When someone is facing a potential life sentence in prison, the future doesn’t appear to present many options. However, these two brothers took control of their lives, overcame the odds, and made it out the other side.
Darryl and Darnell Epps are two brothers from Brooklyn, New York. When Darryl was 21 and his brother Darnell was 20, they would make a decision that would change their lives forever.
When the Epps brothers were growing up, they witnessed a lot of violence in their neighborhood. They also had to contend with an unhappy relationship between their parents at home.
Darryl had been in and out of the juvenile criminal justice system since he was 12. When he was released from his last facility at age 15, he returned home and took the GED exam.
Darnell was still going to school, and their parents were going through a divorce.
“At that time, sort of like Darryl, I began to find friendship with the wrong crowd in my community,” Darnell told Humanity.
Darnell began skipping classes and was eventually kicked off the football team. In the end, he dropped out of school.
Darryl, meanwhile, had the opportunity to attend John Jay College, but his experience growing up led him to reject going to college.
“Because I was still dealing with a lot of the pain and a lot of the hurt and the stresses as a child, I didn’t follow my mother’s direction. I didn’t enroll in college like I should [have],” Darryl told Humanity.
Darnell spent a couple of years in Miami working in a warehouse but returned to Brooklyn shortly after he turned 18.
Darryl spent his time working occasionally in construction. However, both brothers would return to life on the street where they were surrounded by bad influences.
One night in March 2000, Darryl said he received a phone call telling him that another person in the neighborhood was threatening to kill him and his brother Darnell.
“I just wanted him to leave us alone. I went out there, and my brother followed me to the store. Then in a matter of 20 seconds our lives just changed,” Darryl recounted.
Darryl confronted the man at the convenience store. There was a struggle, and Darryl ended up shooting and killing him.
Although Darnell didn’t shoot, he was charged as an accessory to the murder.
Both Darryl and Darnell were sentenced to 17 and a half years to life for second-degree murder.
Their mother, a police officer, had to face the fact that her sons might be in prison for the rest of their lives.
Darryl’s girlfriend was six months pregnant at the time of the shooting. She brought his newborn son to Darryl’s sentencing.
The brothers spent over half of their entire sentence in the same cell at Five Points Correctional Facility.
Living in the same cell together in the maximum security prison allowed Darryl and Darnell to support each other.
“The fact that we were together from the very beginning was a tremendous benefit to us in ways that I can’t even fully explain,” Darnell said.
But it was also a painful reminder for Darryl.
“Imagine what it’s like waking up every day and seeing the worst choice you made staring you in the face. Every time I looked at my brother I would see the mistake I made that night,” Darryl explained.
Darryl and Darnell knew they might never be released from prison, but they were motivated to spend their time becoming better human beings while they were incarcerated.
Darryl wrote to and called his son often. When he was old enough, his son would come to visit.
Darnell studied for and obtained his GED diploma. But that was just the beginning.
Darryl began mentoring at-risk youth in the community in the Youth Assistance Program, and Darnell began working in the prison library.
The brothers had always wanted to pursue higher education. Now they had that opportunity, and it would change their lives.
Following through on their desire to become better people, Darryl and Darnell enrolled in the Cornell Prison Education Program offered at Five Points Correctional Facility.
The program offers a liberal arts curriculum including courses in constitutional law, creative writing, economics, genetics, and medical anthropology.
“It was like food for soul. It gave me a new sense of purpose,” Darnell explained.
After completing the program, Darryl and Darnell earned Associates Degrees from a community college and certificate from the Cornell program.
The brothers also sought to set a good example for the other inmates, and demonstrate the importance of self-improvement.
After serving 17 years, the brothers had their first parole hearing. For five days after their hearing, they waited in anticipation.
The brothers were unsure if they would be released. Only 3 percent of violent offenders serving potential life sentences receive parole.
Finally, they were separately called into a waiting area and were surprised to see each other.
Darryl was the prison chaplain at the time and told Darnell that he had been called out of his program and told to go to the waiting area.
He also told Darnell that the bishop was out of his office. They took that as a bad sign.
“Immediately we were speculating. Is this bad news? Is this a bad time?” the brothers remembered thinking.
The brothers were then brought into a classroom and handed two thin envelopes.
Darryl and Darnell opened the envelopes. They had been granted parole.
The bishop and some of the prison staff came into the classroom to congratulate the brothers.
“We were in tears,” Darnell remembered.
When Darryl and Darnell returned to the prison gallery, all of the other inmates and the guards erupted in joyful cheers and applause.
In 2017, Darryl and Darnell walked out of Five Points Correctional Facility as completely different men than when they walked in.
Darryl is now a counselor for at-risk youth and hopes to be enrolled at Columbia University in 2019. He then plans on getting his Master’s degree in social work.
Darnell is an undergraduate student at Cornell University and is studying government. He will graduate in 2021.
“I just want to dedicate the rest of my life to helping people become the best versions of themselves. That’s where my heart is,” Darryl said.