Adlai Bentley was released from Richmond City Jail last Thursday. He returned the next day wearing a blue suit, gray shirt, gray tie and black shoes buffed to gleaming. A deputy outfitted him. Bentley didn't own a suit.
He's one of eight inaugural graduates of the jail's Cannon Creek Greenway groundskeeping and landscaping work-study program. For six months, the inmates spent one day a week studying horticulture and three days clearing a section of the overgrown, littered creek ravine along the Richmond Henrico Turnpike.
Their instructor was Harris Wheeler, who taught at the Richmond Technical Center for 13 years, and wasn't sure what to expect. Their supervisor was sheriff's deputy Herbert Allmon, who, one of the graduates says, "made us feel like human beings again."
Councilwoman Ellen Robertson championed the idea. Her district includes both the creek and the jail. Opening soon, the new jail will be as crowded as the old one unless the city starts growing its diversion and re-entry programs. Sheriff C.T. Woody needed no persuading. When sign-up time came, twice as many inmates applied as could get into the class.
The ceremony is held in the jail cafeteria. Inmates in jail greens and yellows sit on anchored folding chairs behind anchored long tables, and as the "Pomp and Circumstance" march begins, the graduates enter. They wear suits and ties and fresh haircuts — the uniform of the powerless replaced, if only briefly, by that of the powerful.
The sight stirs the room. Mayor Dwight Jones releases his inner preacher: "We all fall down, but then we have to get back up. You got to remember who you are. You have to be a person of great purpose, but you also have to remember whose you are, that you are created in the image of God."
"I want to tell you I am a different person having worked with these gentlemen here," says their teacher, Wheeler. "I'm a better man and I say that from the bottom of my heart."
Deputy Allmon says of the men, "If I asked them to give me a yard, they gave me 10."
The Wildcats, the class called itself.
In his speech, graduate Antonio Matthews says he and the crew were skeptical. But everything started to click amid the tree cutting and the brush clearing and the book study. "Trees! I never knew different trees had botanical names. Like the willow oak tree, they call it —" Matthews intones, "quercos phellos."
"For me to put some good back into the neighborhood that I trashed up for so many years," he says, "my soul and my spirit just felt so good in doing that."
Bentley speaks as well. He's nervous, serious, the oldest man on the crew. "I'm 57 years old," he says. "I ain't got too many chances left. I made the wrong decisions like we all have. We all know right from wrong. There are no excuses. Common sense, that's what the good Lord gave us. Use it. You want to be 57 like me? Here? Family and friends out there? No."
No one here entertains the illusion that the obstacles ahead have magically disappeared. They're real and they're many. But, Matthews tells his fellow inmates: "The feeling that I have today, I haven't felt in so long. You go through life and you stay in certain roles and you get to feeling your confidence is shot, you can't do no more. I'm almost 50 years old, right, but this program gave me the passion back. And if I don't ever use my landscaping skills, what I can take to any job I go to is good work ethics. You can't take that away from me."