Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Cville man's surprising path to prison reform

Jesse Crosson
Jesse Crosson
Jesse Crosson and friend campaign for prison reform.

Tik Tok is a place to share homemade videos on almost any subject – like cooking or cute kids, or the latest dance craze from Asia.

But a Charlottesville man is using TikTok to talk about a serious subject and to share his story.

“My name is Jesse Crosson," he begins. "At the age of 17 I found cocaine and within three months I went from a kid taking a year off from college to completely out of control. I committed a robbery to get money for more drugs. I committed a non-fatal shooting, and I was arrested, which was a blessing – the only thing that saved my life.”

He had no criminal record, and sentencing guidelines suggested he could be out of prison in ten years, but a judge gave him 32. When Crosson recovered from the shock, he decided to make the best of a terrible situation.

“I had family that supported me," he recalls. "I was able to earn a bachelor’s degree, became an electrician. I mentored other people. I tutored – did everything I could to better myself and improve the lives of those around me. After almost 19 years last August, Governor Northam granted me a conditional pardon.”

Now, he’s talking about prison on TikTok – helping people to see the humanity behind bars. He tells tales, for example, about one of his cell mates.

“They popped the door of the cell for me to go in, and there was this little old man sitting in front of his TV drinking coffee, and I thought, ‘This is a roommate I can deal with. He’s not young and crazy. He’s not going to be loud,’ and it worked out great! We had good conversations and watched Jeopardy. I really liked the guy.’

And he’s shared Greg’s wisdom with half a million followers.

“When he was in Vietnam he would make everyone in his unit shave every morning and take a nip of liquor every night, because he said it’s important to have a sense of normalcy. No matter how bad the insanity, no matter how bad the chaos, we have to make it comprehensible by putting borders on the beginning and end of each day.”

Which sounds crazy when you find out that Greg was a serial killer. Jesse Crosson says the guy may never be fit for release, but he wants Virginia to give prisoners a second look. Sometimes, he says, judges or juries get things wrong.

“We’re asking judges to be fortune tellers. We need you to know how long before he’s safe again? And there’s no way a judge can be expected to know that.”

And our current system might actually put the public at risk.

“We have people in prison who are getting out because they got short sentences who are definitely a danger, who are definitely going to re-offend and hurt someone, and there are people in prison who have turned their lives around, who are never going to do anything again and are going to stay in prison while that dangerous person is released.”

A national think tank called the Collateral Consequences Resource Center recently gave Virginia pretty good grades when it comes to helping prisoners return to society. This state ranked #16 – ahead of its neighbors – North Carolina, Maryland and West Virginia, but Crosson says we need more training, work-release programs and halfway houses to help inmates make that transition.

And longer term, he’d like to see a very different approach to punishment and corrections.

“We basically decided we’re going to take people who can’t function in society, lock them away together and then wonder why they can’t function in society when they get out. It’s a really illogical model.”

But it appears Virginia’s new governor and lieutenant governor don’t watch TikTok. Crosson has had no luck getting in touch with either of them. He has, however, spoken to state lawmakers and is setting his sights on the next legislative session to try and find common ground with opponents of reform and to begin making changes.

To learn more about Crosson and his non-profit Pri-Zen, go to