On June 11, 1994, Garland Hampton woke up around 10:30 am. He poured himself a bowl cereal, took a shower and went to a friend’s birthday party. That evening, Garland got into a fight with a fellow gang member. He pointed a 9-millimeter pistol at Donell Storks and shot him in the left side of the head.
Both boys were 15 years old.
Garland was arrested on homicide charges the next day. He wrote in his police report: “I feel very sorry about what happened.”
Today, Garland is 37 and an inmate at Oakhill Correction Institute, a minimum security prison located just outside of Madison. He’s still sorry and is striving for redemption.
Vivid Childhood Memories
Garland Hampton has been in prison for over two decades, but his childhood memories are still vivid.
"I can remember as a kid, running around the neighborhood, playing with other kids," he recalls.
One of his fondest memories happened when Garland was about 8 years old. His grandfather took Garland and a cousin on his one and only trip to Downtown Milwaukee - to explore, gets toys at Grand Avenue Mall, and go to the Mecca Arena where the Bucks played.
As the day ended, Garland remembers heading home and shutting down.
"We realized, now we have to transform. We're going back into a war zone," he says.
Garland spent much of his childhood dreading the thought of going home.
His legal guardian was his grandmother. Garland recalls, "When I was 13, my grandmother told me to walk to the store. She wanted me to get her a cabbage, instead I brought back a lettuce... She cursed me... She came out of her room with a sawed off shotgun and told me she would blow my head off."
"Now, Grandmomma don't play. I've seen Grandmomma pull her gun and use her gun many times," he says. "All I could do was stand there and tremble like a leaf...But then she would later on tell me she loved me... So, to me, what that meant was if I didn't abuse you or cause you any kind of pain, I didn't love you."
Violence Was Part Of Garland's Life From The Start
"I never knew who my father was because my mother was raped," Garland says. "I was conceived through a rape."
Garland's mother didn't teach him how to cook or iron. The lessons she gave him are more chilling.
At 9 years old, he witnessed his mother shoot and kill the person he considered his father, his mother's boyfriend. "It was right in front of me," Garland recalls. "It was the first time I saw somebody die."
His mother came home drunk and picked a fight with her boyfriend. "He ran downstairs and went into the bathroom. She tried to push the bathroom door open and her stomach got caught between the door and the facing of the door," Garland says.
She was several months pregnant at the time.
"My mother went and got my grandma's gun and she shot through the wall three times. She shot him all three times," he says. "And, when I went to push the bathroom door open, he was laying on the floor bleeding bad. He said take care of your sisters for me and went out. And that never ever left me."
Striking Out In School
Garland always stuck out in school. His clothes were dirty, and he was always getting into fights.
By middle school, he found acceptance in a gang.
His arms are still marked with symbols of the Vice Lords today. Garland points out a crescent moon, 5 point star, a top hat and a cane. "The cane represents strength and the top hat represents shelter," he explains. "The 5 point star, we believed to be a universal star of principles for man - love, peace, truth, freedom and justice."
Garland didn't find any of those things in his gang.
At 15, he shot and killed fellow gang member Donell Storks during an argument and received a life sentence.
Macabre Sense Of Fate In Family's Trajectory
"In 1967 down in Arkansas, my grandmother shot and killed her husband. In 1989, my mother shot and killed my sisters' new father," Garland says. "My uncle, in prison now, killed someone. His brother, in prison serving a life sentence in Arkansas, killed someone. His son is also in prison in Arkansas for killing someone."
"And here I sit in prison, serving a life sentence because I killed someone... The cycle has to stop," he says.
Transitioning In Prison
Garland had a lot of pain, and a lot of anger. "I would sit down sometimes and up out of the clear blue sky just be mad. My roommate, he'd be on his headphones listening to his radio and just him tapping his feet would set me off. I would just want to explode, I'd want to erupt," he recalls.
He was always getting into fights, just like when he was in school. Garland spent years in segregation.
But, eventually, he got sick and tired of the pain.
Garland started taking classes - got his high school equivalency diploma, took a forklift course, and another one on becoming an electrician.
He's collected a thick blue folder full of accomplishments. He's now a GED tutor and his favorite subject to help with is math.
However, what Garland is proudest of is his emotional growth. He's taken the anger management course three times. And over the years, he's disavowed his gang affiliation.
He's taken the lessons he's learned to heart and in 2010, he went to see his social worker.
"One day, I just walked into her office and said, 'Hey look, I need to talk to you.' And she's like, 'Well make it quick, you know I'm busy.' And, I paused... it took a minute and I said, 'I've got this demon I've been dealing with for many, many years,'" he recalls.
Garland told her that he'd been raped repeatedly as a child - by a cousin.
"I had to accept that, that happened to me. Now all the pain that it caused me, I don't have to stay stuck in it. I don't have to be my own victim; my own victimizer," he says.
Garland wishes he'd released that burden, and all of his burdens, earlier.
"I realize what I was doing was was putting a blanket over my shame and humiliation," Garland says. "I just had a visit from my grade school teacher and he told me that he knew there was something going on at home, but he just didn't know what it was. And again, I couldn't open up to him about it because it was too shameful."
"I mean how can you tell this person who you put on this 'I'm a tough guy facade' to that hey, I'm being raped. I'm being abused. I'm being beaten. I'm being taken advantage of," Garland says. "That's not easy to do."
Garland now shares his story frequently and dreams of working with young people in Milwaukee. That's if he's ever released from prison.
He wants to reach people who might be suffering in the same way he did.
Garland's instincts are spot on. About 80% of juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment have repeatedly witnessed violence at home. Nearly half of them were victims of abuse.
Gun Violence Continues In Milwaukee
Even from prison, Garland can see that the gun violence in Milwaukee is unrelenting.
"I watch a PBS station here and they had a program on about the violence down in Milwaukee," he says.
It was a city Garland hadn't seen in 22 years. Though some buildings were new, too many scenes were familiar. In one clip, it showed guys stands out on a street corner, all with guns with extended magazines hanging out of them.
He says, "Envisioning life the way I see it now, that's scary. But, it's going to take someone who came from that to reach those guys, to let them know what they headed for."
Garland knows the systemic arguments for why gun violence is so high - poverty, racism. But to him, it all comes down to personal responsibility.
"Let's go outside of what we can't change," Garland says. "It has to start with homes, broken homes. One can only start with themselves."
Garland is hoping the work he's done on himself will help him succeed outside of prison. He had his first parole hearing in 2015, and has another coming up in March of 2017.
Still, there's the possibility that he may never get out.
Garland says, "If I don’t... hey, I can go to my grave knowing that I turned my life around and I'm definitely not that same kid that I was then, today."