Jerry Balone stands off to the side, largely unnoticed by the more than 80 high school freshmen filing into the Niagara Falls High School amphitheater. The group is chatty – some are laughing and sharing stories while others are busy texting. It takes just two sentences from Balone to get their attention and hold them in rapt silence for the next hour.
“On Aug. 17, 2007, I was released from prison after serving 37 and a half years in 17 prisons across New York state,” he says. “I served 37 and a half years because I killed three people during a robbery.”
Balone delivers the words with the practiced measure of a man who has told his story many times. But on this day, with the students hearing it for the first time from the man with the dark, probing eyes and an imposing physique that belies his age, a stunned silence falls over the room. Their faces show shock, disbelief and what someone later described as morbid curiosity.
Balone says he isn’t worried about how students react to his story, as long as he gets their attention. He wants to reach them with his message of making good personal choices – better than the ones he made that led to his first arrest at age 8. Balone had already served 3 1/2 years in prison when he murdered three people during a home invasion on April 24, 1973. He was originally sentenced to a term of 50 years to life in prison with a recommendation he never be released,
“When I speak to a group, I know they aren’t all going to embrace what I’m saying and love me,” the 59-year-old Balone says after the presentation. “Some of them may advocate for my death; others may think I should still be in prison. But I want all of them to hear what I have to say.”
So what does he have to say? That the lifestyle he led prior to his imprisonment was about gangs, drugs, crime sprees and eventually murder – and that it can happen to anyone.
He grew up on the rough streets of East Buffalo, abandoned at birth and raised in a series of orphanages, foster homes and, eventually, reform schools. And now, here he is addressing a group of suburban teens. He quickly clears up any notion that his experiences can’t happen to them because of their ZIP code.
“I tell them that every prison I was in, there were plenty of these little suburban kids coming in all the time,” he said. “Most of them are there for drug offenses, and once you are inside, it don’t matter where you are from.”
More than three years after defying the odds and earning parole from prison on his seventh attempt, Balone returned to the East Side. He lives in a house one block from where he grew up and two blocks from the house where he committed the murders. A convicted felon on strict lifetime probation, he earns a living working part-time in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center and scrapes by doing odd jobs and cleaning houses. It is humbling work for a man who entered prison with a fifth-grade education and left with two master’s degrees. But that too, is the message he shares with the students.
“I tell them, ‘Without an education, you’ve got no shot in this world.’ For me, even with all of my degrees, I’m in a job that requires a high school diploma,” Balone says.
It can be frustrating, but he knows he has no one to blame but himself for his career limitations. It was a long process of healing that eventually made him let go of his anger, end what he calls “the blame game” and accept that he will never truly be free from his past.
“Who is going to hire a convicted murder?” he tells students. “No one.”
Instead of dwelling on his limitations, however, he channels his energy into going around Western New York and reaching out to students, some as young as 13. He aims to show them that the “thug lifestyle” glorified on television and in music is far from a life they want to choose for themselves.
Though he regularly gets requests to travel and speak around the globe, some of the more than 20 conditions of his parole make that impossible. Instead, he spreads the message by giving radio interviews and by speaking to “whoever will have me.”
“These kids have no idea what prison life is like,” he says. “I try my best to show them that you don’t want to be the person I was, and prison isn’t a place anyone wants to end up.”
For Balone, the chance to speak not only to students but to churches, community groups and businesses is, in his mind, a small step each day along a road to redemption.
“I know I can’t ever take back what I’ve done in my life,” he says. “All I can do is try to do some good things with the time I have left.”
On this day, as he winds down the presentation, there’s a light moment for the teens who have been literally on the edge of their seats for the better part of an hour. He offers a glimpse inside his family, which includes a cousin who spent time on Florida’s death row and another serving a lengthy prison term in Elmira for murder.
“The funny thing is, I’m the only normal one in my family,” he says.
That brings laughter, the easy kind of laughter that was present when class began. It’s clear that he has reached the students with his message.
After sharing that he never used a computer, dialed a phone or surfed the internet while serving nearly four decades behind bars, he smiles and says, “Now I’m on Facebook!”
A dozen students immediately pull out their phones to “friend” him, hoping to be one of the nearly 4,000 friends he has on the popular social networking site.
After he concludes his remarks, students flock to the front to get his business card and pose for photos. Recalling the crimes he committed and the lives he affected, Balone is quick to downplay the star power he sometimes commands. He says it is simply a chance to connect with the students and make them think about their own life decisions.
“People say to me all the time, ‘Well, if you reach just one person in the room, you’ve made a difference.’
I don’t do this to reach one student,” he says. “I do it to reach every one of them.”
Connect with Jerry on FaceBook
and visit his website at GTBspeaks.com you can order his book via the website.