By Catherine Yang January 9, 2020 Updated: February 15, 2020
Damon West had a perfect life on paper: loving family, star quarterback, promising career. Then he got hit with a life sentence at a maximum-security prison. The rosy biography belied a serious addiction problem that had begun at a young age, after a traumatic incident went unaddressed.
First it was pot and alcohol, then cocaine, and finally meth. The meth led to continuous theft on West’s part, until he got caught. His sentencing was a reckoning, and prison was one fight after another, but he knew he had nowhere to go but up.
Seven years later, West made parole. It’s been four years since he walked out of prison; and since then, he has ceaselessly told his story as part of his efforts to make amends.
“I know that my life and these presentations that I give can be used to stop somebody in that audience from going down that road that I went down. And if they don’t go down that road, then their family doesn’t have to go through what my family went through. And if they don’t go down that road, then they don’t create victims like I did. And if they don’t go down that road, society is saved the burdens that us criminals, us addicts put on society to pay for the things we’ve done,” West said.
It all started with a letter West received in prison in 2011, when his former junior high teacher told him that one day he would get out, and he had the opportunity to be a powerful messenger who could deliver hope.
“That was the message that planted a seed,” West said. “Those seeds grew to be trees, those trees grew to be a forest now. I’m literally speaking to tens of thousands of young people every year, and it all started with that letter.”
West speaks in prisons, too, and the state of Texas has agreed to have him speak in all 104 state prisons over roughly the next two years.
The Meth Days
West recounts the hazy days of his addiction in his book, “The Change Agent,” which tells the story of his addictions, incarceration, and recovery.
As a cocaine addict, he was constantly thinking about whether he had enough of the drug stashed. Sleep-deprived, nose bleeding, and with a cross-country trip ahead of him, West still felt like he had everything under control. The addiction only got worse once he tried meth.
Common sense went out the window, and his judgment completely lapsed—the only thing on his mind as an addict was when and where he could get more meth. West is intentional in filling the book’s early chapters with details because he wants to be clear, honest, and make a point. His life is a cautionary tale. These were days of sex, drugs, alcohol, and crime, and there is no clear reasoning to be found.
West’s meth habit led to him stealing cars and breaking into people’s homes for goods and money, and then he finally got caught. In jail, his main thought was, when would be the next time he’d get high? The judge set a high bail and told him to keep clean. West said yes sir, made bail, and then got high.
Then West was brought back to jail again, was hit with more charges, and was stuck with an impossibly high bail.
During his trial, despite having a defense lawyer who seemed insistent on not lifting a finger and a jury who looked at him with contempt, West had the sinking realization that there was no one to blame but himself. He did commit the crimes he was charged with. No one made him do it. He was a man who had every opportunity in life to do well, and he squandered those opportunities.
West kept a journal in prison, and when he got out, he showed it to a friend of his, who sent it to a publisher. It wasn’t long before they were talking about a book.
But the best chapters hadn’t been written yet, so West ultimately interspersed the stories from his times at the Mark Stiles prison with everything that happened before and after.
While in jail and on trial, West had no idea what kind of sentence he would receive. A life sentence, as he learned, was in reality a 60-year sentence. He ended up receiving 65.
“This was my rock bottom,” West said. The moment was severe enough, it broke through his addiction-fueled fog. He also realized what a terrible thing he had done to his own parents, who had sat behind him during the proceedings. Before being taken away, he spoke to them one more time, and his mother had told him that where he was going, only God could help him now. West promised to let Him.
Here was a place where race was radicalized and the universal language was violence. West doesn’t spare details here either—it’s not meant to be a pleasant place. At one point, he was put in a position to kill or be killed.
But he also now had all the time in the world to work on recovery. He met people who taught him he could be a positive force for change, rather than letting his environment harden him. He learned that there was nothing he could control but his own mind.
“Every addict must have a program of recovery,” West said. “That requires me surrendering to God every day, it takes that daily surrendering, because that reprieve I’ve been given is contingent on my spiritual growth. And let me tell you, growth always takes place out of your comfort zone.”
This is why he thinks his story has spread like wildfire: Addiction affects everyone, whether yourself, or a loved one, or even just as a taxpayer footing the bill for a prison; and it doesn’t have to be a drug addiction either.
With a lot of work, West came to a turning point when he realized he had to give up his “self.” His wishes, his entitlements, his ego, his illusion of control.
Because although his story is one of redemption, he is clear that he didn’t do this alone. Family, mentors, and God had opened the right doors for him. Time and again, people put in place to judge where West would head next would look at his file and say his story wasn’t quite like all the others they’d seen. He came from a good family, with parents who visited him more than 150 times while he was incarcerated, and had pillars of the community who vouched for and pledged their support to him.
“I had a lot of help along the way, a ton of help. God has opened so many doors for me,” West said. He was absolutely determined to make use of this life he was given; he would do his best to become useful to society.
Becoming Part of the Solution
Four years ago, West walked free. Not long after, he started sharing his story, and has since been invited to schools, sports teams, and prisons to tell his story.
“What motivates me is the possibility of the potential to be useful every day,” West said. “I know what a bad day looks like, and since I’ve been out of prison, I haven’t had any bad days. I tell people my worst day out here in the free world is better than my best day in prison. There’s no comparison. I have this tremendous perspective God has given me of what a bad day truly looks like, and that helps me get through my days.”
When West shares his story, he hopes the lesson gleaned is that every one of us has the power to change, and to choose to have a positive effect on our environments.
Out of all the venues he speaks at, West believes he has the most impact in prisons.
“I think this is the place I’m most valuable,” West said. “This is the area where I think I have the most currency.”
No inmate can accuse West of not having been sentenced to real time, as he had a life sentence, nor that he didn’t really serve, as he was sent to Mark Stiles, which is a maximum-security penitentiary.
“So when I go into a prison, the response is overwhelming in that 100 percent of the audience is listening, they’re hanging onto everything I’m saying because they want what I’ve got. And I want them to want what I’ve got,” West said. “They know that I know what [their] misery is like.”
Inside, hope is in short supply, and that’s what West brings when he shares his story: hope and the possibility of redemption. Making parole had been like swimming upstream and required West’s complete commitment to recovery, and that’s the turnaround he hopes to see in others.
“I tell people all the time, it’s like a thirsty man in a desert. If he sees a mirage and he’s thirsty enough, he’ll drink the mirage, he’ll drink the sand thinking it’s water and it’ll kill him. That’s what happens in prison,” West said. “They’re looking for a good leader, and in the absence of good leadership, they’ll follow someone off a cliff, you see it all the time.”
And the last few months, every time West has spoken at a prison, at least one or two people will point to his new wedding ring with a question.
“They’ll be like, ‘Your story is fascinating, Damon, but I want to know how you did that. How did you manage to find somebody who will love you?’” West said. “Out of all the stuff that happened in my story, all the stuff for them to gravitate toward and latch onto, they want to know, ‘How did you do that, because I want that, too. I want that one day.’”
The Importance of Family
In May 2019, one decade after West was given his life sentence, he got married and became a husband and stepfather.
When he was in prison, he had similar thoughts as all those inmates asking him about the ring.
“This was something I thought about the whole time. Would I ever find somebody who loves me, would I ever find a family that would take me in after all the mistakes I’ve made?” West said.
“It has been the biggest blessing that ever happened to me, and I would not have been able to have a relationship like that in my life without a program of recovery.”
West himself is in a 12-step recovery program, and he says it requires of him vigorous honesty, accountability, and a willingness to work on it every single day of his life. The first three steps require surrendering to a higher power, and this in itself isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“It takes humility,” West said.
“You have to be willing to make amends every time that you’re wrong, and you have to admit that you’re sorry, and be willing to make amends wherever you go. You have to admit your shortcomings, admit your flaws, show you’re vulnerable,” West said. That means being willing to forgive but forego forgiveness yourself. And that takes a lot of humility.
“I think the biggest obstacle to doing it is you have to give up the idea of control, you have to give up that fantasy of control we have as humans.”
He learned from a man in prison, and writes in his book, that the only four things you can control are what you think, say, feel, and do. Everything else is in God’s lane.
“If you focus on those four things that you can control, you can have an amazing life,” West said. He can attest to it, and he hopes those he speaks to can apply those hard-earned lessons.
“We have these fears in life that we have no control of … like all these fears I had about when I got out of prison: Will I be accepted, will people want anything to do with me—they’re all unfounded. Because I came out of prison willing to share my story so that other people’s kids don’t have to make the same mistakes I made, and I became a valuable part of society. People see you as part of the solution instead of part of the problem,” he said. “If you want to be accepted by society, you have to own what you have done.”
“I think every person on the planet should have to work the 12-step recovery program at some point, because everyone is going through something,” West said.
Family is profoundly important, because we are the relationships we make. There’s a passage from a book that has stuck with West, where an old man tells a younger man that the families we’re born into have to love us no matter what, but the families we choose are in some ways even more amazing because they choose to love us.
“My family, the way that they love me unconditionally, showed me what the importance of family is,” West said. “Because when you go through a situation like that, really those are the only people who are going to be around you, when you’ve made such huge mistakes. I failed so completely in my life and my family would not get rid of me. My family would not let me go. They would not turn their back on me. And they showed me the importance of family.”
The absolute hardest part of his story to tell is the damage he did to his own family. In his speeches, West talks about his steadfast and faithful parents who raised him well and refused to abandon him, and how they suffered because of his addiction. In his book, he includes a story that hurt to tell, when his grandmother came to live with him and he lied to her to cover his addiction and the criminal activity that took place right under her nose. She was becoming increasingly incoherent and couldn’t even remember who he was.
“That’s the biggest failure that I see as me as a human being, how I failed to adequately take care of her,” he said. “It’s one of those stories where no one would ever know, unless I told it.”
His parents asked West if he wanted to reconsider, because it was such a painful story to admit to.
“If I was going to paint the picture of the dark side of addiction, the most horrible, ugly side of addiction, why didn’t I show the most horrible, ugly thing I’ve ever done in my addiction?” he said. So he included it.
Despite all the dark moments in his story, West doesn’t dwell on the past, or think about why things happened a certain way, or if there was something he could have changed.
“There was no way, in any way in my mind, that my life would turn out like this,” West said. “For example, in January, I will become Professor West. I’m teaching a class on criminal justice at the University of Houston downtown.”
“I think I had to go through everything I’ve been through in order to get to this place, this time right here,” he said. “I had to fail so completely to end up where I am, so it’s always a looking-forward thing, because I can’t change the past. The past is done.”