More than 5 million children in the United States have had a parent in state or federal prison at some point in their lives, according to the Casey Foundation. Ashley Berrios is one of them. She seemed destined to follow that same path until she met Deputy Dennis Berry.
“If you ever wanted to find Ashley in high school, chances are she was in the school deputy’s office,” said Rochelle Moore, a teacher at Courtland High School.
Classmates began calling Berrios “the Wanderer” during her freshman year, a nickname she obtained after spending more time in the hallways than the classroom. Many teachers thought the rebellious teen was sent to the school deputy’s office so often because she was in constant trouble. They were wrong. Berrios treated Berry’s office as her second home and visited every day in his glass-panel sanctuary.
“Deputy Berry is my hero and is like a father to me,” Berrios said in an interview.
Being sent to the office of the school resource officer is supposed to be a punishment, but Berrios did not see it that way. Berry regaled the high schooler with anecdotes from his days in the Air Force, the Secret Service, Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office, and his stint as an air marshal.
Berry could fill a library with those stories, but he was more interested in listening to Berrios than talking about himself. She told him about her father being incarcerated. The man with the badge soon became her closest confidante.
“My start of high school was rocky,” Berrios said. “I was trying to fit into a crowd that I didn’t belong to… my attitude was all wrong.”
Berry listened patiently to the troubled teen girl. He treated Berrios with empathy, but never let her see herself as a victim. Their conversations centered around maturity and mutual respect.
Now, Berrios intends to pay it forward. The 20-year-old Latina is training to join law enforcement even as some politicians decry the profession as a form of white supremacy. She hopes to impart to Virginia inmates the same lessons and opportunities that Berry shared with her.
“You need to work inside to work outside,” Berrios said.
By seeing prisons from both an inmate and officer perspective, she knows that she can share her story with people within the prison system. Berry is confident that she can change lives. He saw it firsthand in his office over the years.
“When we would talk, over the years, she transformed her way of responding to things and looking from positive aspects, instead of the negatives,” he said. “By the time she was a senior, Ashley was sitting in my office and listening to students and had no problem pointing out their fallacies and how they could fix the problem. She became a very positive influence.”
Rochelle Moore, an English teacher at Courtland High School, marveled at the transformation she witnessed in one of the most rebellious students she encountered in her career. Moore invited the 2018 graduate back to Courtland High to share her story with other students.
“She shared with me an essay she wrote about how she found herself in the back of a police car and that’s when she had her epiphany, ‘Why am I here? I don’t want to make my mother ashamed of me. This is not who I am, this is not who I want to be,’” Moore said. “She went from challenging authority to wanting to become an authority.”
Berrios will return to school at NOVA Community College, where she is studying to get an associate’s degree in general studies. In the future, she hopes to get her bachelor’s in criminology so that she can pursue a life dedicated to serving others and making the world a safer place. Those who knew her in high school have little doubt that she will do just that.