Janarius

Janarius

As these words are being written, criminal justice reform is a hot topic. Inhumanely long sentences are being re-examined; solitary confinement is being halted. And we at Turning Leaf are delighted to know that April is National Second Chance Month.

Our men are all offered a new direction when they come here. A new chance to change their lives. That’s what we value here, and that’s what we believe in.

So, too, does President Joe Biden. In a recent proclamation, he wrote, “During Second Chance Month, we lift up all those who, having made mistakes, are committed to rejoining society and making meaningful contributions.”

Janarius is an example of someone who can and should be lifted up. As a teenager, he got caught up in the streets. Mistakes were made; opportunities were wasted. But now at 25, Janarius has a whole life ahead of him with a priceless opportunity to build a lasting relationship with his son.

He won’t waste his second chance.

This is Janarius’ story.

* * * *

Janarius is the third of nine children – eight boys and one girl and including two sets of twins (Janarius is one of the four twins). A chubby baby, his mama called him Fatty, a nickname that sticks with him to this day. He likes it, though. “It’s an oxymoron,” he says. “Fatty Smalls. It’s like Biggie Smalls.”

“Besides,” he adds. “It’s a name my mama gave me. I’d rather be called that than my real name.”

When he was young he had a bad stutter, which kept him quiet in school. “If the teacher asked someone to read out loud, I didn’t to do it,” he says. He was a good student anyway, bright and willing (for the most part) to do the work that came easily to him. At home, he and three of his closest brothers were called “the bad four,” but it wasn’t without affection. They were the wild ones, fighting in the house, running around, playing hard. They were full of energy and loved to be outside.

His biological father wasn’t in the picture at all. Most of the work and financial burden of raising nine children fell on his mother, and he respects everything she did. “She never forced our fathers to be in our lives,” he says. “She never asked for child support, and she always told us, ‘If he doesn’t want to be in your life, I don’t want to force it, and I don’t want you chasing him.’” His stepfather was there, and that was enough.

Childhood wasn’t without its difficulties, however. They moved a lot, from one project to another, and Janarius and his brothers changed schools a lot, too. The neighborhoods were rough. “The strong survive,” he says. When he was in sixth grade, his little cousin was run over by a drunken uncle right in front of his house, a traumatic experience for everyone.

The streets beckoned, too, and by seventh grade, Janarius was ready to answer their call. “I had to separate my lives,” he says. “In school I was a star student, but then I was also running the streets hard. I was running out late, hanging out with older kids.”

“I was a violent kid,” he adds. “My friends and I would go around the neighborhood and beat up crackheads.” That’s what the older kids did, you see. And for Janarius – the shy kid with the stutter he’d worked hard to suppress – the violence was an opportunity to find acceptance.

Football almost saved him. His oldest brother was four years older than him and a star player at North Charleston High School. Janarius wanted to be like his brother, and started working hard to be the best football player he could be. He was a running back, a safety, and a linebacker. A coach and pastor became his mentor. “He told me, ‘You don’t need to be doing this street stuff. You got talent,’” says Janarius. The encouragement kept him going during the school year. Janarius played football and baseball. He ran track. He did all the right things, and by the end of his ninth-grade year he was ninth in his class at North Charleston High School.

“But there was something about the streets that kept calling me back,” he says. “I was trying to be accepted and prove myself. It made me run the streets harder than who I really was.”

In middle school he and his friends had built a rap group called the Young Goons. They had a following, which grew as they all went to different high schools and spread out, finding new fans. But a rival group called the Young Gunners started, and the two groups fought at school and at parties. They wreaked havoc wherever they went, until local police started a task force to stop the two unofficial gangs from getting worse.

Summers were the worst for Janarius. Without the structure of school and sports, he ran the streets full time. He didn’t want to ask his mama for money, since she was working hard to support all nine kids, so he sold marijuana each summer to fund purchases for school.

It was in the summer before his twelfth grade that things fell apart. Janarius had just turned 18 – he started school late due to a November birthday, and he repeated sixth grade – and had spent a day playing video games and talking to his girlfriend. He left the house to run to the store and stopped to hang out with friends at an apartment complex where none of them lived. It was one of those nights that starts kind of quiet but escalates. Police showed up and told them to hit the road or they’d be picked up for trespassing; they left, but came right back, happy with their spot. When the police returned, the kids all hid on balconies and porches, then decided to move on. It was one guy’s birthday. They wanted to smoke weed to celebrate, but nobody had any money.

The guys decided to rob a cab driver to get the cash for weed. “I was the last man there,” says Janarius. “They tried to tell me they had it. They told me to sit this one out. But I bullied my way in.”

One of the guys had a gun. They robbed the cabbie and spent the night in an abandoned house, thinking they’d gotten away with it. Only problem was: Janarius left a handprint on the car. He was picked up by the police at his brother’s house the next day. Of the crew, he was only one who went to jail, eventually pleading out with ten years for attempted armed robbery.

“At first I was angry,” he says. But then he realized this was a wake-up call. “I started hanging out with older guys, and I got in the auto-body shop.” Janarius got certified in auto work and felt things start to change. “I calmed down a lot. I was less aggressive, and I didn’t think about robbing and fighting anymore. I thought about making a family and trying to make everything right.”

Change is difficult, though. Some of his friends still run streets, and when he got out of prison after six years (two in county, four in state), he felt their pull again. It was still the easiest way of making money.

But in his first week home he had a conversation that changed everything. “I talked to an ex-girlfriend and she told me I might have a son,” he says. “I took a DNA test and found out I had a child. I came home to a seven-year-old son.”

“I can’t do this anymore,” he told himself. “I have a child now, and I already missed seven years of his life.”

Turning Leaf had sent Janarius a letter as he was getting ready to get out of prison; he found it and called. The road ahead would still be bumpy, though, with a couple of false starts here at Turning Leaf.

Janarius is back for his third attempt at our program. It’s different this time. Back at Christmas, he didn’t have any money to buy his son gifts. “I don’t want to be like my father and be a failure,” he says. “This time, I’m still here fighting, and I’m getting a lot out of it.”

Nowadays, when Janarius isn’t at work, he’s probably at home, playing video games with his son instead of hanging out with friends on the streets. “If I’m out with the guys,” he says, “I know at the end of the day I’ll wind up back in the same loop.”

He’s using the skills he learns here, and especially credits Turning Leaf with helping him learn to speak up in front of people. He’s working hard to get to Level 3 and then full-time in the Print Shop.

Janarius has goals for the next few years. “Next year I want to surprise my son with some toys and make him be happy,” he says. Beyond that, he hopes to find a good job and have a family in the future. He’s only 25 years old, after all. He’s got a whole lifetime to live up to his second chance.

* * * *

We’re with you all the way, Janarius! You’ll make the most of this second chance, and we’ll always be there to help. We believe in you!

Mace Bill Would Modernize Due Process Rights (Post & Courier)

The most basic purpose of our justice system is to convict and punish the guilty while protecting the innocent and safeguarding the rights of all Americans. As part of that mission, rehabilitating offenders and helping them return to society should be a primary goal. Unfortunately, for decades, our criminal justice system has failed to fulfill this mandate.

U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace understands this, and her record proves it. Her time in public service is marked by significant achievements in criminal justice. And she works with anyone willing to work with her to make our justice system work for every American.

It created an opening for organizations such as Turning Leaf to help people become productive members of society after prison.

Read full article

Van

Van

Van was the kid in his neighborhood who was supposed to get out. The smart one. The one everyone rallied around and protected. But somehow, still, at 17 he made a mistake, which led to another, and another, until he wound up deep in the exact life he was supposed to avoid: the life of a drug dealer and addict.

Today he’s using those experiences to help others find a new path the same way he did: through hard work, introspection, and a willingness to change.

This is Van’s story.

* * * *

Van is acutely aware of the stories of the students in his class with Turning Leaf. “I didn’t have it anywhere near as bad as some of the rest of the guys,” he says.

But really, who’s the judge of that? Like so many of our students, Van’s childhood was marked by trauma and violence. His maternal grandparents were killed by his mother’s ex-boyfriend before he was born. He lived with his mother and great-grandmother. His father wasn’t really in the picture. A recovering drug addict who relapsed, he committed suicide when Van was 17 years old. They weren’t close, but considering 17 was the age at which things started to fall apart for Van, it’s safe to say his father’s death had a dramatic impact.

As a child, his neighborhood was filled with drugs, dealers, and the violence inherent in that world. Van was protected, though, and not only because everybody knew he was a bright kid destined for bigger things. “The whole neighborhood knew my mom,” he says, laughing. As in: they were afraid of her, afraid of what she’d do to them if they let anything happen to her boy. It was a good kind of fear.

In high school Van wrestled and had scholarships waiting for him when he graduated. He started smoking marijuana, though, and a drug bust at 17 landed him in hot water. He was expelled, his scholarships rescinded. The high school administrators encouraged him to take a year off, take some classes at Trident Tech, and then come back the next school year to finish school. Van had other plans.

He started selling drugs. “I thought, ‘I like to smoke weed, so why not sell it?’” he says. His habit and his sales stayed recreational for a few years, “but then I started having kids.”

After the birth of his first daughter, a friend said, “You know a lot of people, why don’t you get rid of this for me,” and handed him a bunch of cocaine. He sold it, bought more, and sold more. Money came fast, and so did more kids.

In his early twenties Van got arrested, sat in county for a while, and realized he should get out of the lifestyle. He worked a straight job for a few years, but when he and his children’s mother broke up, “child support started catching up with me.” He went back to what he knew, this time selling harder drugs like meth and heroin. He started using harder stuff, too. The lifestyle was exciting: women, drugs, and partying. A friend taught him how to print counterfeit money, so he added that to his repertoire.

Life was spiraling out of control, but Van couldn’t see it. Not yet. He was getting arrested for minor charges like possession, driving on a suspended license, and assaults and batteries for bar fights. “I had some anger management problems,” he says. But as the charges piled up, “it was nothing that made me say I’ve got to stop and slow down.”

That started to change after he caught his first felony charge, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, meth, and heroin. He was able to bond out, and friends told him to slow down. In Van’s mind, though, he’d just spent a bunch of money and had to make it up. “I probably should have stayed in jail and sat,” he says now.

A couple months later, he was arrested again, this time for trafficking, a far more serious crime. It landed him a $250,000 bond that kept him in jail, but not out of trouble. While he awaited trial, he met a guy who showed him how to counterfeit better. “When I get out of jail, I’m gonna do this,” he thought. “It’ll be great.” He had big “street dreams,” and when the charge resulted in ten years’ suspended sentence with five years’ probation, he thought he was sitting pretty.

His plan was to make enough money to get himself back on his feet, but when he got out he found his family in disarray. Three of his kids were staying in hotel rooms with their mom. “I felt like they needed me,” he says. “I felt like I had to do what I had to do.”

Things moved quickly from there. The counterfeit built up his bank account, and he started selling a lot more drugs. “I started using a lot more than I did before, too,” he says. “I’m making all this money but I’m also getting high all the time.” His relationship with his children’s mother deteriorated. He started talking to another girl, and she asked him to help her and a friend improve their counterfeit skills. He did, not knowing the Secret Service was watching her friend, capturing pictures of them and Van in his hotel room.

The street life started closing in. He ran into a high school friend right after using fake money in her store. She called the police, and when she warned him on Facebook messenger, he blocked her.

A couple of days before Christmas in 2018, Van was running out to pick up a new iPhone for his daughter when a friend called, wanting meth. It was late and Van didn’t want to bother with the deal, but the money was too good to turn down. This time he had a friend drive so he couldn’t catch another charge for driving on a suspended license.

When cops pulled up behind them, the friend sped up, allowing Van to throw his drugs out the window. But they were caught, as you usually are. Van admitted to everything, taking the full charge to keep his friend out of jail. He went to Berkeley County jail.

A few days later the Secret Service showed up to talk to him. Soon it was all over the local papers: Van was part of an accused counterfeit ring. He was indicted on federal conspiracy charges.

Together, the charges and plea deals added up to Van serving approximately 30 months total in various jails and prisons. “My daughter was crushed,” Van says. “That’s the part that hurt me the most.”

Today, he admits that going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to him. While inside, he started going to a DAODAS program, which provides services to addicts. He attended AA meetings. “At first I only went there for the microwave,” he says. “But then, after a couple of months, I started listening to the stories being told around me, and it hit me: you know what? I’m a drug addict!”

At the time of our interview, Van has celebrated 11 months of sobriety, starting in prison and continuing after. He’s living in an Oxford House, a sober-living facility, and thriving there. He attends AA and NA meetings three times per week, or more if he feels like he needs it.

He found out about Turning Leaf right before his release and never had any doubts about applying. Between Turning Leaf, AA, and the books our case manager, Justin, gives him to read, he’s learning a ton, realizing how much of his own personality he hid throughout the years to seem “hard.”

“I like being around the other guys at Turning Leaf,” he says. “I see where I was, and I’m surrounded by people who want to change. I want to change. My situation could have been a lot worse than it was. I know that. It makes me appreciate my second chance even more.”

“We don’t have to be a product of our environment. We can be more than that. It sounds like common sense, but a lot of us aren’t taught that as kids. Life is 20% of what happens to you, and 80% how you react to it. I live by that now.”

* * * *

Van starts college next month, working toward a degree in counseling. He’s hoping to find a car soon so he can stop feeling like a burden to his children’s mothers. His is a big, blended family, and he cherishes every minute he spends with the kids, their mothers, and his newfound friends at the Oxford House and Turning Leaf.

Congratulations on how far you’ve come already, Van. We’re all watching to see how far you’ll go. We know it’ll be incredible.