At first, Julius Berger didn’t panic when the judge sentenced him to five years in prison for felony drunken driving.

He’d been in courtrooms enough to know what would happen. The judge would announce the sentence and then say he was suspending much of the time.

At least that’s what Berger thought would happen.

The Stafford County judge had other plans, however, and told Berger he’d be in prison for all five years. Before then, the longest Berger had spent in jail was a year for embezzlement and writing bad checks.

“I always said, if I ever got five years, I was going to escape,” Berger, now 50, said with a laugh. “That was just lip service. I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Separate convictions for possession of a gun by a felon and drunken driving in Spotsylvania County lengthened that prison sentence.

Now, after spending a little more than seven years in prison, he said the harsh sentence in Stafford may have saved his life. Just a few years in jail might not have been enough “to wake me up,” he said.

Before losing his freedom, Berger drank a half-gallon of rum every day. It was enough to get him intoxicated, “but it wouldn’t knock me on my behind”—hence the drunken driving.

He carried a gun, too, because that’s how he was brought up in the Bronx, N.Y., where he started committing petty crimes when he moved to a housing project as a teenager.

“It wasn’t a good persona, and it wasn’t a good look,” Berger said.

The prison sentence forced him to quit drinking, cold turkey.

At Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County, he started taking classes, thanks to a program funded by local philanthropist Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation. Germanna Community College instructors teach at the prison, where Berger enrolled in courses such as introduction to Christianity and accounting.

In his previous life, he said, he was interested in the wrong things—whatever would help him sell more drugs or put more liquor in his stomach.

The classes changed him. He started reading literature by Ron Rash. And his favorite class was accounting, believe it or not.

“The more that I sat in this classroom, the more I evolved, the more I became like the people who were teaching me,” Berger said.

By the time he transferred to Indian Creek Correctional Center in August 2011, he said he had completed about 70 classroom credits.

Berger was released from Indian Creek in December 2013. A day later, wearing his prison uniform of jeans and a sky-blue collared shirt, he enrolled at Germanna.

He’s now living in Fredericksburg at Shiloh Oxford House, part of a national program that helps recovering addicts.

Denise Guest, a dean at Germanna who taught accounting to Berger and other Coffeewood inmates, describes her former student as a warm and funny person. She noted that she wasn’t allowed to touch her students at the prison—not even a pat on the back.

But when she first saw Berger at Germanna’s Fredericksburg Area Campus, she didn’t hesitate to embrace him. “I just went running out the door and gave him a big old hug,” Guest recalls. “I said, ‘I can finally hug you.’”

In December, Berger completed his final classes at Germanna, where he finished with a 3.6 GPA.

Now he’s taking two classes at the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. He hopes to receive a bachelor’s degree in two years, then enroll at U.Va.’s Darden School of Business.

Statewide, Coffeewood and four other prisons partner with community colleges, said Lisa E. Kinney, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections. Last year, 276 inmates took college-level classes and 44 received associate degrees.

A 2005 study found that community colleges provided 68 percent of all post-secondary education at prisons, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education. Partnering with community colleges enables prisons to better prepare inmates to be productive citizens, the report said.

“Inmates prepared to re-enter society are less likely to recidivate, which, in turn, improves public safety and saves taxpayer dollars,” the report said.

Berger, who served four years in the Marine Corps after high school, is glad he turned his life around. He just wishes he could have gotten to this point sooner.

“I don’t really give people kudos for things they should be doing,” he said. “I should’ve always been a productive citizen. I should’ve always been doing what’s right.”

Recently, Berger met with Buffett to thank her for his education at Coffeewood. He says Buffett was his first and only visitor at that prison. “She could be sitting there, enjoying her twilight years somewhere—a place where I could never dream of going—but she took the time to help me when I was at my darkest moment,” says Berger, whose mother, Helen, died shortly before he was incarcerated.

Buffett called Berger the “real deal.”

“He was so affable and open,” she said. “He’s already made his mark in a number of places. For him to come from where he was in the beginning and be going to U.Va. now, it’s just astounding.”

Berger said he is in a much better place emotionally, but things aren’t easy.

With the felony convictions hanging over him, he hasn’t been able to find a job. And he has to pay bills, which he never worried about during his drinking days.

“I just can’t get that break,” said Berger, who has worked as a collection agent and done tech support.

Still, he finds ways to keep busy. Over the holidays, Berger volunteered at the Salvation Army. And he still helps out at a food pantry in the Breezewood shopping center on Courthouse Road in Spotsylvania.

Guest said Berger makes friends easily, a trait she thinks will take him far despite his past.

“This is a good person,” she said. “He made a few bad choices, but haven’t we all at some point or another?”

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​Jeff Branscome: 540.374-5402 

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