“Not only did I want to be a decent human being, I had an obligation. I refused to dishonor the memory of my mother and the best way to pay tribute to it was to do good and to care about people,” Russell H. shares, with tears in his eyes, sitting on the women’s patio at Beit T’Shuvah. That Russell was a far cry from the little boy who grew up in Brooklyn, New York. The youngest of three, Russell was raised alongside his brother and sister by a strong and resilient single mother. “My mom did whatever she had to do to provide for us,” Russell recalls. But despite her best efforts she couldn’t be mother and father to the rambunctious and mischievous young Russell. To try and fit in he hung out with his siblings and their older friends. “I wanted to be the fun kid,” he remembers. This “fun” led to a life of juvenile delinquency and vandalism. It also led to his first experiences with drugs and alcohol. By age nine he had started drinking and by age ten he had added weed to his illicit activities.
This combination of petty crime and drug and alcohol abuse ultimately culminated with his first arrest at the tender age of thirteen. As a result of this arrest he was sent to his first drug treatment center in upstate New York. He spent the next three and a half years, off and on, at the facility. Following this period of attempted rehabilitation Russell went back to high school. However, it was a short-lived return and on his seventeenth birthday his mom signed him out of school and told him to get a job. But it was a boring existence and so he, along with a couple friends, decided to return to upstate New York to live a kind of vagabond life. But there was a problem. The teens had no transportation to start their adventure and so the boys decided to steal a van. After the first attempt failed, his friend had the ill-advised idea to steal yet another van. However, as his friend attempted to steal the van, the owner came out and caught him in the act. The pair ran away and hid out in a deli, but the owner had followed them and it wasn’t too long after that the cops arrived and arrested the duo for grand theft auto. Following one scary night in New York’s infamous “Tombs” the teenager realized this wasn’t the life for him. Eventually he was directed to the local Marine Corps recruiting office and, with a few signatures and a good word from the recruiter, the charges were dropped and Russell found himself at boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina in May of 1982.
“Going through boot camp was life changing. I had to grow up fast,” he remembers. Following a couple assignments in Camp Lejeune and Puerto Rico, Russell landed at Camp Pendleton in California. It was 1984 and, despite a moderately successful start to his military career, Russell was still a hard drinking, destructive, insecure and unstable young marine. And, sadly, this false bravado and aching desire for acceptance led to an event that would radically alter the trajectory of his life. A couple marine buddies approached Russell about a murder for hire scheme. “They told me a woman wanted her husband killed and she was willing to pay for it. I knew it was wrong but the last thing I wanted to be was the weak link,” he explains. And on August 10th, 1984, after a couple botched attempts, the victim was lured to a secluded location and Russell’s buddy shot and killed the man. Not surprisingly, a couple days later, Russell was picked up and thrown into the brig for two days. He was then turned over to the civilian authorities and charged with first-degree murder, murder for hire and murder while lying in wait with special circumstances. He was only nineteen and facing the death penalty.
For the next three years Russell was held in county jail awaiting trial. During that period he learned how to navigate and survive incarceration. “There were two types of people in jail – victims and victimizers – I was determined not to become a victim,” Russell explains. Almost immediately he started getting in trouble, assaulting inmates and running drug scams in the jail. This whole time, however, his family was completely in the dark about the true nature of his arrest. But eventually the truth came out and they were devastated. Then in January of 1988, in order to save his life, he took a deal and was sentenced to twenty-six years to life. Russell continued his victimizer role as well as abusing drugs and alcohol. However, there were also a few bright moments. “I was sent to a prison in San Diego. There the staff really helped me develop skills for life outside of prison,” Russell explains.
And then another pivotal moment occurred in his stay in prison. On January 1, 2001 the prison was raided for drugs and alcohol. Many received additional charges but, by the grace of G-d, Russell had no illicit items on him and he miraculously passed his U/A (urine analysis) test. He swore then and there he would never use again and he’s been sober ever since. Over the next several years, Russell gradually transformed from a hardened convict into a potential candidate for parole. He began attending AA meetings and developing meaningful relationships within the prison walls. He also rediscovered a new appreciation and love for his Jewish heritage. When he first arrived in prison he turned his back on his birthright. “One of the tough things about doing time was being Jewish,” he remembers. And he hid that fact for his first eighteen years in prison. But a rabbi visited the facility on a regular basis and Russell eventually came to embrace his heritage again. During this rebirth period Russell became eligible for parole. The first few times he was denied and following his fourth denial, he felt like it was a hopeless pursuit. But yet again, G-d stepped into his life. During a survivor’s symposium at the prison, Russell heard a story by one of those survivors, Agnes Gibbony, and it changed his life.
He had avoided the ninth step of A.A. (making amends) because he didn’t want to cause further heartache to the survivors of his crime. But her story convinced him to write three letters; one to the mother of his victim, one to the victim’s two children and one to the commanding officer of his Marine Corps Unit. “For the first time I truly accepted responsibility for the crime and I also made a sincere commitment to never be a part of any crime again,” Russell shares. Not long after, in 2011, the parole board found him suitable for parole. And, following a nail-biting one hundred and fifty day wait, Russell’s brother called to find out the status and learned the governor had decided to go with the board’s recommendation. His brother called and told him the wonderful news. But he didn’t tell Russell’s mother. He wanted Russell to be able to tell her. And in an emotional phone call to his mother he told her, “I’m coming home mom.” That night, however, after learning her baby boy was free, she quietly passed away in her sleep.
Following an incredibly emotional six days, Russell was released and his siblings promptly picked him up and, per his request, took him to Denny’s for their famous Grand Slam Breakfast. The family then went to a motel room, where he watched the video of his mother’s funeral, and then he recited Kaddish wearing a Yamaka and Tallit for the first time in a very long time. It’s a moment he’ll never forget. He’ll also never forget the feeling of paralyzed fear he experienced the night before his brother and sister returned to New York. He had no idea how he would live in society after so many years of incarceration. But, shortly after they left, he found a small Shabbat service near him in Long Beach. During this same time Russell had been pondering going to a Jewish faith-based rehab facility called Beit T’Shuvah. He had been in touch with Carrie and Scotty in Alternative Sentencing for the two-and-a-half year period leading up to his parole. And it just so happened that a woman at that small service had a relative who worked at BTS at that time as well.
The next week he called Carrie and she invited him to Friday night services. “I knew I was home,” he recalls. Not too long after he began coming to BTS as a day patient. However, he knew he still needed more help in his journey of recovery. So he moved in as a resident and immersed himself in all things BTS. He also began to make friends and learn healthy social engagement skills for the first time in his life. And, as alluded to earlier, Russell learned it was okay to be vulnerable and to live a life as a decent human being. “This community taught me that. Complete strangers that I had just met for the first time caring so deeply about me, it was amazing,” he concludes. Over the intervening years, Russell graduated from resident to a full-time staff member, eventually landing at his current position of Operations Director and Safety Officer at BTS; a position he takes very seriously. And he does so because he cares so very much about a place that not only helped him build a life he never thought possible, but also introduced him to his beloved wife and soul mate Lysa. BTS also gifted him a forever family and community that he cherishes so very deeply. So now when you see Russell walking around Beit T’Shuvah reminding you to wear a mask or practice safety drills correctly, just know, he does so not to give you a hard time or chastise you. He does it to protect and love all of you the way he was protected and cared for when he was a resident, just like YOU.