‘phone and started to dial a number, the bandit thought she was calling the police and he fled in panic, when actually she was calling the manager per the bandit’s instructions. A robbery of another Enid motel netted approximately $400, or about $100 for each member of the gang.
After the crime spree the gang drove to Colorado to cool their heels. However, Young’s girlfriend notified law enforcement authorities, collected a reward, and took off. The four gang members were arrested and returned to Enid.
Young’s accomplices all turned state’s evidence against him – which is commonly referred to as being “thrown under the bus.” The two lookouts were released from custody, apparently with no criminal charges attached, after spending a few days in the Garfield County jail. The note-passing robber was convicted and given a 25-year sentence; reportedly he was discharged from prison recently.
Young, who had just a 9th-grade education at the time, pleaded guilty on the advice of his novice attorney; Corrections Department records indicate Young was sentenced to three concurrent 40-year prison terms on two counts of first-degree robbery and one count of attempted robbery. Perhaps his sentence was so severe because at the time of the Enid incidents he was on parole from a previous conviction for robbery of a fast-food restaurant in Oklahoma City.
“I followed the wrong path,” Young lamented. “I made a lot of bad choices early in life.”
Subsequently one of the gang members took up with Young’s girlfriend, and the estranged mother of his two pre-school-age daughters abandoned him while he was imprisoned.
About 1999, Young related later, he began to examine his circumstances and decided to change his ways. He earned a high-school diploma via the GED program, for example, and took art classes and courses in leatherworking. His reputation for exceptional quality work spread, and today he has individual and commercial customers for his leather products not only in the U.S. but in several foreign countries, too.
Four years ago, Lehoma Gallagher, a Shawnee businesswoman, attended a religious ceremony at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville “because a relative of mine is incarcerated there.” Ms. Gallagher noticed that Young was there, sitting by himself, “so I invited him to join us at our table.”
They struck up a conversation that was the beginning of a fast friendship and the first step on a lengthy path to parole. Ms. Gallagher said she was impressed by Young’s upbeat attitude and the fact that he accepts all of the blame for his circumstances, some of which are Kafkaesque.
With money from her own wallet, Ms. Gallagher began to request documents pertaining to Young’s case from the Corrections Department and from Garfield County.
Along the way, she said, she was advised that although Young signed a document requesting an appeal in his case shortly after his conviction in 1992, his rookie attorney never filed it. In addition, Ms. Gallagher said, court transcripts show that the presiding judge initially pronounced Young’s sentence as three 20-year prison terms, but Young’s attorney informed the judge that the agreement was for three 40-year sentences.
Ms. Gallagher said she also learned that although Young was supposed to receive a parole hearing every three years, six years transpired after his hearing in 2001 before he received another one.
“He’s been reformed; he’s been punished; he’s ready to go be a taxpayer,” Oklahoma City attorney David R. Slane, who shouldered Young’s case at the request of Ms. Gallagher, told radio personality Scott Mitchell during a Sept. 30 interview. See video here.
Corrections Department records show that Young has been an “exemplary” prisoner for the past decade and a half, Slane said. The state Pardon and Parole Board voted unanimously this summer to recommend parole for Young, and Governor Fallin approved it. However, Young is still incarcerated at John Lilley Correctional Center near Boley.
Before he can be discharged from prison he must spend 120 days in a work-release center. Afterward, Young will be required to wear an ankle bracelet for a year. Offenders assigned to that Global Positioning System (GPS) program are required to pay the Corrections Department a monitoring fee of up to $5.50 per day for passive monitoring, or $13.50 per day for active monitoring, not to exceed $300 per month, agency spokesperson Terri Watkins said.
Meanwhile, Young’s elderly mother, who lives in Missouri, hasn’t seen him in 11 or 12 years, suffered a brain aneurysm earlier this year and had a heart attack two years ago, Ms. Gallagher said. Also, she noted, Young missed the opportunity to raise his daughters and play with his five grandchildren.
Ms. Gallagher has cleared out a 24-by-36 square-foot room at her house in rural Shawnee for Young to use as an art studio when he’s finally released from DOC custody. In addition, Ms. Gallagher, a wholesale diamond broker, acknowledges that she has spent several thousand dollars on Young’s legal bills and on reams of documents required for his parole application.
She said she felt an obligation to help Young because after reading the book, “Mentor: The Kid and the CEO,” by Tom Pace, she was inspired to be a mentor to someone. “I felt it was the right thing to do,” she explained. “Everybody deserves a second chance.”