From Drug Addiction to Dean’s List
Gulf War veteran David Hudgens spent 20 years in and out of prison, including time at the Arlington County Jail. Now he's starting a new life.
Hudgens at his apartment today.
David Hudgens sits on a campus bench at Northern Virginia Community College. He grew up in Washington, D.C., but he greets a fellow student in Amharic, getting the pronunciation almost right.
“People like it when you try to connect with them,” Hudgens says, as the man, who is from Ethiopia, grins broadly. “Look, there’s the dean. How’re you doing, Dean?” Liberal Studies Dean Jimmie McClellan, en route to his car, waves back.
Dressed in his trademark shirt and tie, and wearing horn-rimmed glasses, Hudgens could pass for a dean himself. But at 48, he is a student, working on a new beginning.
He hops to his feet when William “Will” Blake III, who is roughly half his age, crosses the grassy lawn to greet him. The two study together, and Hudgens has given out some good advice, Blake says: on school, on taking life seriously—even on women. “He’s a motivational individual,” Blake says. “He sees the potential in everyone.” Hudgens has “life experience,” he says.
Not all of the students in their study group know, as Blake does, that Hudgens’ life experience includes jail time. Hudgens lets it out slowly on campus, where, after a nervous start, he is beginning to feel at home. He wants people to know who he is before they judge him, he says. Then he might mention that he used to drink and do drugs, or that he was arrested because his substance abuse led him to scheme, steal, forge checks and commit credit-card fraud.
“If a person gets to see you, what your attributes are…before they find out, they can be more accepting, not just of you, but of the next person like you,” says Hudgens, who, between 1992 and 2012, was arrested more than 20 times.
A “repeat offender,” he was incarcerated in a number of Virginia jails, including Arlington’s. He left jail the last time on May 17, 2013. This time, he says, there will be no going back.
HUDGENS GREW UP in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C., the youngest in a family with two parents, three brothers and two sisters. His mother died of breast cancer in 1983, three weeks after he graduated from Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School. Still, he moved forward to attend Boston University, majoring in biomedical engineering. But his dad shut down after his mother died, he says. Just before Hudgens’ sophomore year of college, his dad died, too, “of loneliness, pretty much.”
Hudgens dropped out of school and stayed in D.C. He started using drugs, even though he knew that would have disappointed his parents. To get away from trouble and “the lure of the streets,” he joined the Navy in 1986, eventually serving in Desert Storm and Desert Shield. When he came home from his deployment, he got married. He and his wife settled in Hampton where they had a son, Jonathan.
But images from the war in Iraq stayed with him. Part of his job, he explains, had been recovering bodies from capsized ships, including small boats of refugees trying to flee Kuwait. Men. Women. Children.
Hudgens went back to drinking and drugs, which led to a dishonorable discharge from the military in 1992. Then his marriage fell apart and his wife and son left Hampton for Maryland, where his wife had grown up. “It sent me into a major tailspin,” he says.
Until that time, he says, his record had been clean, save for a speeding ticket. But later in 1992, he was arrested for forging checks. He’d used the money to fund his drug habit, he says. He went to jail in Tidewater.
After he was released, his drug use continued. He’d land a job and then get fired. “Well, not fired. I fired myself because I stopped showing up on time,” he says.
“Something in me, that addiction would say: You don’t need that job. You need to spend your 24 hours a day with me, and me alone.”
Jonathan Hudgens, now 24 and living in Florida, says he would see his father every six months or so. “He’d just be around for a while and then something would happen and he wouldn’t be around. I remember being young and thinking he was just smoking cigarettes. I thought about getting him a Nicorette patch. I never asked too much about it. It’s just how it was. With my friends, a lot of the kids were with [their] mothers, and the fathers were off somewhere doing something.”
By 2004, “something” for Hudgens meant substances ranging from marijuana and cocaine to OxyContin—“whatever I could find.” He was moving around a lot, following drugs in and out of Virginia and sleeping in abandoned buildings, including a few in Arlington. He got free lunches when the churches handed them out.
At that point, life became cyclical. He would return to jail, go free and go back to jail. None of the charges were specifically for drugs, he says, but they were all drug-related—for having paraphernalia, for instance, or for crimes related to obtaining money to fuel his habit.
When he was in jail the first time, he says, he learned about credit-card fraud and tried it. In Arlington, where he’d used and delivered illegal substances, his arrest was for stealing deodorant, shampoo and toothpaste from a CVS—items he could sell for a quick buck.
This in-and-out-of-jail pattern isn’t unusual, says Gail Arnall, executive director of the Arlington nonprofit OAR (Offender Aid and Restoration), a restorative justice organization whose goal is “to assist offenders in leading productive and responsible lives.” She says that 95 percent of people who are jailed in America—those who are not in for life—come home at some point. But within three years of release, about half of them go back.
In Virginia, 26 percent of those released from prison are back behind bars within a year. Hudgens was a part of that statistic before he became a client at OAR, where the one-year recidivism rate is 8 percent. (The organization has not done a study on its three-year rate.) He recalls one time before he became an OAR client when he got out of jail on a Friday and was arrested for shoplifting the following Wednesday. He’d received drug treatment and therapy in jail, but it had done little to curtail his habit.
That might have been the bottom, he says, along with the depression that came even during the times he had money. “I was empty on the inside. I just felt insignificant in my life.”
He thought about suicide, put his hand on a gun. “And then the God of my understanding stepped in.”
In 2012, Hudgens was arrested for credit-card fraud and identity theft. He was in jail for more than a year in Fairfax and Loudon County. When he was released, he had nothing. His only clothes were the shorts and T-shirt he’d gotten at the Alexandria Community Shelter from one of the counselors who, like him, stood just above 6 feet tall.
Hudgens usually had some sort of scheme going, but not this time. “I was like, what am I going to do now?” He wasn’t sure. He only knew it would include living.
AT THE HOMELESS shelter, Hudgens shared a room with three other men. He spent his days doing odd jobs, cleaning old buildings or moving furniture. The money he earned helped him get transportation to see his probation officer.
One day, one of his roommates at the shelter let him use a Metro fare card that he’d gotten from OAR. “You should try it,” the roommate said.
It wasn’t like Hudgens had anything better to do. And the hope of being eligible for a fare card was enough to get him in the door at OAR’s office, which is located across from the Arlington County Courthouse.
But other things made him stay, starting with Reentry Coaching Services Manager Jennie Altieri, who conducted his intake interview. “I remember her looking me in the eye,” he says. “She said, ‘It’s going to be a really long road, but we’re going to be a success. There are challenges, but if you want success, it’s victory over a challenge.’ ”
She talked and listened, he says. She still does.
Once Hudgens was accepted by the program, he joined everything. He took part in the advocacy group, learning about current civil rights struggles for black men like himself, particularly young black men who were incarcerated. He learned about the movement to “ban the box”—the part of a job application that requires applicants to disclose their criminal history—and started speaking up at meetings with politicians. (Currently, five Virginia cities, including Richmond, have banned the box, Arnall says. Alexandria removed it from local government applications, as did Target stores nationwide, though managers are still able to ask about it during the interview process. OAR coaches clients on how to discuss their criminal history, urging them to be up front about it.)
Hudgens also took public speaking, along with parenting courses, even though his son was fully grown.
Eventually, he received a tuition grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and started school. (Grants from other state and local agencies help to cover school supplies, transportation and housing. He also receives food stamps and the occasional stipend for public speaking.)
“I had a lot of self-doubt,” Hudgens says. “I’m thinking: I am 48 years old, I’m going to school with people younger than my son.”
He was convinced to give it a try when David Butenas, the reentry employment services manager at OAR, told him, ‘The time is going to pass either way. Why not have a degree?’ ”
Now Hudgens is one of the top-performing students in his class. “He is helping others the same way that others once helped him,” Butenas says.
ASK HUDGENS about OAR and he’ll run down a list of things he’s learned, quoting bits of wisdom in perfect sound bites. Don’t ask him about OAR and he’ll work it into the conversation. “I’ve seen so many doors open,” he says, his voice deep and resonant.
When the nonprofit celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year, Hudgens was at the microphone, delivering a speech in front of 300 people. “Through OAR, I’ve gained a greater dignity about myself,” he says.
“They told me I could be not just a member of society, but a leader.”
Inside OAR’s offices on Uhle Street, music plays to drown out any confidential conversation in the cubicles. Along with helping clients with reentry after incarceration, the agency provides classes for individuals who are in jail in Arlington and Alexandria. It also oversees community service for people who have been assigned hours by the courts—or those whose lawyers suggest it before a court date to make a good impression on judges and juries.
During the 2014 fiscal year, OAR oversaw more than 1,700 clients in its community service division. Hudgens was one of 622 reentry clients.
Operating with a budget of $1.2 million, the organization relies heavily on volunteers. “I tell people we have 112 on staff, but only 12 get paid,” Arnall says. OAR also depends on local businesses for everything from food donations for meetings to a willingness to hire employees who have served their time. A closet behind the conference room includes donated suits and shoes that clients can borrow for job interviews.
Most of those who receive help with reentry have been released in the past six months. The agency also serves as a clearinghouse and directs clients to other programs, says Katy Steinbruck, director of reentry services.
Hudgens, for instance, was directed to medical care, to follow up on a diagnosis of PTSD that he’d received in jail. Because of this, he says, his Navy discharge was reconsidered and he was recently able to start getting benefits.
When he tells his own life story, Hudgens is quick to point out that he’s not the exception. “There are lots of people trying to get back on their feet, and they’re succeeding,” he says.
He helps out by bringing tips from his networking to the OAR communication group that meets on Fridays at an Alexandria church. For example, he found out during his commute that there were job openings for people to clean out the buses at the end of the day. “Is it okay if they have a record?” Hudgens asked a Metro manager. When the answer was “yes,” the contact information went up on a board.
“I’ve been out for over a year. But some of those clients got out just last week,” he says empathetically. They’re scared and they don’t know what to do. “I’ve been through that.”
Before OAR, Hudgens tried other reentry programs. But he was never really committed, and each time he returned to old habits and mistakes. Not this time, he says.
“On the streets, we have a phrase that goes real recognize real. It means that you can tell when someone’s being phony. And you can tell who’s got your back and that’s OAR. You can recognize that these people, they truly, truly want to help us.”
IT IS, OF COURSE, day by day. Hudgens goes to recovery meetings four times a week in Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax, and to his meetings at OAR. He still can’t drive and he’s on a monthly payment plan to pay fines and make restitution. His total, he says, is around $8,000, and he’s chipping away at it, $30 at a time with money he gets from odd jobs. He hopes to be in a better position to pay it back once he’s done with school.
“It hasn’t been a cakewalk,” he says. “Early on, especially when I was still in the shelter, there was always that thought.” About drinking. About drugs or stealing. “But I choose not to do that. My prayer as I start the day is that my choices won’t lead me back down the road that I’ve come from.”
If a thought of going back down that road does flicker across his brain, he acknowledges it, he says. “And I’m able to reach out. I have people in my circle and my network that I can call. People in recovery, ex-offenders, spiritually good people who give me encouragement.”
Hudgens with his family on Thanksgiving, 2009
He visits family. He goes to church. When he sees friends from his former life, he says hello but he doesn’t stick around long. People are respectful when they see you’re doing something different, he says.
Although he dropped his official role as a peer mentor at NOVA when his courseload increased, he still takes on that role informally. He does the same at OAR, where he met Adryann Glenn, 35, who became a client after four years in prison. “I’d never been to prison before,” says Glenn, who was incarcerated on drug-related charges. Though he had a place to live, Glenn says, “I was still lost. I didn’t know how to get back in society and be a citizen again.”
Hudgens was bursting with positivity and ideas. “He says, ‘You can do this.’ He’s like a big brother to me.”
They talk just about every day, though they are both busier now—Hudgens with school, and Glenn with barber school and an internship at a hair salon. “We give each other inspiration, motivation and encouragement,” Hudgens says.
Last spring, Hudgens, who hopes to finish his associate degree and go on to a bachelor’s in business administration, made the Dean’s list with a 3.75 GPA. In August, he was listed as a Presidential Scholar in recognition of his high GPA, which held steady over more than 20 credit hours.
When he’s not studying, Hudgens focuses on his son. “I’d never been a father to him,” he says. “I’d been in and out of his life for 20 years.”
He holds up his cellphone proudly, the way some parents would hold up a child’s drawing. “He texts me,” Hudgens says. “Things like ‘good luck on your exam today.’ ”
During a visit last year, he taught Jonathan a new chicken recipe. A photo of the two of them sits on his desk at home, “for inspiration.”
Asked if his father seems different, compared to other times he’s tried to start again, Jonathan Hudgens thinks a minute. “It’s definitely a different vibe,” he says. When Jonathan was young, he says, his father “was always about hustles. But this time it’s not about a hustle. It’s long term. It’s his life.”
AFTER LIVING IN a homeless shelter, Hudgens likes to tell people that he now has three keys: one for his apartment not far from the Mixing Bowl, courtesy of a city housing grant; one for his mailbox; and one for his laundry room.
He has two couches, which OAR helped him find through another resource, and a TV, though it sits, unplugged (he doesn’t have cable), while he works on a jigsaw puzzle. He sometimes listens to faith-based radio, but he also likes the quiet—something he didn’t have in jail or in the shelter.
On a small table in his living room is a card from his recovery group, congratulating him on “another year clean.”
His new life also includes “a lady friend,” he says, whom he recently introduced to his brothers and sisters at a family picnic. When he decided he was serious about her, he gave her the CliffsNotes version of his life, so there wouldn’t be any surprises. “The Lord really had his hand on you,” she said.
He has a new attitude, heavily steeped in gratitude, which is something Altieri, his reentry coach, noticed early on. “His gratitude inspires me. He always says that anybody can be grateful when things are going your way, but how do you act when things aren’t going your way?”
At his desk, Hudgens finishes his schoolwork and writes—poetry, some fiction about a rabbit that hangs out near his apartment building, some nonfiction about being incarcerated. A shelf nearby is draped with ties. “Wearing a tie helps me monitor my behavior in public,” he explains.
The ties and furnishings were donated, but the houseplant near the sliding door to his balcony is something Hudgens found himself, last December, soon after he moved into his own space.
“I looked out from this porch and saw it near the dumpster,” he says.
Remembering his dad as having a green thumb, Hudgens thought he’d try some gardening, too. According to the Internet, the plant was a yucca. He took it in, pulled off all of the dead leaves, gave it some sun. Slowly, it came back, its green, spiky leaves pointing straight up.
“It’s just like me,” Hudgens says. “Stripped clean, but new growth.”
Arlington-based OAR (Offender Aid and Restoration) is part of a larger movement that holds at its core the idea of “restorative justice.” The Arlington County effort was started in 1974 by a group of local women who volunteered in the jails. The organization helps inmates prepare to reenter society and offers support once they’re released. It also provides supervision for adults and juveniles who are assigned to do community service. Forty years later, OAR still relies heavily on volunteers and donations. Want to help make a difference? Here are some of the main items on the nonprofit’s wish list, as posted in brochures and on its website.
• Employment opportunities for clients
• Volunteers and tutors
• Office and school supplies
• Backpacks and travel sacks
• $20 Target gift cards
• $15 SmarTrip fare cards
• $15 fast-food gift cards
For more information, visit oaronline.org.
Madelyn Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Arlington. Her books for children include Dream Boy, How to Behave at a Tea Party and Nanny X.