Originally published on September 10, 2014
On January 31, 2014, 55-year-old Thomas Edwards was released from Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, after serving a 21 year sentence for bank robbery. From the age of 12 to 55, Edwards led a life of crime. Looking back, Edward says, “three people died, I was arrested twice, for a total of 26 years, and I robbed over 20 banks.” Not to mention, at one point, Edwards was wanted and “on the run” in four states for withholding thousands of dollars worth of cocaine and hundreds of guns in his possession. While in the “box,” otherwise known as solitary confinement, during his second sentence in prison, Edwards says his major turnaround was when he decided to not do crime anymore. It was during the 46 day stay in solitary confinement that Edwards changed is life for the better. Through the grace of the Exodus Transitional Community in East Harlem and the Executive Director Julio Medina, Edwards is now seven months free of his criminal past and has started a new life as a mentor to young, criminal adults through the Exodus Common-Unity program.
Q: Where did you grow up? And how did your childhood shape the rest of your life?
A: “I was born, and for the first 8 years of my life, I spent in Alabama, so I am basically a country fella. I came to New York when I was 8 or 9, to Brooklyn, New York, and I had some problems at home with my stepfather and I kinda gravitated towards the streets and eventually was put in a juvenile detention center when I was 12 for three years.”
Q: Where did you go and what happened after your were released from the juvenile detention center?
A: “My mother had moved to the Bronx at that time, but the situation wasn’t really conducive for me living with her, so it was more or less a base, so I had kinda been drifting around. And because I had already been living in the streets, I was already familiar with the ways of the streets and I could survive there. So that’s what I did for quite some time.”
Q: Why, at such a young age, were you drawn to the streets? What did the streets provide that you did not receive inside your household or at school?
A: “Many times I went to school, 4th, 5th, 6th grade, with black eyes, bruises, and after a while, I didn’t get any help there so I just stopped going. And I got more help from people in the streets, They were just more concerned about my well-being. When a kid is out at 3 or 4 in the morning, there are no social workers or school teachers out. But you know what is there, drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, con-men, stick-up men, and you know, they showed me concern and compassion.”
Q: You mentioned your stepfather earlier, was he one of the reasons you turned towards the streets to look for compassion?
A: “Well, he was very violent. And I would reciprocate most of his violent ways because I was the only male in the house other than him. And, I got most of what he could give. And he taught me a valuable lesson that violence could be used. And I used violence in my life.”
Q: Until what age were you living in the streets?
A: “Well, pretty much all my life. Because I had learned how to hustle in the streets at a young age, I was allowed to stay at different places because I could produce. I didn’t make a change in my life until I was in prison. It was my second time in prison. Both times, I went to prison for bank robbery.”
Q: When did you get caught for the second bank robbery and can you explain the incidents from that day?
A: “At that point, I am running from the law in New York and New Jersey and I am a person of interest in North Carolina and Virginia…I am pretty much wanted in a bunch of places…in 1993 January, 29th, it was a bank robbery on Broadway. And I guess, 94th street and somewhere around there, that is a shame I don’t exactly where. That was the day, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The bank rob had been planned for a couple of weeks, I had cased it out. It was a simple plan. And we had a guy that was new and his job was to count in M-I-S-S-I-P-P-I-S, when you get to 90 M-I-S-S-I-P-P-I-S, it’s time to leave no matter what happens, so we figured, we have 90 seconds…but on this one, the new guy made people get on the floor and someone outside saw it and they went to a police officer at the stoplight…so everything that could go wrong, went wrong that day.”
Q: How is it possible that you only faced 21 years for the robbery, when you were wanted in numerous states and the robbery case was connected to a murder that day?
A: “I didn’t think it was possible. I got the sentence and my lawyer who worked with me for over two years on the case, asked me how I felt..And I said, ‘I don’t want to die in prison. You don’t know how long I am going to be in there, you can’t tell me that I am going home today. This is it for me. And that’s how I kinda felt. I didn’t have any other options, so what could I do. When they talked about a plea, I said yes, everything but the murder. I don’t kill innocent people. I am aware of the fact that I caused this, that I was a factor in this but I was too far removed to take the blame for this. I felt like if you were going to charge me with her murder, charge the gun makers because they make far too many guns for law enforcement, charge my stepfather and many other people in my life, make them all my co-defendants. And that’s what I felt. But I never felt that I was a victim. I put myself there.”
*Edited and Condensed