Ransom Watkins was only 17 years old when he was wrongfully convicted of a murder he did not commit. “I knew I was there for something I did not do, and so I knew I would be coming home someday,” Ransom said of his experience in prison. Although conditions in prison were horrific, Ransom never gave up hope and worked hard to prepare for life outside of prison. He got a job, saving $300 to $400 a month, and mentored other youths in prison. “You are not who they say you are. You do not need to be stuck here,” he told his mentees.
Ransom was finally exonerated in 2019 after losing 36 years of his life to prison. Since then, Ransom has taken full advantage of freedom. He bought a house, got his driver’s license, and, most importantly, married the love of his life, Carolyn: “She is my rock – I don’t know what I would do without her.”
Ransom has also been picking up old hobbies. He first fell in love with horse-riding when he was 13 and working as an arabber, selling fruits from a horse-drawn cart. “We would work all week and then get to ride the horses on Sundays,” Ransom recalled. After he got out of prison, he was eager to take up the reins again. Nowadays, he enjoys taking Buddy, his neighbor’s friend’s horse, on long rides. “Horse-riding helps me relax,” Ransom said. “Buddy is a super calm, super patient horse.”
His neighbor introduced him to The Schuster Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with Baltimore after-school and child-care programs to teach kids horse-riding. Ransom immediately signed up to volunteer. “I grew up in the city, so I never had a chance to work on a farm,” he explained. At the Foundation, Ransom has formed bonds with many of the kids in the riding program. One girl, he recounted, “was really shy, so I spent a lot of time walking around with her on her horse.” His patience paid off: the girl opened up to him, and they became good friends.
Ransom also regularly volunteers at the Bridgeway Community Church, where he helps out in the food pantry and works with kids who are dealing with trauma and emotional issues. His experiences in prison help him connect with these kids. Just like how he guided his mentees in prison, he wants to show the kids that “there is another path for them. I want to give them a different taste of life.”
The first step in empowering kids, Ransom believes, is to “give them something to do.” He has worked hard to improve the variety of recreational activities available for kids in his old neighborhood. He donated a snowball machine — “it has all the colors and flavors!” — and he plans to organize a roller skates donation drive for the neighborhood recreation center. His ultimate dream is to start a foundation for kids.
“I’m still a kid myself — I never had a chance to really be a kid,” Ransom said, reflecting on the years he lost to prison. He has lost not only time, but also loved ones whom he will never be able to see again. “The [criminal-legal] system doesn’t understand the impact that can have,” he said. But he feels lighter when he is teaching kids horse-riding or donning silly costumes for them at church. “Seeing the kids’ smiles lights me up.”