In 2004, at 16, I was arrested, charged, and incarcerated as an adult at the Washington, D.C. Jail. I grew up in one of the most dangerous housing projects in the city, East Capitol Dwellings. Shootings, drug dealing and what I call chaos all around.
My mom wanted to move me and my brothers out, but she didn't make enough money as a day-care assistant. My dad didn't live with us and he didn't know what I was into. The older guys had become my role models. When I was 12, I gained membership in the street game by stealing cars. There was so much money. My friends and I just got in deeper, basically running wild. My mom tried to stop me, but I didn't listen. I went to juvenile detention once for six months, but came straight home and continued doing the same crazy things.
At the jail, I joined a group very different than the one I belonged to on the streets, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a nonprofit that came to the unit twice a week. I had never read an entire book or written a poem before, but I found myself doing both. In our weekly sessions, I felt comfortable enough to take off the hard mask I wore and show my true feelings. Our small group became a brotherhood as we left the street beefs behind to discuss books. The authors were people that looked and acted like us. I will never forget the first book that really hit me, "Makes Me Wanna Holler," by Nathan McCall. He was a young guy who was incarcerated and became a journalist at the Washington Post. I thought, "If he can do it, then maybe I can."
The seeds of change were planted, but it would take years for them to grow. In federal prison, there was so much violence and negativity around me, I went back to my old ways. Free Minds never gave up on me though, sending me books, letters, birthday cards, and a newsletter called "The Connect." I was often in the SHU ("Special Housing Unit," otherwise known as solitary confinement). You are locked down 23 hours a day and you feel like the whole world has forgotten you. Then you get mail and you feel human again.
One day, I was sitting in the SHU for acting up, when I got "The Connect" newsletter. The theme was "Pay it Forward." Reading it gave me the same feeling I got when I read "Makes Me Wanna Holler." I remembered, I did want to change. I wanted to give back after taking so much from so many. At that moment, my journey of change really began. For the next five years, I read everything I could. I changed who I hung with and how I acted. It wasn't easy, but Free Minds helped keep me on track.
After serving 10 years, at the age of 27, I was released and given a Greyhound bus ticket from California to D.C. I felt like I was in "The Twilight Zone." When my dad and stepmom met me in D.C., I was in a daze. I was so quiet in the car they thought something was wrong, but I was just taking it all in. The next day, on the Metro, I thought everyone was watching me. I was so used to being watched by guards every minute. I went straight to the Free Minds office.
They welcomed me with open arms and I enrolled in their job-readiness apprenticeship. I needed to learn so many things after spending my growing up years locked up. They encouraged me to speak up instead of using hand signals that I was used to using on the yard. They took me to "Write Nights," where D.C.-area volunteers gather to write comments on Free Minds members' poems and mail them back to the authors in federal prison. I shared my story with the group and gained confidence in myself. They have been so encouraging and don't judge me as a felon.
Now I co-facilitate Free Minds' violence-prevention project "On the Same Page." We lead weekly workshops for middle schools, high schools and young men on probation. I see myself in those young people and I'm driven to share my journey so they don't end up in adult prison like I did. A reporter from the Washington Post came to one of our sessions and published a front-page article about us! I remembered that my inspiration, Nathan McCall, had once worked at the Washington Post and now I was actually in it. I couldn't believe it!
I am proud to say that I have a full-time job now as the Community Outreach Assistant for the Corrections Information Council (CIC-a DC mayoral agency). My job is to act as a bridge between families and their incarcerated loved ones as we work together to improve conditions in the Bureau of Prisons system. I want to be there for others like Free Minds is for me. They are my second family.
This post was written with the assistance of Seana Drucker.
This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.