Monday, December 30, 2019
While watching the news in his cell in Great Meadow Correctional Facility, Bruce Bryant was overcome by the sight of a grieving mother, whose 10-year-old daughter had been killed by a stray bullet.
It was 2008. Bryant, who is serving a 37 ½ to life sentence for murder, felt a weight on his chest. The crime was eerily similar to his own. And he saw an opportunity to start making amends.
Bryant, 50, was convicted of the murder of 11-year-old Travis Lilley in June 1996. Bryant maintains he never fired a weapon that day in 1993. But he recognizes that his lifestyle as a young person — he started dealing drugs when he was 14 — contributed to an environment in which a stray bullet could take a young life. And for that reason, he’s spent most of his 25 years in prison working to help young people.
He convinced a prison superintendent to let him create an option for prisoners to donate to a gun buyback program in Albany. In two weeks, Bryant had raised $322.
“You don’t have to pick up a gun and shoot a person to be responsible for a life,” he says.
With at least 12 more years on his sentence, Bryant is now asking the governor for early release, with the hope that he can continue his work outside of prison walls.
“On my watch, I don’t want to ever see another young person die,” he says.
On October 30th, 1993, a 23-year-old Bryant was in Jamaica, Queens, when he ran into fellow drug dealer Michael Sterling. As the men were catching up, Sterling saw a man across the street who had robbed him the day before.
The man and his friends started shooting at Sterling, Bryant says. Sterling returned fire. That’s when Bryant says he ran.
He says he didn’t see the stray bullets shatter the window of the beauty salon across the street. He didn’t see Travis Lilley or Lilley’s uncle as he held the boy’s lifeless body and sobbed, sitting on shards of glass.
But in 1996, Bryant was found guilty of murder. Justice Robert McGann told him at his sentencing, “I hope you never have access to decent, innocent people again.”
In prison, he went from being angry to wanting to help others. With help from nonprofit Children of Promise, Bryant published a journal for children with incarcerated parents. He started a program called “Mentoring Beyond The Walls,” which connected formerly incarcerated youth with currently incarcerated men.
Hany Massoud, cofounder of Justice by the Pen, an organization that helps youth engage with social justice issues, has partnered with Bryant on several projects.
“He would be running several nonprofit organizations if he was out of prison right now,” Massoud says.
“Saying sorry is not good enough,” says Bryant, who has earned an Associate’s and a Bachelor’s degree behind bars. “You got to say I’m sorry in the way that you live. I would hope that my lifestyle would reflect my deepest apologies.”
By Rachel Rippetoe and Sean Sanders
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