West shares prison story to keep others out

Published 4:21 pm Wednesday, February 24, 2016


PORT NECHES — Standing in front of a group of about 50 Port Neches-Groves High School students, it would be hard to imagine that the guest speaker had spent years behind bars for a crime that made headlines, and cost his family so much.

Yet, standing there, dressed in a polo shirt and khaki slacks, the handsome onetime high school quarterback is only months out of prison. His story is still fresh, and one that he hopes students will listen to.

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“Your actions have consequences,” Damon West told the group of at-risk students attending the “Talk with the Judge” event sponsored by Judge Brad Burnett, Jefferson County Precinct 7 Justice of the Peace.

Related story: “Rosary, mother’s advice helped survive hell on earth”

Texas truancy laws have changed starting with this school year, making it harder for school districts to send truancy cases to court.

More time spent out of class is more time the students can get in trouble and possibly head down the slippery road of alcohol and drug abuse, which many times leads to crime and ultimately to doing time.

As part of the state-mandated Behavior Management Plan, Burnett has volunteered to talk with students about the importance of education and attending class.

The program will feature guests such as West, who share their real life struggles in the hope that students make the changes in their lives now, before they too find themselves in trouble.

“Let my life be an example to others, a warning of what not to do,” the now 40-year-old said.

In November, West was released early from a 65-year prison sentence for engaging in organized criminal activity. Like so many others, West’s crimes came behind drug and alcohol abuse — in his case methamphetamine, or “crystal” as it is known among those who abuse the dangerous drug.

West was living in Dallas at the time of his arrest, and was just 33 years old. His life had started out promising. In his hometown of Port Arthur West was the quarterback for Thomas Jefferson’s Yellow Jackets football team in 1994. After graduation he attended the University of North Texas State on a college football scholarship before injury sidelined him.

He finished his college studies with a degree in sociology and worked for Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt’s campaign in 2004 alongside former Texas Land Commissioner Gary Mauro, who served as Gephardt’s Texas chairman.

After Gephardt failed to clinch his party’s nomination, West moved to Dallas, where his descent into drug and alcohol abuse took hold, culminating in West’s arrest for more than 30 burglaries in the Dallas area, and a prison sentence that many felt was meant to make an example of the one-time golden boy.

“Prison is a place where the only language spoke is violence,” he told the at-risk students.

West detailed prison life to the students: the fights, the gangs, the deep depression, and the guilt.

“It’s the one place where you are never alone, but are always lonely,” he said.

He showed the students the contents of a cardboard box that held his belongings in prison. A small fan that served as the air conditioner in his cell, a hot pot for cooking, a radio, and a plastic bowl.

“Everything in prison is plastic because metal could be used as a weapon,” he said.

Things happen in prison — people get raped in prison, he said.

The worst part was knowing what he had done to his family, the emotional and financial toll placed on his family because of the bad choices he made.

“We make our choices, our selfish decisions, but the biggest victims we make is our families. I locked them up with me. Every time they came to see me they got searched, their cars got searched,” he said.

The only way he survived prison and came out ready to do what it took to make changes that would keep him from going back was the love and support of his family, and taking his mother’s advice to get close to God.

“God carried me through the whole time,” he said.

Since West gained his freedom a short three months ago, he has been blessed with a good job at Provost Umphrey Law Firm.

“They gave me a job, they took a big chance on me,” he said. “God opened up a lot of doors.”

West said he knows today he cannot drink alcohol, or abuse drugs. He is in a program of recovery that includes helping others.

He hopes his story will resonate with young people, and plans to talk to as many as he can.

His job, he said, has been supportive and allowed him to take off when he had opportunity to speak with young people and share his cautionary tale.

“Getting out of prison was not the end of my story. That’s why I go to talk to as many kids as I can. I have been given a second chance at life, and I want it to be devoted to others, to helping others learn to make the good choices that will keep them out of trouble.”

E-mail: sherry.koonce@panews.com

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