So says Anthony Green, a student at the Turning Leaf Project. And he should know: his life began differently from so many of our other students. He had a happy childhood, a stable family life – they should have added up to a happy, stable life for him. But Anthony lost his way, addicted to the financial ease granted by the street life, and he had to learn the hard way that dead ends can destroy years of your life.
This is Anthony’s story.
Anthony grew up in Allendale, South Carolina, the third in a group of four brothers. Both his parents were steadying forces in his life; they worked hard to provide for their growing sons. “Mama went extra above and beyond to make sure we had,” he says. The brothers were tight, and Anthony’s father took him to and from baseball practices. He had dreams of professional ball.
Theirs was a close-knit neighborhood. His grandparents lived close, and the neighbors looked out for each other’s kids. If a child broke a rule, a neighbor might discipline him, then tell his parents. “Sometimes you got three or four beatings for one thing,” says Anthony fondly. Of course they got beatings; they were kids. Besides, there were birthday parties, too, and all sorts of other childhood events. His father gave him a Mazda pickup truck for his 16th or 17th birthday.
His brothers all chose the straight and narrow path; so did his friends. But Anthony chose a different way.
It started when he was 16 or so. He was in a store, goofing around with friends, playing at shoplifting. He picked up an item, cuffed it, then put it back. When he picked it up again, he was grabbed and dragged to the back of the store. The funny thing is, though, “I had money in my pocket. I don’t know why I did it. Sometimes you do things without thinking.” He spent the night in jail before his brothers came to get him, and he never shoplifted again.
But he was still a teenager, and if there’s one thing teenagers love, it’s a good party. His next brush with the law was a result of too much of that. It was senior cut day, and Anthony was at the beach with his friends. On the way home, he lost control and flipped his truck in a serious wreck that could have had deadly consequences. Luckily, Anthony was able to walk away and go for help. When a state trooper came, he gave Anthony a breathalyzer test, and it was off to jail for a DUI. This was a huge hit to Anthony. “It slowed me down,” he says, “because I disappointed my parents. I had to call my pops from jail. He hung up on me but he came to get me out the next day. It hurt him bad; it was the truck he had given me. He didn’t talk the whole way home, he was so mad.”
His mother took a different tack, taking him out for a long walk that day to try to talk some sense into him. “’Slow it down,’ she said. ‘Stay out of trouble. You could have died,” he says. And he knew she was right.
Anthony beat the charge in court, so in the end it was less a life lesson and more a temporary inconvenience. In retrospect, he says, it might have been better had he been more steeply punished for the DUI. It might have been enough to keep him straight.
Instead, as he hit 18, 19 years old, working during the day at a grocery store, he discovered a different lifestyle. At first it was just clubbing and partying, but as he observed the people around him supplementing their day job incomes through selling drugs, he realized he could do it too. “The money was so fast,” he says. “I’d have to work a whole month to see the money I made selling marijuana in a few hours.”
The cash and the lifestyle became an addiction to him. He’d make over $1000 (and often more) weekly to supplement his income working for a yard service. He was never arrested for selling drugs but was picked up once on a simple possession charge. He bonded out, and was right back to it, all through his 20s and 30s. “It’s a stressful life,” he says. “It’s a pain and a headache dealing with people. You’re worried about getting robbed, losing your life, and you have to balance your real job and pleasing your customers. Plus you have to avoid the police.”
There’s the lying, too. His family wanted him out of the lifestyle. His friends and girlfriend did, too. But he’d tell them he wasn’t doing it anymore. “In the end, you’re only lying to yourself,” he says.
Because the lifestyle always catches you in the end.
Anthony’s end came in 2010. He was 36 years old and had been living the lifestyle for almost two decades. He knew something was off; he’d seen the same cars around him all week, but he was working on an addition to his house so he had plenty else on his mind. He got up super early to get breakfast for his crew one morning. As he stood there, giving the girl at the counter his orders, she told him he’d just been blocked in. He turned around to see the local sheriff. “Mr. Green,” he said. “You have to come with us.”
On the way to Anthony’s house, the sheriff asked if he knew what was going on. He didn’t, but as they pulled up to his property, he knew it was bad. There were 40-50 federal SUVs surrounding the house. The federal agents were already inside. They had kicked in the door, terrifying Anthony’s girlfriend, daughter, and even his grandchild. When they couldn’t find Anthony, the agents handcuffed the other adults in the house. “I hate that they got caught up in my situation,” he says.
The feds caught him on a conspiracy charge. They tapped a customer’s phone and recorded Anthony making deals. They took him to a federal holding facility, from where he bonded out while he fought the charges. Anthony spent almost a year going back and forth to court before finally being sentenced to ten years, the mandatory minimum for a conspiracy charge. He should have gone straight to prison, but he asked the judge for three weeks to finish up a remodeling job. The judge granted the time, but it was the most stressful point in Anthony’s life. “I damn near drank myself to death stressing,” he says. “I went from around 200 pounds to 160, and I wasn’t even trying. It was just stress.” After the job was done, he bowed to the inevitable and turned himself in.
Prison was a whole new world. He did his best to keep his head down, knowing that good behavior meant going to places with lower levels of security and better environments. He prayed, kept in contact with his family, and walked the track as much as possible. He worked as an electrician, did trash pickup, and was even a cook. Holidays were hardest – especially his first year – but the guys in prison understood and supported each other. The biggest blow came when Anthony’s nephew was shot and killed while he was locked up; he couldn’t go to the funeral or support his brother through his grief. The eight and a half years – the mandatory minimum for his 10-year sentence – passed slowly by, and life went on without him on the outside.
Today Anthony lives in a halfway house, where the rules are stricter than they were in prison. He’s working hard at Turning Leaf. “I’ve learned to humble myself and to be patient,” he says. He loves what he learns each day, calling his girlfriend on each break to talk her through the day’s lessons. His parents are thrilled with his progress, and his friends are all supporting him. He knows he found a family at Turning Leaf, too. “They’ll bend over front and backwards to help us,” he says.
He adds, “I’m Anthony Green. I’m not a bad person. I just made some bad decisions in life. Now I’m back to redeem myself. I want to work to keep others going through what I went through.”
Anthony, we know you. We see how smart you are, and how hard you’re working. We know you’ll follow your dreams and do wonderful things in the crime-free life you’re living.
In the past several months, Covid-19 has thrown America’s economic pitfalls into sharp relief. Many of the workers today being applauded as “essential” don’t make enough money to make ends meet. The American Dream of a job, a home, and a steady life gets less and less attainable, particularly by people of color.
This was the case for Tony. His was a single-parent household with four kids to feed. His mama did her best, and so did he as he got older, trying to make a life for himself and his own child. When it became impossible to support his family on the straight-and-narrow path, he found other means to make money – means which lead directly to a 12-year prison sentence. Today, he is working hard at Turning Leaf on a second chance at a good life.
This is Tony’s story.
Tony grew up in a home with his mama, a hardworking single parent who struggled to make ends meet. “Besides that, though,” says Tony, whose smile is audible when he talks about his mama and his three sisters, “everything was love.” Tough love, sometimes, but love just the same. His mama raised him, as he says, “to work hard and be a man. Be respectful, truthful, mind your manners, and be mindful of what you say.”
His mama kept food on the table for all the kids, but Tony was aware of what he didn’t have, even at a young age. “You’re fortunate,” he says. “But you’re less fortunate at the same time. I couldn’t have everything the other kids had and I wanted.” It was a pride issue, mostly. He felt like he wasn’t qualified to get all the good things, but in the end, as he says, “I wanna look fly, too. The fly guy gets all the girls.”
Tony’s father was MIA, often setting plans then breaking promises, but that was okay with Tony. “I had a godfather who took care of me.” It was a good childhood, really. He and his friends had fun in their neighborhood, experimenting with everything they could. They caught fiddler crabs in the swamp, played football, did backflips on mattresses, anything they could find to be adventurous. Sometimes they swiped sodas from a nearby Pepsi-Cola plant, but they were never caught.
His neighborhood wasn’t the best, though. He couldn’t be oblivious to the enticements of the street life, nor its dangers. “I remember people looking good, shining, doing their thing. People pulling up in nice cars,” he says. “I used to hear about a lot of violent things, but by the time violence would happen, I’d be in my house.” Still, the next day, someone would be gone, another victim to the dangers of the streets.
Idyllic days of football and acrobatics soon gave way to other temptations. Weed, for one, was an early vice, with Tony and his friends smoking pot while listening to rap music at the tender age of eleven. They’d pool their money for nickel bags, and Tony loved the calm of being high. “I never had feelings for other drugs, though,” he says. His first brush with the law came when he was only thirteen. He and some friends were hiding out in a vacant apartment when the cops came. He ran, so they charged him with resisting arrest. The cops were going to let him go, but, he says, “Mama said ‘take him.’ So they did.” He spent a week in juvenile, where, he says, “they feed you when they want to feed you, shower you when they want to shower you.” It was an eye-opening experience, one that would keep him out of trouble at least for a few years.
But between the need for money and seeing the “fly cars, gold chains, and gold teeth,” Tony says, “You wind up wanting the same thing. You think, ‘I want to be that person, too.’” Tony worked as much as he could, washing dishes and things like that. He fathered a child when he was only 16, and although he was doing his best to support his family, it was never enough. He started selling drugs. “I was in and out. I wasn’t not involved. I dabbled, but I also worked a lot.”
He caught his first adult charge at 20 for trafficking drugs. He served some time at county, and he saw the added expense of a lifestyle like his. The lawyers, the fines; it all added up. His mama told him to come home and do the right thing, and he tried, again.
This time Tony was working better jobs, doing demolition and assisting an electrician, then working on the concrete at the airport. “Every three days, they fix the runways,” he says. It was good money, but a lot of wear and tear on the body. He had a strong work ethic, thanks to his mama’s teachings, but he continued dabbling in the street lifestyle. One night, it caught up to him.
Tony still isn’t sure of what happened, why he got stopped. He was walking down the street, alone, when a police car pulled up. “Come here,” the officer said, and Tony ran. He had drugs on him, and when they caught him (as they always do), they charged him with trafficking in a school zone. He spent 15 months in county, waiting for trial. They offered a plea deal for 25 years, but he wouldn’t take it. When the trial started and the jury was selected, the prosecutors finally lowered the plea deal to 12 years. Tony took it and served 10 years.
“I got wise in prison,” he says. “I had time to do some thinking, some problem solving. Thinking isn’t easy, and making decisions is hard.” It was a good realization at a time when he was seeing people getting stabbed, killed, and strung out on drug withdraws. He realized he had to grow in order to survive. He started reading, a lot. “It’s the best time to prepare yourself for society.”
His biggest challenge came when his mama was killed while he was in prison. She was hit by a car in what authorities called an accident, but which Tony has always believed was a targeted killing. “I couldn’t break down, though,” he says. “If you break down, it’s over. That’s no man’s land.” He tried to deal with his anger and sadness, but he never got to say goodbye to the woman who did her best to turn him into a good man.
He found Turning Leaf after receiving a letter from Blue and seeing flyers on the walls in prison. He had a job lined up through his family for when he got out, but he took a chance on Turning Leaf instead. He says, “I like it because I see there are people willing to help other people come back to society. If I need anything, y’all would back me up.” It’s been helpful for him to work on understanding other people’s feelings, putting himself in their shoes to figure out what motivates them.
As he continues working through the program at Turning Leaf, he’s taking his time to remember what it’s like to be free, to feel everything back out, to learn all the newest technology. He wants to be an innovator in the community, working in software to help society, and to start his own business so he can support his family the right way. And if he could tell his mama one thing, he’d say, “I love you, Mama, and I’m going to make you proud.”
“She knows,” he says. “She’s probably smiling right now.”
* * * *
We’re smiling too, Tony, and we want to help you realize your dreams in your own way and on your own time. We know you can do it.
At the time of our writing this post, our country is tense. We’re in the throes of a pandemic the likes of which many of us wouldn’t have imagined in our worst nightmares. “Quarantine” and “lockdown” have become words well-known by the tiniest children. Incomprehensible numbers of lives have been lost to a virus we still know very little about.
In the middle of these ghastly losses, which affect people of color in overwhelming majorities, we all learned a single name: George Floyd. His gruesome murder, captured on film, was the spark that ignited fury this country has not seen since the riots of 1968. Black Lives Matter has reaffirmed itself as the current generation’s call to arms.
Amid this heady mixture of fear and anger sits Dewayne, a student at Turning Leaf. He, of all people, knows the true meaning of Black Lives Matter. At only 15 years old, he witnessed a black life ending violently from his own front porch. Since then, the violence continued, and its fear and guilt have shaped his world. Now he’s trying his hardest to leave it all behind, to raise his daughters into a brighter future.
This is Dewayne’s story
Dewayne grew up in Charleston with his mama and his grandma. His mama was a hardworking woman, often holding two jobs to support her son. “Sometimes she had it bad,” Dewayne says, “But she didn’t show it. She always made ends meet, and I never wanted for nothing.” They moved around a lot, every couple years trying a new place in a new neighborhood from North Charleston to Holly Hill, but that was fine. Everywhere they went, he already knew people, and he always fit in. Some neighborhoods were safer than others, though, a fact that would come to influence Dewayne’s life in unspeakable ways.
With his father out of the picture, Dewayne’s paternal grandfather, who he called Papa, stepped up to help raise him. They were (and remain) tight, even with all the address changes. “He always finds me and keeps in contact,” Dewayne says. “He wanted me to do right. He’d take me fishing, hunting. Always had me in a boat as a little boy. He used to tie me down to the seat so I wouldn’t flip over in the boat.” It was idyllic, at least sometimes.
When Dewayne was only fifteen years old, though, life threw a curveball he never expected. “I saw a dude get killed,” he says. “I was sitting in my aunt’s living room. I remember earlier that day we were at the pool.” There, he saw an older guy, Seymour, talking to some girl, and another man said threatened to kill him. “We all just laughed it off, like it’s a joke.”
Later, though, he heard some noise outside the apartment. Seymour was headed down the stairs, saying he was going to close his car windows to keep the rain out. “There was the sound of screeching tires,” says Dewayne. “I looked out the window and I saw him running between the cars. I heard a gunshot, and my aunt came out, asked what happened, and I said, ‘Seymour just got killed. He’s dead.’ Then my aunt went out and tried to bring him back to life, but he was dead.”
Paralyzed with shock, at first Dewayne didn’t feel anything. His uncle screamed at him to call the police, so he did. “I was on the phone with the police, saying ‘One of my friends is dead.”
Seymour’s body was left out in the rain for six hours before they took it away. Dewayne remembers wondering why they left him out there so long. The event had a huge impact on him. “From that day on,” he says, “I was like, shit. I have a feeling that someone’s gonna kill me.” And if you think your life isn’t going to last, why follow the rules, right? You’re just going to die in the end anyway.
Around the same time, Dewayne and his mama started butting heads. She kicked him out, then filed a runaway report, so police found him and brought him home. They fought, and she kicked him out again. He stayed with friends when he could, and started breaking into cars, stealing radios and speakers to sell them off to make cash. His first brush with the law came at age 16, when he got caught stealing a CD player from a car. He only received 180 hours of community service, mainly because his football coach at the time was a state trooper who vouched for him. “He told the judge, ‘He’s a good kid, cut him some slack this time,’” says Dewayne. But his troubles – and crimes – only escalated from there.
Dewayne moved into rougher territory, trying to make ends meet. Armed burglaries, robberies. He caught his first charge at age 20: attempted murder and armed burglary. He did two years in County, where he raised hell fighting and stealing, before receiving a suspended sentence and getting out on probation. Four months later he violated probation, and was in and out of prison, racking up charges, from that moment on.
The armed robberies, it seemed, weren’t going to get him anywhere, so Dewayne turned to selling drugs instead. Still, he was in and out of prison, labeled a gang member for his associations with friends. Both his daughters were born while he was in prison for various crimes. He’d never given much thought to being a father, “but when I saw her [his first daughter] for the first time,” he says, “It was real.” A new life was starting…but other lives around Dewayne were ending, all too fast.
In 2012, one of Dewayne’s friends was killed downtown at the Music Farm, a murder linked with gang activity. Then, right after Dewayne’s release from a two-year-sentence, two friends (a man and a woman) called to see if he wanted to go to Myrtle Beach for Memorial Day weekend celebrations. “I said ‘I know I’m gonna get drunk and do some crazy shit,’ so I said no,” he says. Those two friends were killed outside a club in Myrtle Beach that weekend.
Then, in 2018, Dewayne’s ex-girlfriend died in his arms outside a club while he was out on parole, killed in a confrontation with other people while they were all drunk and on drugs. He says, “The last words she said to me were, ‘Please pick me up so we can leave.’ We were waiting for the ambulance, and she took her last breath. She was supposed to pick up her son from his daddy’s house the next day.”
“I think about that every day,” he continues. “If I hadn’t reconnected with her and we hadn’t gone out that night, she’d still be with her child. She tried to leave that night. I should’ve let her go.”
The guilt was maddening, and so was the fear. His crimes spiraled even further out of control, and in the years of 2017 and 2018 Dewayne caught 13 total charges. They were mostly PWID (possession with intent to distribute), with assaults mixed in as well. No drugs were ever found on his person however (he would leave them behind when he ran), so nothing quite stuck. Pleas deals kept his sentences to a minimum, until he found himself facing two years at the Kershaw Correctional Institution. He had to do the time, and his second daughter was born while he was there. He was starting to think maybe he had to make some changes to be alive and free for his girls when he received a letter from Turning Leaf, inviting him to come after his release. Everything in that letter made sense. He looked at his options: return to hustling, where his friends were literally dying, or give Turning Leaf thing a try.
“I ain’t trying to be dead,” he says, laughing. “I dodged a whole lot of bullets. I could’ve been dead a lot of times. That must mean something.”
He came to Turning Leaf. Here, he found a place where there’s always a second chance for everyone. “It’s helping me reshape my mindset, to make a better life,” he says. “A second life. I’m the same person, I’m just in a different lane. I’m making better choices to put myself in a better place.”
When faced with a decision now, Dewayne knows to stop and think, and to take a deep breath. His family is so proud of him; his grandfather still calls him every single day. He did have to learn to play Barbie with his daughters, but that’s okay. “Having somebody call you daddy…that feels real good.”
“I’m a good-hearted person,” he adds. “If you need help, I’m gonna help you. I’m really loyal. But there comes a time in life where you gotta get yourself right before you can focus on anybody else.”
Dewayne’s past may have been shaped by the violent loss of black lives all around him, but we’re sure that his future will be full of life and laughter. So we ask you, in considering the world around you, to remember that every black death is far more than just a number. Black lives matter, and we are so proud of you, Dewayne, for putting your own life on the right track.
Story Captured by Leah Rhyne
Turning Leaf probably shouldn’t have happened. It was too hard. There were too many barriers. No funding. Not enough support. But it did happen.
Amy Barch is the founder and director of Turning Leaf. With grit and second chances, she’s proud to lead the best reentry organization in the world.