BEAUMONT, TEXAS - It’s Saturday at the Stiles unit, a maximum security prison in Beaumont, Texas. Inmates are taking part in a church retreat and getting a rousing speech from a familiar face.
"You have the power to write the next chapter of your life,” Damon West says.
West is no preacher, but he understands these men, because 18 months ago, he was an inmate here.
"I got on God’s back in the Stiles unit, and he carried me all over this place. I learned to pray when I was in here,” West said.
He learned to pray at the prison’s Chapel of Hope, and he got sober. West has eagerly shared his story of conversion with hundreds of young people since he got out.
A story of how a good kid turned bad.
West was the All-American kid – a choir boy, star quarterback at Port Arthur's Thomas Jefferson High School, earned a scholarship to the University of North Texas. He was training to be a stock broker in Dallas when he tried crystal meth for the first time.
"It was like I was a slave to that drug. I couldn't get too far away from that drug,” West said.
His addiction ruined his life. He lost his job, his home and nearly lost his family.
"I mean, they loved me unconditionally, and I repaid that by destroying them," West said.
"I went through so many emotions, anger, disappointment, disbelief,” said Bob West, Damon West’s father.
"In hindsight, the only thing we could have done was to kidnap him,” said his mother, Genie West.
To support his habit, Damon West and his addict buddies started breaking into home in Dallas. So many homes, police dubbed them the “Uptown Burglars.”
It ended in 2008 when Damon West was arrested. The former choir boy was convicted by a jury that spared no mercy at sentencing.
“And then when we got the sentence, it was 65 years. It's like you were punched in the gut," Genie West said.
At age 33, it was like a life sentence. That’s how he wound up in the Stiles unit.
“When I first came to the Stiles unit Jan 14th, 2010, this is where they dropped me off," Damon West explained.
He describes prison as a place where you are never alone but always lonely. He and his parents never stopped praying, and after nearly seven years behind bars, he was paroled. He got the news from his mother.
“She told me over the phone, she said, ‘Baby, you made parole,’ and I was like, ‘Mom’ don't lie to me. Don't play with me.’ She says, ‘Baby, the nightmare is over. You are coming home,’" Damon West said.
The nightmare was over, and he returned home a better man – a man who has now become an advocate and a ray of hope for the men he left behind.
"I challenge you all to escape from this place, spiritually today, and the rest of the time you are here, and make a plan for the day you get out, and follow the plan, guys. Do something different then the knuckle heads that keep coming back,” Damon West said.
(© 2017 KHOU)