Sean Walker was 11 months out of prison and busy at work when a missed call from the governor flashed on his cellphone.
Gov. Nathan Deal was calling to offer Walker a seat at his inaugural address Jan. 12 and to invite him to lunch at the mansion beforehand.
For four years, and under two governors, Walker had worked a prison detail at the mansion, serving meals to dignitaries and coordinating events for lawmakers and guests of the governor’s wife.
He had never even sat on the cushioned seats, the ones in front of the crisp table cloths, much less been an honored guest.
So Walker, 48, took the day off work, put on a pinstriped suit and drove to Atlanta with his father.
During the inaugural address, Walker listened as Deal spoke about initiatives of his first term in office, primarily the criminal justice reforms that have helped offenders re-enter society and start productive lives.
“I was like, OK, this is good, but I said, ‘Why is he talking about this at the inauguration?’” Walker remembers. “Why is he talking about prison stuff?”
Deal then began to describe a man in Augusta who had left prison and made something of himself.
“I was like, oh my God,” Walker said. “He started telling my whole story.”
“A former inmate by the name of Sean has proven that a helping hand, a pleasant demeanor and persistence in the face of adversity go a long way in shaping a person’s future,” Deal said.
Hundreds of Georgia’s most powerful people stood on their feet, turned to look at Walker smiling in the balcony and exploded into applause.
THERE WAS A TIME when Walker thought he would never leave prison. And he wasn’t convinced he deserved to, either.
In 1993, a Fulton County judge sentenced Walker to life with the possibility of parole for the murder of his fiancée, the mother of his then-2-year-old daughter.
It was a year after the couple moved to Atlanta from Washington, D.C. Walker describes that day when he stabbed his fiancée during an argument as a crime of passion, a momentous mistake he still can not comprehend.
“This was the love of my life,” Walker said. “There were times in the prison system just dealing with the magnitude of what I did, there were times of you know what, I don’t really need to go further with life. There were times I thought about suicide because I couldn’t handle the amount of remorse I felt.”
While in prison, Walker worked with counselors to attempt to understand how he was capable of such a thing. With no history of domestic violence, no criminal record, and having grown up with a strong family structure, Walker said his remorse and regret overshadowed any reason.
He spoke with counselors and studied just about every religion trying to find peace.
Despite the spiritual resources, Baldwin State Prison, like all state facilities, lacked educational options. He had no way to study a trade or begin post-secondary work.
“You spend all these years in prison, and you have no way of getting educated,” Walker said. “If you spent that many years in prison and you come out and you’re trying to find work and you don’t even know how to go online to Google anything, you’re in a really hard situation.”
IN 2009, Walker’s impeccable prison record, a recommendation from the warden and a solid interview qualified him for unpaid detail work at the Governor’s Mansion, a coveted position among offenders that gets them out of the monotony and confinement of prison.
Walker was moved from Baldwin State to the Atlanta Transitional Center to allow him to work with a crew of 17 at the mansion every day. He started as part of the landscape crew, pulling weeds and cutting grass as lawmakers and guests filed in and out of the mansion.
He was soon promoted to the ballroom, where he cooked and helped host events for guests of the Deals or parties of hundreds of foreign dignitaries.
It was a real-job scenario, where the inmates interacted with government officials and had to make judgment calls on events and parties.
Feeling compassion from the Deals helped give him confidence in himself and his abilities. Sandra Deal greeted the inmates daily, noticed when they were sick or feeling down and treated them like equals, Walker said.
“(Mansion director) Joy Forth saw something in me, and if it weren’t for her allowing me to work in the ballroom and get these skills, who knows where I’d be today,” Walker said.
DEAL SPOKESMAN Brian Robinson said the inmate program at the mansion began long before Deal took office, but it is an example of how re-entry programs created through the governor’s criminal justice reforms can work.
“Because the inmates at the mansion are near the end of their sentences, the job skills they learn there quickly come into play when they leave the prison system and look for employment,” Robinson said in an e-mail. “Gov. Deal has been proud to see many get good jobs and earn high praise from their new employers. They’ve learned not only hard skills but also soft skills, such as how to dress and how to behave in a professional environment.”
Last April, Deal signed the third leg of his criminal justice reform legislation, which required the Georgia Department of Corrections to implement a treatment and vocational program for offenders preparing for probation or parole. The inmates will earn a certificate to show while applying for jobs, which is intended to help eliminate discriminatory hiring practices.
“Nearly 70 percent of inmates do not have a high school diploma or any job skills,” Robinson said. “That, combined with a felony record, can make employment difficult. A former inmate without hope of a job is a danger to society. By helping them get diplomas, we boost our workforce, help families and promote public safety. We also end up saving money because those that are able to get jobs are much less likely to re-offend and end up back in an expensive prison bed.”
WALKER WAS GRANTED parole in March 2013 and was moved to the Augusta Transitional Center that summer.
He was hired as a server assistant at Goodwill of Middle Georgia’s Edgar’s Grille on Washington Road that June, where he bussed tables and ran food orders before going back to sleep at the transitional center.
He was soon promoted to banquet server for Goodwill, then banquet captain and then sales coordinator, where today he oversees 10 employees and helps book events for the Snelling Center.
After 21 years of confinement, Walker was released from the transition center on Feb. 11, 2014, and began facing realities of the free world.
He moved in with his father, Sidney Walker, 80, who like the rest of his family stayed close with Walker while he was incarcerated. Though Walker said he does not have a relationship with his daughter, now in her 20s, he hopes for a day when she and his former fiancée’s relatives will agree to talk so they can heal.
“If it were not for my family, it would have been a very, very hard journey,” Walker said. “They know me.”
Since his release, Walker has gotten a car, enjoys the privilege of having bills to pay, and enrolled in classes at Georgia Military College, where he goes twice a week to study social work.
His goal is to become a case manager for Goodwill and help recently released offenders find jobs and work on social and emotional issues.
Above his own future, Walker said he wants to live up to a promise he made himself in prison, that he would dedicate his life to preventing abuse.
He said he wants to work with at-risk kids and domestic abuse organizations in hopes that his story can change the fate of another tragic outcome.
“Anything I do, I want to be in a position where I can actually give back,” Walker said. “I can’t bring that life back, but I could save somebody else’s life. That would be a balancing of the scale. That would balance out my universe.”