Michael Russell with his mother, Jill Drysdale, at their home in Las Vegas, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. When Michael was young, his father died, pushing his already rebellious streak into drug addiction and crime. After years of stints in prison and rehab programs, he made a choice to reform his life for good. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Michael Russell with his mother, Jill Drysdale, at their home in Las Vegas, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. When Michael was young, his father died, pushing his already rebellious streak into drug addiction and crime. After years of stints in prison and rehab programs, he made a choice to reform his life for good. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Michael Russell with his mother, Jill Drysdale, hold the letter from Nevada Department of Corrections that began Michael’s employment at their home in Las Vegas, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. When Michael was young, his father died, pushing his already rebellious streak into drug addiction and crime. After years of stints in prison and rehab programs, he made a choice to reform his life for good. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Michael Russell, with his mother, Jill Drysdale, hold the letter from Nevada Department of Corrections that began Michael’s employment at their home in Las Vegas, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. When Michael was young, his father died, pushing his already rebellious streak into drug addiction and crime. After years of stints in prison and rehab programs, he made a choice to reform his life for good. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Michael Russell plays with his great nephew Cameron Gonzales, 2, and great niece Ava Gonzales, 11 months, at his home in Las Vegas, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. When Michael was young, his father died, pushing his already rebellious streak into drug addiction and crime. After years of stints in prison and rehab programs, he made a choice to reform his life for good. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Michael Russell plays with his great nephew Cameron Gonzales, 2, and great niece Ava Gonzales, 11 months, near his niece Ashley Gonzales, at his home in Las Vegas, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. When Michael was young, his father died, pushing his already rebellious streak into drug addiction and crime. After years of stints in prison and rehab programs, he made a choice to reform his life for good. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Michael Russell plays with his great nice Ava Gonzales, 11 months, at his home in Las Vegas, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. When Michael was young, his father died, pushing his already rebellious streak into drug addiction and crime. After years of stints in prison and rehab programs, he made a choice to reform his life for good. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Michael Russell leads a Moral Recognition Therapy class at Casa Grande, a transitional housing facility run by the Nevada Department of Corrections, in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Posters on the wall of the classroom at Casa Grande, a transitional housing facility run by the Nevada Department of Corrections, in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. In August 2018, Michael Russell was hired by NDOC full-time. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Michael Russell leads a Moral Recognition Therapy class at Casa Grande, a transitional housing facility run by the Nevada Department of Corrections, in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Posters on the wall of the classroom at Casa Grande, a transitional housing facility run by the Nevada Department of Corrections, in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. In August of 2018, Michael Russell was hired by NDOC full-time. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Inmate Yesenia La Rue asks a question during Moral Recognition Therapy class at Casa Grande, a transitional housing facility run by the Nevada Department of Corrections, in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Michael Russell leads a Moral Recognition Therapy class at Casa Grande, a transitional housing facility run by the Nevada Department of Corrections, in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Michael Russell stands by inmates Carrie Kincaid and Andrew Morris as he leads a Moral Recognition Therapy class at Casa Grande, a transitional housing facility run by the Nevada Department of Corrections, in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Michael Russell, right, poses with his older sisters Lisa, left, and Julie, center, in their Halloween costumes in an undated photo. (Russell family)
Michael Russell poses for a photo with his coloring book in an undated photo. (Russell family)
Michael Russell, center left, and his older sisters, Lisa, left, and Julie, center right, pose with their father Kevin Russell, far right, in an undated photo. (Russell family)
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The letter came on June 20, an abnormally hot day in the valley, even by Las Vegas standards.

Michael Russell, 39, had been out of prison and sober for about four years. In that time, he had graduated from Hope for Prisoners, earned an associate’s degree and was working as a licensed drug and alcohol counselor for Freedom House, a transitional housing center for addicts.

Standing in the middle of the airy living room of his newly remodeled ranch-style home that scorching day, Russell, who has a large tattoo that snakes down his left arm, remembers hesitating for a moment before unfolding the letter.

His mother, holding her breath, watched from behind.

“Dear Mr. Russell:

Congratulations, you have been selected for appointment as a Program Officer 1 with the Nevada Department of Corrections Re-Entry Department,” the letter stated in part.

Russell said nothing and then dropped to his knees. He was sobbing and gasping for air.

His past makes such an outcome seem nearly unthinkable. Russell had completed three stints in California and Nevada prisons before he was 35, unaware that later in life he’d one day make history as the first convicted felon to be employed with the state Department of Corrections.

Jill Drysdale joined him on the soft rug and finished reading the letter aloud to her only son — the son she had never given up on, no matter how many times he took money from her purse or how long he’d gone in the past without contacting her.

”I loved him when he was high. I loved him when he was doing stupid stuff. I loved him when he was coming down. I loved him when he was committing crimes,” she said this month, curled up on a brown sectional couch in the living room where they’d opened the letter together more than half a year ago. “I love my son. There’s no changing that. I just knew I had to be there for him all the time.”

Russell wasn’t even old enough to buy a legal drink the first time he was arrested, but the trouble really began years earlier on the night of Dec. 18, 1993. He was just 15.

He remembers everything about that night. How his palms hadn’t stopped sweating since he first picked up the clunky house phone to dial 9-1-1 and how he wiped them against his shirt as he paced in front of his family’s small, three-bedroom apartment waiting for help.

Russell could hear his mom inside begging his dad to wake up. His father’s face had turned an alarming shade of blue.

No one at the time could have predicted the impact Kevin Russell’s death at 39 would have on his son, whom he had raised as his own since he was 2, even insisting that the two share his last name.

“To me, it was an amazing thing that a man who wasn’t my biological father was willing to treat me as his own,” Russell said in an interview this month.

Russell spent almost every day that followed, until 2014, in some sort of a daze, searching, at almost any cost, for the peace that washed over him when he was high on methamphetamine.

‘History in the making’

Now the same age as his father when he died, Russell works full time at Casa Grande Transitional Housing, a facility that houses nonviolent, non-sex crime inmates who are within 18 months of their parole eligibility date.

There, he teaches two classes to inmates — some with whom he had been incarcerated at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs during his most recent stint in 2014 on a parole violation. He had tested positive on multiple drug screenings.

“I never thought in a million years that I would ever want to work in a prison,” Russell said this month, sitting in his office at Casa Grande. “There are days that I come to work and I think, ‘Is this a dream?’”

His boss, Elizabeth Dixon-Coleman, said Russell’s employment brings a long-needed change to the culture of the Department of Corrections.

“It’s history in the making,” she said. “We’re working toward being more rehabilitative and giving people more opportunities.”

That change started with Russell, who came to NDOC in 2017, first as a volunteer and then a contract worker for just under half a year before he was hired full time.

“He was willing to say, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to be the first one, to set the precedence and to be that forerunner to help charge change, even though I’m putting myself out there,’” Dixon-Coleman said.

Russell remains on probation to date as the attorney’s general office reviews changes to state agency statutes that currently “talk about cautionary concerns hiring felons, especially because we’re in law enforcement,” according to Dixon-Coleman.

“There were several statutes within NDOC, as well as law enforcement compliance and operational procedures, that are now under review for specific wording, or to see if we need to go forward with any legislative action to help ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity for employment in the future while still preserving confidentiality in a way to protect everyone,” she said.

Sharing lessons learned

There are days still, Russell said, that his insecurities overwhelm him. He wonders if it all will be ripped away from him — his fulfilling career, health insurance and a pension.

But teaching chips away at those insecurities. When Russell gets in front of a classroom, he stands a little taller and makes direct eye contact with his students.

On a recent Wednesday evening, Russell hushed the 12 inmates chatting in his classroom at Casa Grande. The desks were set up in a rectangular shape, so that the inmates and Russell were facing one another.

That night in particular, Russell was teaching Moral Recognition Therapy, a 16-step behavioral modification course. He credits this program as the catalyst for change in his life during his last prison stint.

“Who’s ready to present?” Russell announced, looking around the room.

Joseph DeVera, wearing a matching set of heather-gray sweats, raised his hand.

“Step 2 is all about trust,” DeVera read from his workbook.

But while presenting his homework, he caught an error in his work. He tilted his head and squinted his eyes.

“I was going to try to spin this, but I can’t,” DeVera admitted.

The other inmates came to his defense, urging Russell to allow DeVera to move on to Step 3.

But DeVera shook his head, knowing Russell would make him try again the next week.

“If I let you slide on that, what else will you slide on in life?” Russell asked, a smile rising from the corners of his mouth.

If his dad could see him now, he’d be so proud. Russell’s sure of it.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

Source Article

http://www.labula.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/img_Las-Vegas-man-charts-path-as-first-convicted-felon-hired-by-NDOC-1024x687.jpghttp://www.labula.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/img_Las-Vegas-man-charts-path-as-first-convicted-felon-hired-by-NDOC-150x150.jpgBobby SotoUncategorizedMichael Russell with his mother, Jill Drysdale, at their home in Las Vegas, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. When Michael was young, his father died, pushing his already rebellious streak into drug addiction and crime. After years of stints in prison and rehab programs, he made a choice to reform...