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Derek Twyman, a Canadian recently released from a North Carolina prison, shared his long road to freedom with law school audience

Posted by Jane Doucet on February 8, 2018 in News
(Photo: Nermeen Ramadan)
(Photo: Nermeen Ramadan)

On Feb. 7 at 4 p.m., the 40 people sitting in Room 105 at the Weldon Law Building were wondering what the guest speaker was about to say. Derek Twyman’s remarkable story had been reported by the CBC in Long Time Gone, so to summarize: in 1989 Twyman, then 24, was sentenced to an astounding 160 years for his involvement in several non-violent burglaries at the homes of wealthy country-club families in Greensboro, North Carolina.

In September of 2016, alumnus Mark Knox (LLB ’85), a Halifax criminal, family and civil litigation lawyer, and member of the 7th Step Society, approached the law school after receiving a phone call out of the blue from Twyman, who is a Canadian citizen. Then 52, he was looking for legal assistance to get his sentence commuted to a Canadian prison because he didn’t want to die in an American jail, and he had found his way to Knox, who agreed to help him.

Last November Twyman was granted early release and moved to Toronto. His release was the culmination of the pro bono efforts of many people on both sides of the border, including Schulich School of Law faculty, alumni, and students, as well as other legal professionals, government and corrections officials, social workers, chaplains and ordinary citizens. (The Dal News story “The Power of Pro Bono” explains Knox's and the law school’s involvement.)

Insight gained from the inside

A support network has been put in place in Toronto to help Twyman find a job and housing and to reintegrate into society. He spent the week of Feb. 5 in Halifax speaking to university students and former prisoners at a 7th Step Society meeting. Schulich Law Professor Archie Kaiser organized Twyman’s talk at Weldon.

“Derek’s saga has given him extraordinary insights into the criminal justice system in general,” said Kaiser while introducing Twyman, “and more particularly into sentencing considerations and options, living in the unique environment of a prison, barriers to rehabilitation, release and community reintegration, and the challenges of staying grounded as a human when the world is acting as if it has first loathed and then forgotten you.”

Derek’s saga has given him extraordinary insights into the criminal justice system…and the challenges of staying grounded as a human when the world is acting as if it has first loathed and then forgotten you. — Prof. Archie Kaiser

Kaiser pointed out that Twyman’s case helps us reflect on other discarded people who either shouldn’t be in institutions or are kept there too long—people with intellectual disabilities, mental illness, and the elderly and youth, among others.

After Knox explained how he got involved with the case, Twyman stepped up to the podium. He immediately put people at ease when he explained that he was born in Oakville, Ont., and that he acquired his American accent in prison. Soft-spoken and articulate, Twyman told his story without notes – of being 15 years old and moving to North Carolina with his father, trying hard to fit in, running with the wrong people, and making bad decisions that led to his involvement in four break and enters.

Making good use of his time

Throughout his 30 years of incarceration, Twyman spent time in 20 prisons. “I had a lot of free time, so I started reading psychology books, and I studied that for four years,” he said. Then he began immersing himself in different types of law – he referred to the thickness of The Georgetown Law Journal – and he took graphic design for two years.

In his experience, there’s no such thing as formal rehabilitation in prison. “I guess I’m still looking for rehabilitation,” said Twyman. “You have to decide that you want to better yourself.” The only prison rehab programs offered were Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which he attended to get free pizza and coffee.

I guess I’m still looking for rehabilitation. You have to decide that you want to better yourself. — Derek Twyman

To keep busy while incarcerated, Twyman held various jobs, including teaching GED, working in an optical plant, and training dogs. He would periodicially mail letters about his plight to the media, politicans, and lawyers on both sides of the border seeking help. Only one reporter interviewed him, for a story in The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2015.

Choosing to look forward

In his new life in Toronto, where he’s living temporarily with a friend of Schulich Law third-year student and Pro Bono co-coordinator Ashley Hill, Twyman is focusing on finding a job to establish a credit rating so he can rent an apartment. When asked what his biggest challenge has been since his release, he jokes, “Prices! When I went to jail, a loaf of bread cost 79 cents. Now it costs over $3.”

Today, food is one of Twyman’s greatest pleasures. “In prison I had a regimented meal plan. I ate hot dogs every Tuesday for 30 years.” Now he can eat whatever he wants, whenever he wants. His response to a question about what his favourite meal is: “Everything! But I don’t much care for American food.”

Twyman tries not to think about his life behind bars now, although five prison staff members have contacted him since his release to see how he’s doing. “They become your new family because you have to rely on them for different things,” he said. “They become like an uncle, even if it might be an uncle you hate.”

When you go to sleep [in prison] someone is yelling and when you wake up someone is yelling. You’re stressed out 24 hours a day. — Derek Twyman

Although Twyman’s frequent quips made the audience laugh, there’s no doubt that his decades in prison have affected him. He described the violence he witnessed, including seeing someone get stabbed in the back and other inmates staunching the bleeding with bed sheets (the wound would require 160 staples). He mentioned the constant noise. “When you go to sleep someone is yelling and when you wake up someone is yelling,” he said. “You’re stressed out 24 hours a day.”

To stay positive, Twyman has read self-help books, tried meditating, and maintained his sense of humour. “If you tell yourself it’s going to be a bad day, it will be,” he said. His next move? He’s considering attending school to become a paralegal. At the support groups where he speaks to other former prisoners who are re-entering communities, he is often asked if he’s tempted to resort to crime.

“No way,” said Twyman. “Those days are over. After 30 years in prison, I’m not doing anything that might get me sent back, not even spit on the sidewalk. I tell them that with the right help and education, you can get a different perspective on your default, which is crime.”