Club offers `capitol' chance to ex-cons
ALVIN CAROL, Dwayne Davis, and Robert Howard have some things in common. They are ex-convicts whose occupation was armed robbery. Today they work together in a different vocation. They serve senators and congressmen in the capacities of cook, banquet manager, and bartender at the prestigious Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C. The club has been the training ground for 55 men who successfully left prison and crime behind them.
Each day the club caters to powerbrokers whose decisions, made over meals, affect the lives of millions. Alvin Carol, now the club's assistant chef, says his own sense of powerlessness growing up in a large poor black family made robbery attractive.
``When I picked up a .38 [caliber pistol] or that sawed-off [shotgun], that's what it gave me, power. You could move a whole room full of people with that,'' he says. ``My thing was the money. I didn't go into it with the intention of hurting anyone. I tried working, but working just didn't pay off fast enough.''
Alvin's price for wielding that kind of power was 10 years in the Lorton Reformatory in Virginia. He became ``aggressive'' in prison, fueling that aggression by dealing and using drugs.
It was a close call with drugs in prison that actually turned Alvin around. He injected an overdose of drugs and blacked out. He awoke in a cold shower with six men holding him up.
``I saw a lot of guys go out of that joint in plastic bags. I had seen some stabbed right in front of my face. After this [overdose] happened, I said to myself, `What you tryin' to do, put yourself in a plastic bag?' I vowed never again to shoot or snort anything.''
Alvin entered a prison work-training program. Under the program he was released during the day to sand floors in a Washington building under renovation. The job was across the alley from the Capitol Hill Club.
One day Alvin walked across the alley and asked Ted Miller, the manager of the club, for a position. Mr. Miller hired him to wash pots. Alvin is now assistant chef with a six-year tenure.
Miller says ``trust'' makes these men successful. ``You can't go around walking behind these men. You have to trust them to do a job,'' he says. He refuses to take credit for what he terms ``people taking advantage of opportunity.''
Miller, who grew up in England, says that as a small child he made what turned out to be the fortunate mistake of describing a man from India as ``dirty.'' For an hour and a half train ride, he sat in the Indian man's lap and found out ``who he really was.''
Eight years ago Miller began to find out who ex-convicts really were. He hired Dwayne Davis to be a bus boy, not knowing of Dwayne's past. After Dwayne worked a year at the club and privately in Miller's home, many times in the family's absence, Miller offered him a promotion. But Dwayne, reluctant to have his record come out, declined.
``I couldn't figure out why a guy, who was obviously qualified, would refuse a promotion,'' Miller explains. ``After some hemming and hawing, he finally told me he had been in prison.''
Soon afterward, Miller took a trip to Lorton and what he found was ``worse than hell.'' He learned that there were few training programs for the inmates, most of whom spent their days in despair- and violence-breeding idleness. Miller says he realized that many of these men continued in crime because they ``were dumped onto the streets without any marketable skills.''
He got involved with a prison training program for cooks and hired the first class of 14 men. After that, Miller's hiring program grew into an unofficial school in restaurant skills, from which men moved on to work in the many hotels in Washington. Fifty-three men have followed in the successful footsteps of Alvin and Dwayne. Of the 57 ex-convicts Miller has taken on, only two have returned to a life of crime.
Dwayne himself stumbled. He was rearrested in 1980 as an accomplice to a grand theft. He went back to prison for three years feeling like a ``jerk.''
He does not take all the responsibility for the return trip. He says his first prison stint left him angry at a system with what appeared to be one set of rules for blacks and another for whites. Dwayne resented the lighter sentences given whites, the police payoffs, and the drug trafficking by correctional officers. The bitterness lingered after his release and, he believes, accounts in part for his relapse.
Ted Miller held a place for Dwayne. Dwayne says he made up his mind that he was not going back to prison, adding that the ``respect'' Miller gave him was a catalyst for making a second try.
``I used to think all white people were kind of shaky, wouldn't give black people a chance,'' Dwayne says. He repeated his original ascent through the ranks of the club, moving quickly from steward to banquet manager and occasionally maitre d'. ``I respect this man,'' Dwayne says of Miller. ``We respect each other. He knows my capabilities and he believed and trusted me.''
Dwayne says you have to ``crawl before you can walk'' and that if he were fired today, he would start all over as a dishwasher. ``I've learned that there's only two ways to do things, the right way and the wrong way.''
Robert Howard is a professor of this same lesson. He believes his prison experience following his robbery conviction will benefit his eight-year-old son.
``My son was born while I was locked up. That hurt. I made a decision that I was going to work hard to provide for my family and kids. That is what keeps me going. I haven't gotten [so much as] a jay-walking ticket since I've been back out here.'' Robert has been the head bartender for six years. Like Alvin, he began as a dishwasher.
Staying ``on the straight and narrow'' is something that is always on Alvin's mind as well. He, too, has a son and wants things to be better for him.
``As you get older you have many people connected to you. You are no longer by yourself. I'm connected to my lady, my mother, my son. Your life is not your own to do as you please.'' His younger brother is in prison, and some family members are facing drug charges. ``I talk to them so much, so much, so much. They see death all around them. You lose your family to drugs, to alcohol; somebody has got to be straight.''
Miller says society must get beyond illusions of what these men are. He mimics the common misperception of Alvin: ``He looks like a criminal. He's big. He's heavy. He looks like a sumo wrestler: Look out! And yet underneath, he's a gentle soul.''