The author and speaker — a former meth addict who was sentenced to 65 years in a Texas prison — is now determined to help inmates and their families
Ringleader Damon West took another hit, held it for a long count, exhaled a thick plume of crystal meth and passed the glass pipe to his dealer Tex. This rundown apartment in Dallas, where the two had stolen so much property in three years to feed their insatiable methamphetamine addiction, had become a battlefield.
BOOM. West screamed as the smoking canister smashed out a window next to him that shattered in the living room. The flash grenade almost struck the side of West's face as he sunk into the couch. Blinded by the white lights, he tried to look up but could only feel the barrel of the SWAT officer's assault rifle digging into his eye socket.
It was Wednesday afternoon, July 30, 2008, and the Dallas Police Department closed in. Just 10 days before, the officers had arrested West's partner-in-crime, Dustin, for a stolen car. The Uptown Burglary ring — so they were called — had a dozen members whacked out on dope, invaded hundreds of homes and stole $1 million in property to score more drugs. It was like a scene from the TV show Breaking Bad, except this was real life. The situation was desperate.
"Don't move. Don't move," the SWAT officer — carrying a defensive shield with the rest of the crew — screamed at him.
"Don't worry, Don't worry," West shouted while pinned to the ground, disoriented and high, his hands behind his back.
"The Swat team didn't just arrest me that day. They rescued me," 47-year-old West — who had dreams of playing football, becoming a sports agent, having a family and even becoming an elected official — says now. "The police pulled me out of a situation I could have never gotten myself out of. I look back on it now that they were my angels in life — they just didn't have wings. They busted down the door with guns to pull me outta that world that I was in."
Childhood into Adulthood: October 1975 to November 2005
West grew up in a loving, well-connected family that instilled a traditional value system. His mother, Genie, was a nurse and his late father, Bob, was a sportswriter and editor at Port Arthur News for over 40 years and died in July of this year. West was the middle son, with an older brother, Brandon and a younger brother, Grayson. They had a stable and pampered upbringing, West recalls, but a traumatic incident changed the course of his life.
When West was 9, he was sexually molested by his female babysitter, who was age 18. "This babysitter introduced me to a lot of adult behaviors. Being a victim of sexual molestation was embarrassing and painful on so many levels," West wrote in his 2019 memoir The Change Agent: How a Former College QB Sentenced to Life in Prison Transformed His World.
Eventually West told his parents about the abuse that had gone on for six months. "I realized it wasn't right," says West. "My dad was really upset and my mom lost it. I remember her crying — I didn't see my mom cry a lot. It broke her. They felt guilty because they hired her to look after their children."
When his parents went to the Port Arthur Police Department in the mid-'80s to file a report, officials allegedly told his family that it would be hard to prove and urged them not to press charges. West says that's when his substance abuse began: He started drinking alcohol at age 10 and smoked marijuana at age 12. As he got older, his drug use was compounded by other obstacles.
West was the starting quarterback at University of North Texas. He was injured in September 1996 when three of the ligaments in his shoulder snapped off his distal clavicle bone during a game against Texas A&M University. After surgery West was left as a backup, watching his team from the sidelines. A year later, in June, after working out with his teammates and playing golf, he helped move his girlfriend to her new apartment. While showering off after a long day, a towel rack fell off the back wall and shattered on the side of the tub. It severed his left Achilles tendon, leaving him unable to walk.
"When that injury happened, my entire identity was wrapped up with being a Division I football player," says West. "My career officially ended. Once that was gone, I couldn't deal with life on life's terms. I started dealing with more drugs to deal with life. And it was cocaine, ecstasy, pills, mushrooms — just about any drug I could get my hands on."
In the spring of 1996, West rushed the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and partied hard. Once he couldn't play sports any longer, he acted out with alcohol, sex, more drugs and theft. Often under the influence, he was always at the center of mischief on the North Texas campus.
Once West graduated in 1999, he tried to focus on his career. He worked in the United States Congress as a staff assistant and went into political fundraising. Afterward he landed a job as a stockbroker for one of the largest banks in the world — the United Bank of Switzerland in Dallas — where he tried meth for the first time in 2004.
Always working late into the night, West needed help staying awake, he recalls. One of his coworkers noticed and told him he couldn't continue falling asleep when the markets were open. "You're gonna love this stuff," West says he was told by his colleague, who handed him crystal methamphetamine in the parking garage of their building.
"Truer words have never been spoken because I fell in love with meth. It is the most evil, most destructive, most addictive drug. It's made to get you hooked," says West. "I was instantly hooked the first time I smoked it."
After six weeks West was fired from his job. He learned quickly that his lifestyle wouldn't work. He burned through all his savings accounts and had no money left. He was evicted from his apartment, his car was repossessed and he was left homeless and craving more drugs. As his addiction grew, so did the desire to feed it.
Inside the meth houses where he camped out, West found himself in a world of crime. He started shoplifting and breaking into cars, storage units and garages. He would steal everything from iPods to GPS systems and garage openers.
West started becoming erratic: the meth created a rapid craving for more. He needed to commit crimes that paid off instantly, even at a high risk, so he burglarized often to get his next fix. Eventually he began breaking into homes and stealing everything he could.
"I tell people all the time, addicts — for the most part — they're not bad people," says West now. "They're sick people that do really bad things. And I was no different than any other addict. When I broke into people's homes, I didn't just steal their property. I stole something way more valuable from my victims, something I don't feel like my victims may ever get back. And that is their sense of security. And that's probably gone for good because of my addiction to methamphetamine and the choices that I made."
West grows quiet as his smile fades. "I could never replace that," he says.
Judgement Day: May 18, 2009
"It is my understanding that the jury has reached a unanimous verdict. Is that correct, sir?" Judge Mike Snipes asked the jury foreman in a Dallas courtroom in 2009.
West had known Judge Snipes as a federal prosecutor in the Northern District of Texas. He was introduced to him in the late '90s by his friend, Rankin Fulbright, a defense attorney in Texas when they were all hanging out on his yacht. West even bought Judge Snipes a beer in the early 2000s when they were in a trendy uptown bar in Dallas. Now, he was sentencing him to prison.
West's parents sat in the first row, directly behind their son, all six days of the trial. "How much time could a first-time felon, whacked out of his mind on meth while burglarizing dozens of homes but never hurt anyone, expect to receive?" West recalls thinking at the time.
His lawyer, Karen Lambert, told him that jurors were asking if the judge could give him life without parole. West's punishment would range between five to 99 years to life in prison.
"I was the most privileged guy you could imagine to sit in a courtroom," says West, who recalls being filled with fear and doubt as he awaited his verdict. "I am a White middle-class guy who had everything going for me in life. All the advantages, all the privileges, all of the opportunities that a human being could ever have was sitting across from this judge. This is the quarterback in college. This is the guy that worked on Wall Street and now he's this broken man that's the ringleader of a bunch of other meth addicts breaking into people's houses. Then, the jury made their decision in no time at all. It was an extremely steep decision for a first-offense non-violent crime."
In the end West was found guilty of a first-degree felony. So many thoughts were going through his mind: He was a drug addict, a notorious burglar and now the recipient of a 65-year prison sentence that took a jury all of 10 minutes to deliberate and deliver to him. For a man in his 30s, it was essentially a life sentence.
West was stunned. He realized he'd be living in confinement and could never vote again. His bail was set at $1.4 million and he owed a $10,000. But then the magnitude of his sentencing sunk in: He was going to spend the rest of his life in prison. Still, "I own my behavior," he says. "No one wants to hear excuses. I deserved it."
Dallas County Jail to Prison: May 2009 to November 2015
After his conviction West spoke with his parents for five minutes through a plexiglass partition. He promised his mother he would never get a swastika tattooed on his body or join a gang. He swore he would be a person they would recognize while serving his time.
"Mom, I'm scared. I am so sorry, Dad. I love ya'll—" were the final tearful words he said before he was escorted away to a life behind bars.
When he was first arrested in 2008, while under the harsh effects of detoxing off meth, West didn't know how he would survive and what he would do in jail. All he wanted was to get high again.
But then he met James Lynn Baker II, a seasoned criminal, a few weeks before his trial. He was a religious man who converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad. West nicknamed him "Mr. Jackson" when he got out of prison. He thought it was more fitting.
Baker told West that prison was all about race and that he'd have to fight if he didn't want to join a gang. "You don't have to win all your fights," Baker told him, "but you do have to fight all of your fights."
Baker then explained the story of the Coffee Bean, which is detailed in West's book The Coffee Bean: A Simple Lesson to Create Positive Change. (Through his Be a Coffee Bean foundation, West sponsors 30 children all over America who have an incarcerated parent, providing each child with up to $2,500 a year for the extracurricular activity of their choice until age 18.)
The story goes like this: Baker told West to imagine prison as a pot of boiling water in which he places three things — a carrot, an egg and a coffee bean — and sees how they change.
"You don't want to be the carrot," says West, who was told to avoid going in hard and turning soft after being beaten, raped or killed. As for the egg? The shell protects the egg on the outside, but inside its soft liquid core becomes hardened as the water boils. If an inmate becomes hardened, they are incapable of giving or receiving love and could become institutionalized, West explains.
The last option was the coffee bean, which has the potential of turning into a pot of coffee. The power was inside the coffee bean, just like the power was inside West to change the pot — or in this case — his time in prison.
"The last thing Mr. Jackson told me before I went into prison is to go out there and be a coffee bean," says West. "I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to turn that warm water into a pot of coffee."
Once West arrived at the Mark Stiles Unit in Beaumont, Texas — one of the toughest prisons in America — he was 230 pounds after gaining 55 pounds since his time playing football. He was out of shape, overweight and depressed in county jail, and the transition was difficult.
"I thought I was going to die," says West. "I had to fight the White gangs first, then the Black gangs. I didn't think I was going to survive."
After two months of violence and three dozen fights, West recalls, he was finally able to earn the respect of other inmates. "I got my butt kicked all over that prison. But I won all my fights because as Mr. Jackson told me — I didn't have to win — I just had to fight. And that's really true in life."
West's parents came to visit him over 150 times, which always uplifted his spirits. After two years, in July 2011, he joined AA and underwent the 12-step recovery process, eventually becoming the chapel clerk. He stopped looking at prison as a punishment and saw it as an opportunity to be the coffee bean.
West got help for his addictions and became a model inmate. Today, with the support of the Baker family, West also awards a $10,000 annual educational scholarship to one child in Dallas on behalf of his mentor, Mr. Jackson, who passed away in May 2017 from an opioid overdose.
"Prison was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was so difficult," says West. "Living through it in maximum security prisons, they are a place that is devoid of hope. But being a coffee bean changed my perspective on life. Hope is a good thing. And hope is the only thing that I found."
Parole Hearing to Freedom: March 2015 to May 1, 2015
"Do you think you got too much time?" West was asked during his parole hearing in 2015. The likelihood of being granted parole the first time on a life sentence is extremely low. He knew the answer wasn't an easy one. If he answered yes, he'd be seen as someone who hadn't taken responsibility for his actions. If he responded no, maybe they'd want him to serve more time. "I told her that I owned everything I had done and I've changed myself inside the prison," says West.
Flipping open West's parole packet on the desk, the representative for the parole board told him that she knew that he wanted to inspire others with his story and that he had been doing well in prison. She noted that West also had a letter from the chief of police in Beaumont.
"Do you know how many hundreds of letters I've read from police chiefs asking us to keep people in prison? I've never, in all these years working for parole, seen a letter from a chief asking us to let one of y'all go. Never," she said to West, according to his book.
"I'll tell you what I think. I think you got too much time," he remembers her saying.
Six weeks after West's parole hearing, his mother called the prison to tell her son that she checked the parole website for the decision in his case. "Damon, you didn't get denied. They granted your parole. The nightmare is over. Baby, you're coming home," his mom told him.
"I started crying," says West. "The tears were flooding down my face."
A New Beginning: Nov. 16, 2015
West's parents picked him up in 2015 to take him home after seven-and-a-half years in prison. For the rest of his life, he will pay $18 in perpetuity, be drug tested and have to get permission to travel. He won't be off parole until 2073 at 97 years old.
After prison West went back to college. He obtained his master's in criminal justice at Lamar University and became a professor at the Univerity of Houston downtown. He's a motivational speaker for sports teams like the Dallas Cowboys and The U.S. Army has even incorporated the #BeACoffeeBean mindset into their resilience training. West also created a prison curriculum that's being used today in Texas and frequently visits his former prison.
"I got to see a world that I never would have seen before and I have the ability to do something about it," he says. "I am the face of hope. And when you feel like you're the face of hope, you never forget the face of hope."
Three years after leaving prison West started dating nurse practitioner Kendell Romero, his first serious girlfriend. After several months she introduced him to her daughter Clara, and the three of them moved in together.
A year later — exactly 10 years to the day West was sentenced to life in prison — the couple got married. "I get emotional talking about this," West says, holding back tears. "It's one of those things that I didn't think was possible for a guy like me that had made the choices I made."
West looks up and takes a deep breath. "I do think people can change. Look at me. I mean, look at my life. I'm proof of it. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the parole board — they see me as an ally. I'm someone that they turn to for help inside the prisons," he says. "I'm the guy that they can point to and say that rehabilitation works."
West believes, though, that it takes a village. When people are released from prison, they need to have resources and help, he underscores.
They also need forgiveness. "I think that's something that society has to change. We've got to be more accepting of the fact that people can't change what they did wrong, but people do deserve that second chance," says West. "If I can be the coffee bean, so can anyone."
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