Marine veteran, football star turned life around after drug convictions
By Don Chaddock, InsideCDCR editor
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer
In the early 1970s, poverty-stricken Compton’s murder rate was second only to Los Angeles. A young black man named David Earl White knew this all too well – it was his home.
“In Compton, people were dying and they didn’t even get an obituary in the newspaper,” he said recently from within the walls of San Quentin State Prison. “I was putting my life on the line on the streets of Compton. I figured if I went to Vietnam, and instead put my life on the line for my country, if I died, at least my family would get $20,000 and I would get a flag on my casket.”
White served as a U.S. Marines in Vietnam from 1973-1975. After his release, he went to college but found himself immersed in the drug culture. In the mid-1980s, he was twice convicted of felony narcotics charges.
“Sitting in the county jail, I knew this wasn’t where I wanted my life to go,” he said. So he decided to do something about it.
White isn’t an inmate at the state’s oldest penitentiary – he’s an employee. And on Christmas Eve, 2014, Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. issued White a full and unconditional pardon for those drug offenses committed decades before.
White’s story is one he hopes can help others struggling on the streets.
Turning to drugs for money
“I was raised on welfare without a father,” he said. “I was raised with the rats and the roaches.”
He said his single mother did the best she could for him and his siblings, but there wasn’t enough food.
He sold items door-to-door to help with money, but he was getting 30 cents on the dollar. Then he was introduced to drugs.
“I was intrigued by the fact if I sold weed, I didn’t have to share the profits,” he said. “I’ve always been an athlete, even back in the Pop Warner days. So I had one foot on the field and one foot in the drug culture. … It was a struggle growing up there.”
He went from the streets of Compton to the dangers of war, but he said it gave him some stability.
“I saw my life spiraling into the wrong direction,” he said of his early years in Compton. “When I joined the military, it was the first time I got three meals a day.”
Leading a double life
He returned home as a war-time veteran and played football at Compton Community College, but kept his hand in the drug culture.
“I broke a record at Compton CC for interception returns,” he recalled.
Film from the play made its way into the hands of the coach from San Francisco State University.
“When I almost lost my life in the violence in Compton, I thought the best thing was to get to San Francisco,” he said.
But college, particularly a university, was an academic challenge for someone who hadn’t excelled in his studies. He spent the first few years taking easier courses and continuing to pour his heart into the game. When he could no longer skate by on easy classes, he found himself on academic probation.
“I learned to read and write in college,” he said. “I had to take certain courses to graduate and I failed them all. I was on probation for three years and it took me almost six years to graduate.”
One of his early life lessons of success was simply perseverance.
“That was key – staying in school and finishing,” he said. He credits his coach with believing in him and pushing him to do better.
Despite all this, drugs still played a big role.
“Dealing drugs was still a part of my life, especially in the 1980s,” he recalled.
Finally, his double life caught up with him. White said one of his first times getting busted was for possessing drug paraphernalia. Later, it was for dealing drugs.
“When I spent time in the county jail and the work furlough program, I knew that wasn’t the place to be,” he said.
On the road to recovery
White earned a living driving tractor trailers and used the money to attend seminary school.
“To not sell drugs, I was willing to work driving trucks,” he said.
He ended up earning a master’s degree in biblical studies.
Later, he started coaching high school sports, which then led him to coaching some college teams.
“I worked with the athletes to help keep them on track and developed a program to monitor them on a weekly basis,” he said.
It was his way of trying to prevent others from going down a dead-end path.
He started working with others in drug and alcohol treatment programs, but as a convicted felon, he always had to strive to prove himself even more.
“I always said, ‘If you hire me, I’ll be here every day,’” he recalled. “The felony situation is always there.”
Where he is today
White is currently a Recreation Therapist with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, working with inmates at San Quentin. He’s worked for the department for six years.
“The pivotal part was staying in school and struggling, and learning from it,” he said.
He runs the Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the prison. He also connects inmates with opportunities for self-improvement.
“(Most) of the people are in here because of choices they made on mind-altering drugs,” he said. “They think they are strong enough to deal with their addictions, and they’re not.”
For many inmates, landing at San Quentin is the first time they’ve truly had to face their addictions and the consequences of their actions, according to White.
“Mind-altering, mood-changing drugs are devastating to personal growth,” he said. “They’ve been on these drugs for years before coming here and now they have time to look at that. They have lots of time to look at that more closely.”
Currently he connects them with education resources to help them learn to read and write, as well as learn job skills, such a driving forklifts or trucks, or deal with issues such as anger management.
“A lot of guys coming into prison have a second- to fourth-grade education level,” White said. “I tell the inmates to take full advantage of time while doing time.”
He said many think of themselves as victims of their circumstances but White’s personal story of struggle and drugs allows him to connect with the inmates.
“We tell people to stop looking outside yourself and look inside you,” he said.
What does the future hold?
On a personal level, White is back in school as well.
“To keep this job, I had to go back to take eight courses,” he said. “I made the honor roll for the first time in my life. It’s great being sober. … I’m in school now to get my certification as a counselor for alcohol and drugs.”
He’d also like to do more to help inmates with their transition back into society.
“Re-entry is crucial to me,” he said. “I have a passion for that.”
He said the pardon from the Governor helps validate the path his life has taken and what he’s doing to help others.
“It solidifies the opportunity given to me,” White said. “All these people in my life were a part of giving me the opportunities. They had faith in me.”
He said while he’s turning 60 years old, he knows there is much more in store for him.
“It’s a miracle for me to be here,” he said. “But, I would like to further my career and do more.”