Troy


Every Turning Leaf participant is unique. Special. Different backgrounds, different education levels. Different family structures and barriers to success.

Troy, though. Now here’s a guy who really stands out. He was educated in some of the top schools in Charleston. He was the first male in his family to graduate from high school. He had all the markers of a successful future ahead of him.
 
But when a series of bad decisions threw up roadblocks, and a domestic altercation landed him in prison, Troy had to face a far different future: 18 years behind bars. What he’s doing with his life now, though…that’s a story we’re excited to tell.
 
Everyone, meet Troy.
 
* * * *
 
Troy grew up in Hollywood, South Carolina, on the south side of Charleston County. His community was close and filled with family. Aunties and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents. He tested into two of the top schools in the area, where he saw what support, encouragement, and assistance can mean to children hoping to succeed. He even started college at Benedict in Columbia. Things were looking good.
 
But teenagers are teenagers, and they don’t always make the best choices. We’ve all been guilty of it. For Troy, the mistakes and missteps started to snowball. “My problems came from being young, having unprotected sex, and having children,” he says. “It all slowly but surely eroded my decision-making.”
 
By age 19, Troy had fathered three children with two women. One baby-mama had him on the hook for child support; when the other was pregnant with their second child, Troy’s mother told him, “Come home and give her honor. Don’t be having children all over the place.”
 
At 19, Troy was married with three children by two women.
 
“Being married that young requires a level of maturity I just didn’t have,” says Troy. He started selling drugs to help make money. “I closed off doors to opportunities early. I didn’t get caught selling drugs, but if your morals slip to a point where you’re okay with doing things just because you can get away with it…this is how you wind up cheating on your wife, having another baby outside your relationship, and destroying a marriage.”
 
In the end, Troy caught a major charge for a domestic dispute. He and his wife got into a fight; things deteriorated rapidly. “I was acting a fool,” he says. “I had a tantrum.”
 
Following his arrest, Troy tried to be helpful, but his 19-year-old naïveté showed. With no lawyer to advise him otherwise, he penned a seven-page statement about the events leading up to and including the altercation. He felt he was justified, thought any rational person would read the statement and understand the nature of his meltdown. There were extenuating circumstances: the stress of a marriage under duress. A sister and an auntie succumbing to Multiple Sclerosis. His own seizure disorder. Surely the police would understand.
 
Instead, Troy learned the reasons behind Miranda rights: anything you say can and will be used against you. His “statement” was his confession, and it was used against him.
 
With this document in hand, prosecutors had an open-and-shut case. Troy declined a plea deal for 15 years, sure that he would come off with a lighter sentence based on the evidence he provided. His public defender advised him not to take the stand and Troy listened.
 
In the end, he was found guilty of numerous charges related to that domestic altercation and was sentence to 18 years.
 
Eighteen years!
 
“I was part of the PTA,” he says.  “People say Black men don’t raise their children. I was doing that. But they had enough to convict me, so they did.”
 
And so Troy’s 18-year stint in South Carolina state prisons began. “Prison can be a diamond mine or a graveyard,” he says. “I chose to invest in myself. I studied, took classes. Yoga, Toast Masters. I helped people studying to get WorkKeys and their GEDs. I got my own gold WorkKey.” He did everything he could to be ready on his release day.
 
It’s never easy, though. Not for formerly incarcerated men returning home after prison.
 
Troy’s first barrier came in the shape of housing. His charges included kidnapping, so he was registered as a sex offender. Suddenly, he couldn’t live with his mother, who cares for his young nieces. His grandmother’s vacant house next door was approved, but it wasn’t livable. Termites and roaches, years of disuse and disrepair had had their way with it. The renovations required to clean up the house were a blessing in disguise: his whole family had to work together to make it a home.
 
Except: Troy isn’t allowed to hang out with his two brothers. They’ve been in prison too, and their parole conditions force the siblings to stay apart. Just another barrier to overcome; less family to lean on and love.
 
Troy came to Turning Leaf seeking an advocate and found new family instead. “Turning Leaf does the right things to help people,” he says. “For one, they give out food, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re trying to be responsible, that one simple thing makes a huge difference.”
 
Turning Leaf is also helping Troy get his health back on track. After so many years in prison on the same medication, his seizure disorder needed a change in treatment. That adjustment led to his first seizure in a long time, but Turning Leaf was with Troy every step of the way, helping him to and from medical appointments, and supporting him outside of the center. And even though he took lots of CBT classes while still in prison, Troy firmly believes the repetition of cognitive skills in the Turning Leaf classroom helps reinforce all his hard work.
 
And here’s the thing: Troy is going to change the world after he graduates. We’re quite certain of it. “I’m a star, not a planet,” he says. “Wherever I go from here there’s going to be change. I’m full of pride and I’m a hard worker. I don’t want to sit here and complain and tell you the system did me wrong. I want to be part of the change to make things better.”
 
What does he think will help? “Support and recognition of people who are most at risk,” he says, citing one of his sons as a recent example. “He was doing great in school. He plays football and has a scholarship for college waiting for him. But when you’re poor, no one looks out for you. With Covid, my son dropped straight off the map in school and no one noticed.” Troy wants to help boys like his son, and men like himself.
 
“In the future I plan to do anything to assist Turning Leaf because they’ve done nothing but support me from Day One. I’ll either be a part of Turning Leaf and go hard for it, or I’ll start something myself. But people need to know they have value. I can help with that.”
 
* * * *
 
Troy could have written this piece himself. He didn’t need us to interview him, to tell his story for him. But we’re honored to have had the chance to get to know a person we truly believe will change the world. Good luck, Troy, as you finish up here and move onto even bigger things. We have your back all the way!

JB


Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
 
–Matthew 5:44, King James Bible
 
Turning Leaf isn’t a faith-based organization, but when a student comes to us with a story heavily punctuated by loss, and yet has “love your enemies” tattooed on his bicep, it’s worth noting. The idea of loving one’s enemies is heady, particularly in a group of men whose loyalties are to the streets, which are never loyal in return.

At 28, JB is still young. He has his life ahead of him. His past has been difficult to overcome, but with the help of Turning Leaf and his own resilience, we know he can do it.

This is JB’s story.
 
* * * *
 
“I’ve been to damn near every school in Summerville at one point or another,” JB says early in our conversation. His mother worked at a kidney dialysis center, but with three children at home, she struggled to make ends meet. The family moved a lot, and while the children always had clothes on their backs and food in their bellies, things were definitely difficult. The neighborhoods in which they lived were rough; drugs and violence were commonplace. When JB was only 14-years-old, he watched a friend get shot to death in the street by thugs cruising his neighborhood. It was his first brush with death, but it wouldn’t be the last. Not by a long shot.

From the youngest age, JB was expected to help his mother with money. At school when he was very small, he sold candy his mama purchased using EBT. The few dollars he made went toward rent payments and food purchases, but still, ends didn’t quite meet. When JB was a teenager, they moved back to a place they used to live. He found his old group of friends, and when he learned they were selling drugs and burglarizing people/places, he dove straight in. “I was fifteen or sixteen years old,” he says. “The money, the jewelry, the cars, the clothes. It all fascinated my eyes.”

Besides, with two other children at home to provide for, he knew his mother would appreciate the financial opportunities of the streets. “I was the oldest,” he says. “I’d see her crying, frustrated, and I knew I had to help.”  His motivation those days was simple: wake up, make some money, sell some drugs, and find his next link (burglary target).

JB’s first arrest came when he was only 17-years-old. He was selling drugs out of his house with four of his friends. There was an altercation. A shooting. All four boys were charged with first degree burglary, shooting into a dwelling, and attempted murder. The charges were dropped, but the damage was done: the police knew JB’s face. Since then, he’s been arrested at least 15 times.

JB was kicked out of school in the 12th grade, and he wasn’t allowed to attend an alternative school. He tried adult school but dropped out after a few days. His mother kicked him out of the house, so we went to live with his dad. That only lasted a month before he wound up back at his mother’s. He got a job at Taco Bell that lasted a couple years, but JB kept hustling on the streets.

But the hustling lifestyle isn’t an easy one, nor is it safe. When JB and his homeboy, his closest partner, went to Myrtle Beach for a night, things fell apart. JB and his friend separated on the strip, each of them talking to a different girl. A few minutes later, the street was buzzing: someone was shooting people just down the road. There’d been words exchanged. An altercation. Then someone with a gun started shooting. People died.

JB wasn’t worried. He and his friends were young. Invincible. But then his homeboy’s mama called. “She was crying, just saying, ‘My baby, my baby, he’s gone,’ over and over,” says JB. Still, things felt hazy. Unreal. It wasn’t until he pulled into his neighborhood back in Summerville that the thought daggered him. His best friend. Closest partner. He was gone.

JB quit working at Taco Bell. “I couldn’t work with all that on my mind,” he says. He was 20 years old, unemployed, and running the streets full time.

JB’s next big arrest (and first conviction) came for attempted armed robbery when he was 24. And this is where it becomes pertinent to note: the legal system is vast. Confusing. Utterly inexplicable at times. When JB was sent to prison for this first conviction, he had a set time frame in his head. However, his attorney didn’t like the way some things had gone down, and JB was brought back to court without knowing why. Things happened there that JB didn’t follow, and he returned to a prison on lockdown following a riot. There were no phone calls, no contact from the outside world, so when, two days later, a woman standing at his dormitory door told him it was his release day, JB can be forgiven for being confused. When his mother showed to pick him up, JB rushed her out the door. “I thought it was a mistake,” he says. “But I’m trying to get my piece of freedom!”

Like a dream they left the prison, and for a fleeting moment, JB thought things might be different. He thought he might stay out of prison. But with release a solid six months earlier than he expected, JB hadn’t taken the time he needed to get his head straight. He says, “My mind and my thoughts and my plans hadn’t been gathered already. I hadn’t been able to get my mind stable.” Within 12 hours of getting home, he was carrying his gun again. Within 24 hours, he was selling drugs. What else would you expect? That was the life JB knew.

The next six months were a blur of drug sales, arrests, gun charges, and probation violations. By the third arrest, JB was held without opportunity to bond out. Two days after Christmas, he found himself in federal court facing federal time, and reality set in: he wouldn’t be going home anytime soon.

JB served his federal time, surrounded by older men with far longer sentences, and this time, when his release day came, he was ready to go home, in a better frame of mind and with plans for the future. But in one last twist of fate (and clutter of court systems), JB got some difficult news: he wasn’t done serving time yet. He had another year of state prison to serve for probation violations. Around the same time, he learned he lost yet another friend to the streets. Another life lost, another year to serve. It was a hard time, but JB found himself by mentoring his dorm-mates. Time passed slowly, but it did pass, and release day came again.

This time, JB was determined to do things right. He found Turning Leaf early, but decided he’d rather find his own path forward and dropped out. He was hired on as a temporary employee at a recycling center, but when months passed and they didn’t hire him full time (which would have come with a $5/hour pay raise), he left that, too. He felt himself starting to give up again. Starting to think about the streets.

Instead of selling drugs, though, JB gave Turning Leaf another shot.

This time, everything feels different. JB is determined to succeed. “The classes are the most helpful part,” he says. “Looking around the room, seeing the other guys. We’ve been through the same things. We’re helping and working with each other. We all did dirt, but we’re trying to put the bad behind us. We ain’t kids any more.”

* * * *

JB is living by the scripture tattooed on his arm these days. He’s treating people the way he wants to be treated, working hard to provide his children with the life they deserve. As his graduation from Turning Leaf approaches, he’s focused on using the skills he learns in the classroom to get through life in a responsible fashion. We know you can do it, JB! We’re behind you all the way!

Rigg

Drugs. Robberies. Guns. Violence. There are so many things for parents to worry about. Sometimes, all a mama can do is try her hardest and hope that someday her child will hear her.

That’s how it was with Rigg. His mama did everything she could to show a good way to live. But from the moment he, as a little boy, touched a hot stove just because his mama told him not to, it was clear Rigg would make his own choices, whether or not they were the right ones.

It took a while, to be sure, but after years stuck in the incarceration cycle and even more years running the streets, Rigg is finally ready to listen to his mama.

This is his story.

* * * *

Rigg grew up in the Liberty Hill neighborhood of North Charleston in the 1980s. Most residents were property owners and lived the straight and narrow life. The community was tight. Everybody was related to everybody else.

“We were a single-parent household, but my mama was a hell of a provider,” he says. He and his three siblings never went without a meal. The lights were never turned off. She worked cashier jobs and was always able to make ends meet. They lived in rental properties when he was a kid but she owns a home today, a fact he mentions with obvious pride.

But Rigg was a handful. “Out of all my mama’s kids, I might have been the smartest one,” he says. “But I do the dumbest things. I just always wanted to get out there to see things for myself. I was always going to do exactly what my mama told me not to do.” Case in point: the hot stove. “She told me not to touch it, but I did. Then when she came out, I said, ‘Mama, I touched the eye, but it didn’t burn me. It just depends on how long you touch the fire, whether you get burned or not.’”

It was the late 80s and early 90s, at the height of the crack epidemic. Rigg saw enough in his neighborhood to burn him. Liberty Hill had more than its share of drugs and violence. Dealers, too, whom Rigg idolized. “I’d see someone on the streets, and I’d think, damn, he’s got all the nice shoes, the nice clothes. One day I’m gonna be him,” he says.

He and his family moved to a “better” neighborhood when Rigg was a teenager. There, he found a group of kids who also liked pushing boundaries. It began with robberies and slid into drug sales. They started making money – more than his mama could give him – and it became an addiction. He brought weed into the house one night, hiding it in his pillow while he slept. “My mama’s got a nose like a dog,” he says. She came into the room he shared with one of his brothers and zeroed in on the hidden goods. She grabbed him, said, “I know you didn’t bring this into my house,” and, in Rigg’s words, they “had a falling out.” He moved out and began staying with various friends. Life slipped rapidly out of control.

Riggs went to prison for the first time in high school. He pled a carjacking charge down to a strong-arm robbery and received a Youthful Offender Act (YOA) sentence of 1-6 years. He only served ten months, but then violated probation multiple times on drug and gun charges.

Research has proven over and over again that most people eventually age out of crime. They get too old, too tired to keep up on the streets, and they find other ways to live. Rigg was almost an example of this. When his son was born, he kept running the streets full-time, undeterred, but when his daughters were born, everything changed. “The way these little girls gravitate toward me,” he says. “I knew from the start: these girls cannot be without me.”

He started pulling back from the streets, ever so slightly, managing to stay out of trouble for a long time. As he entered his late 30s, Rigg wanted to transition completely away from the streets, but he knew it would be difficult. The streets were where he’d always made his money; he didn’t know how else to support his family. He enrolled in a free masonry class, but then disaster struck. He was caught with guns in a neighborhood rife with unsolved violent crimes and murders. The local police turned him over to the feds. A 40-month sentence sent him to Coleman Federal Penitentiary in Florida, which has housed some notorious prisoners including Al-Qaeda supporters and Whitey Bulger.

It was a wakeup call. “That’s where I learned to respect life,” he says. “The first day I was on the yard, I assumed everyone was in for a similar time and similar charges as me.” A man approached him and asked Rigg how long he was in for. “I said I got forty, and he replied back to me I got forty years too! It really opened my eyes. Some of those dudes had nothing to lose, and I’m in there just trying to make it home.”

Which he did, after serving 29 of his 40 months. Several chance encounters landed Rigg at Turning Leaf, where he is continuing his transition away from the streets. “The only way to change what’s going on around me is to change myself,” he says. And while he thinks he’d have been successful in leaving the streets behind if he’d finished his masonry class several years ago, he’s grateful for what he’s found here.

It wasn’t love at first sight, though. Let’s be clear on that. “I was kind of resistant at first,” he says. “The program was taking up my whole day. By the time I’d get off everything was closed and my kids were tired.”

Rigg had a turning point when the Classroom Facilitator, Winard, opened up to him about his own life and experiences. Rigg says, “When he let me know who he was and what he went through, I realized everybody in the classroom is the same as me, even the teacher. You can’t tell what his life was by looking at him. He keeps a smile on his face and he’s clean cut and all that. But he really understands where I’m coming from.”

Rigg also found support from the Case Manager, Justin. He’s found all the people at Turning Leaf, in fact, to be genuine. Kind. Supportive. He knows a program like this is only as good as the people running it, and he believes Turning Leaf is great.

He uses Skill #5, Deciding to be Responsible, daily. “It always comes down to that one decision,” he says. “Deciding to do the right thing might be a little harder, but in the end it’s going to pay off.” He discusses the day’s lessons with friends at night, and reflects on his journey when working on his homework. It’s almost like his life has come full circle, and he’s finally learning the lessons about hard work, and dedication that his mama tried to teach him all those years ago.

* * * *

Rigg is leaving us very soon to go to his permanent job, but we know he’s going to succeed, using all the skills from the classroom and all the wisdom he’s earned through a life full of twists and turns. Best of luck to you, Riggs! You’ve got this!

Deon

“The power to grant pardons and clemency is one of the most profound authorities granted to the President of the United States. It embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance.”

–President Barack Obama, January 19, 2017

It’s not every day you get a letter from a sitting President of the United States, giving you a second chance at life. But then, not everyone gets lost in the darkness of the streets and not everyone begins using his voice and leadership while still in prison to lead others into the light. In the words sung by then-President Barack Obama in the hallowed sanctuary of the Mother Emanuel AME Church, “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.”

This is Deon’s story.

* * * *

Deon grew up in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, a few short miles from Magnolia Plantation, a thriving tourist attraction where his direct ancestors were once enslaved. His street was populated by extended family, and in his house were packed his grandmother, granddaddy, mother, sister, auntie, and two cousins. “We made do,” he says. “We always had food and clothes.” Deon’s auntie used WIC to buy groceries while his mother, a phlebotomist at the American Red Cross, paid other bills. One of his uncles on the street was an electrician. Another was a plumber. They all took care of each other.

After school each day, all the kids piled into Deon’s house, and his grandmother cooked giant bags of French fries and eight-packs of hot dogs for all of them. Afternoons were spent riding bikes and playing games outside.

Sounds idyllic, right? It wasn’t, at least not for Deon.

“I’ve experienced pain all my life,” he says. He was diagnosed with sickle cell when he was eight months old. The blood disorder creates sickle-shaped red blood cells that get caught up in veins and arteries, causing inflammation and debilitating pain. In the 1980s, when Deon was young, the life expectancy for a child with sickle cell was only 25 years.

It’s a lot of baggage for a little boy who only wanted to grow up to join the Army.

He found marijuana at a young age. Some of his older cousins smoked, and they showed him how to sell just enough to keep smoking for free. Deon still had dreams, though, of working a regular job and having a normal life. He got a part time job at McDonalds when he was 14 and was crushing it until he had a sickle cell flare up. He was in the hospital for two weeks, and he came back to find his hours cut drastically. “They told me they didn’t want to make me sick. It was a blow,” he says. “I thought I had potential.”

The cycle repeated itself in quick succession. “All the jobs sucked after I’d get sick,” he says. “But I noticed when I was selling drugs, if I got sick, people were looking for me, and when I get well, they were happy to see me.”

So Deon went all in on dealing, hollowing out textbooks to hide and sell weed at school. That backfired on the last day before winter break of his freshman year. A friend was forced to turn him in, and he was hauled out of class and brought to the principal’s office. He tried to hide the drugs he’d stashed under his belt, but the game was up. He was arrested, taken out of the building in handcuffs while the rest of the kids were leaving for the holidays.

Determined not to let her son’s academic career flounder, Deon’s mother enrolled him at the Henry P. Archer School for the rest of the school year. Built in the 1930s as a school for Black students during Jim Crow, by the 1980s Archer was, in Deon’s words, “a mosh pit of people who got kicked out of school from everywhere. Archer was my first taste of jail.” There were stabbings despite metal detectors at the entrances. Fights were daily occurrences. Even now, over 20 years later, Deon gets visibly uncomfortable talking about Archer School.

The next year he went back to his regular school, academically behind and with a bad reputation. “I wanted to better myself,” he says. “But how? I tried so many jobs, but the streets were always easier.” He got deeper and deeper into the life, first selling cocaine at college parties, then, eventually, guns and crack.

By his side, always, was his younger cousin. The two were more like brothers; they grew up in the same room, shared the same bed. It was his cousin who told Deon how much money they could make selling crack. At first Deon was resistant. “I didn’t want to sell that. Those guys go around with rocks in their hands, looking crazy. Some of them even have rocks in their mouths.” The money was too good to pass up, though. “We would drive into a neighborhood and get a line of thirty people who would come to the car. It’s crazy.”

It was an endless party…until the party ended.

First, in 2003, Deon’s cousin killed himself. “I just thought, if his life is that destructive, what’s my life, if he’s mimicking me?”

Deon spiraled into depression, praying for guidance. He stopped selling drugs, trying to leave that world behind, but he didn’t change his expensive lifestyle. When his live-in girlfriend told him they were out of cash, he fell right back into his own ways. It wasn’t right, though. He still wanted out. “I prayed to God to take me out of this. I can’t do it anymore.”

Soon after, police kicked in the door to his townhouse. He should have been killed; he was armed when they found him. But he wasn’t. He was sentenced to 25 years instead.

His prayers were answered, but he didn’t know it yet. For a long while, things would only get harder.

Deon’s first stop was Estill Federal Correctional Institution, a medium/high security prison where violence is as much a part of the landscape as barbed wire. “I left the streets to go right back to the streets of prison,” he says. “I was selling drugs in the first month.”

It seemed like business as usual, until suddenly it wasn’t. One day he was playing cards in the yard when a handball game devolved into a fight. One man stabbed another with a knife pulled from his bag.

“We’ve got to break this up,” Deon said to the guys around him. “But they told me, ‘You don’t see nothing. You don’t hear nothing. Keep playing cards. Focus on the table.’ I watched the dude walk away, bleeding, and nobody helped him. And I just thought, this is vicious. It was worse than on the streets. In the streets, you see people shooting each other, but if someone’s shot, they always call for help. There’s hood, and then there’s Estill.”

A sickle cell flare up landed Deon in the hospital for two weeks, and Estill officials decided keeping Deon was too dangerous (and expensive – he was “property” of the Bureau of Prisons, and as such, Estill had to foot the hospital bill). They transferred him to Butner, a lower security facility in North Carolina. It was the first time sickle cell helped Deon, ever.

Things still wouldn’t be easy, though. The atmosphere was more relaxed, but he was still in the game, selling drugs, making wine, and running card games.

And then his beloved granddaddy died. “He told me before I went in that he didn’t do prisons,” says Deon. “So when he called me and told me it was time for him to come see me, I knew he was dying. When he died, it broke me all over again.”

Deon went back to praying. He found mentors, other men who were willing to extend a hand back down the ladder to pull Deon up out of the darkness. The first was a man who told him: “You’re a good leader. People listen to you. They follow you. You’re just playing for the wrong team.”

The second was a preacher who practiced what he preached. “He taught me to love people and care for people no matter what,” Deon says. “He didn’t judge people, so how could I?”

Deon’s life started transforming. “The last two years were a very deep spiritual journey for me,” he says. “I was finding myself by helping other people.” He took on responsibilities in the prison, working as a photographer for the warden and running various enrichment programs for other incarcerated men. He became a guy to depend on for help and kindness, rather than for drugs.

When President Obama began granting clemency to incarcerated people of color in an attempt to make up for racism in the criminal justice system, prison staff and inmates were behind him, but Deon was denied three times. All hope seemed lost, but Deon and his mentor had time for one last shot. They wrote a final petition as President Obama began his final year in office. They told the President about Deon’s life. Sickle cell. The endless cycle of going-nowhere jobs and hospital stays. The streets, yes, but also how he’d turned his life around. They talked about the work he did in the prison system, helping others, reaching his own hand back down to find ways to change the lives of the men around him. They told him how much Deon wanted to contribute to the world.

On January 19, 2017, he received the letter. “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong and change your life for the better,” the President said. Prison staff and fellow inmates cheered. Deon would soon be free.

He met Turning Leaf founder, Amy Barch, at the halfway house in North Charleston. “I didn’t hear her speak,” he says. “I heard her heart.” He knew he had to be a part of her program.

“Turning Leaf was a reinforcement of the work I’d been doing those last two years,” he says. “Coming home is different than prison life. Turning Leaf taught me how to adapt. It was a safe space. I could always talk to Justin. I could always get the help I needed.”

Deon graduated in 2017. He worked for a print shop before starting his own screen-printing business. He’s married now and planning to have children. He’s home every night instead of in prison or running the streets. And this summer, he’s reaching that hand back down again. Deon is joining the Turning Leaf team as the Classroom Facilitator for our Columbia center. “When I was in the program, Amy taught the classes,” he says. “Joe taught the classes. Justin taught the classes. Now I’m going to be teaching the classes. I still can’t believe it.”

Soon he’ll help men coming home from prison find their own path to success. He’ll do exactly what President Obama knew he could.

Congratulations, Deon, on how far you’ve come. We know you’re going to change the world.

Stephen

When is a “debt to society” fully paid? When can we move beyond the choices made by a child to see that, maybe, their “choices” were inevitable?

Stephen spent upwards of 23 years in prison. He was inside for most of his 20s, all his 30s, and a lot of his 40s as well. He doesn’t deny the necessity of that time. He doesn’t make excuses for the crimes he committed, nor does he downplay them. He did bad things. He knows it.

But today, even now, this Turning Leaf graduate is dealing with the consequences of those actions. He was just let go from a job at which he was excelling after failing a background check. His crimes were committed two decades ago.

This is Stephen’s story.

* * * *

To understand Stephen’s story, you need to know the setting. Stephen was born in 1973 in Overtown, a historic district in Miami that was known as Colored Town during Jim Crow. One of the oldest Black settlements in the country, it was once a thriving part of the city. Visionaries like  Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Cab Calloway stayed in Overtown when playing in Miami. They couldn’t stay in white districts.

Overtown had its own theater – the Lyric – and a vibrant social and economic lifestyle. Good Bread Alley, with its well-kept row houses and bakeries, was the yeast-scented hub of the neighborhood.

But by the time Stephen was born Overtown was, in his words, a ghetto.  He lived in a 2-bedroom garden apartment just outside the “official” neighborhood projects.  Behind his apartment was an empty lot where they’d throw bottles and cans. Nearby stood an empty field where they kept stolen cars. And, as he says, “A ghetto is a ghetto. It doesn’t matter how high the apartment is. The neighborhood is just as rough.”

“Growing up in Overtown was never scary, though,” he says. “You see so much violence and death and everything every day. It’s everywhere you go.”

One memory sticks out. Stephen was 11 or 12, walking through the projects at night. “In the projects they shoot out all the lights and you’ve got trees everywhere. It’s dark. If you really don’t live there, you shouldn’t walk through the projects,” he says. “Guys sit in the dark, and in the little bit of light they can see you coming. They say, when they see you, ‘Oh, that’s what’s-his-name coming through.’ They know. But in the middle of the projects, it gets real, real dark.”

That night, in the distance, a door opened. “There was light from the door,” he says. “I see this lady, for a brief moment, and then this dude shot her, right in the head. Boom. I heard the gunshot. But I didn’t even really know she was shot until the ambulance came and put a sheet over the body.”

Just another night in Overtown.

On some levels, Stephen knew he had it better than others. They weren’t in the projects, after all. Their apartment was decent, and although he was the youngest of nine children (six boys and three girls), the older siblings were encouraged to move out as soon as possible, which helped with overcrowding. His mom cleaned houses for rich Miami families. She’d bring home bags of designer hand-me-downs for the children, many of which still had tags. While the kids in Stephen’s class wore Converse All Stars and corduroy pants, he was in Izod and Polo. When he complained to his mother about dressing different, she asked how the girls treated him.

“I said, ‘They love me,’ and she said, ‘Well, there you go. If it’s a woman you want to impress, a guy has to know how to dress.’” That was the end of that discussion.

Stephen’s father was a longshoreman, gone from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Together his parents made enough money. They could have moved out of Overtown had they chosen to. Instead they stayed. Their neighborhood was historic, inexpensive, and everything they needed was within walking distance. “My mother never drove a car in her life,” says Stephen.

Unlike the majority of their classmates, Stephen and his siblings didn’t qualify for free school lunch. And while his father was liberal and generous with Stephen’s sisters, Stephen had a different experience. “One day, I asked my father for some money,” Stephen says. “He’s like, ‘I’ll be glad when you get older and can take care of yourself.’ I was eight years old.”

That stuck with Stephen. Already a bit of a wild child, he became fiercely independent.

Stephen committed his first robbery when he was nine years old. Yes, that’s correct. Nine. While other boys his age were playing He-Man and GI Joe, he and his fourteen-year-old godbrother robbed a Circle K. From there, all bets were off. Stephen was running the streets, dealing drugs, robbing. He fit in with his brothers; they were already doing the same. “I didn’t have to go in the streets to get the drugs to sell,” he says. They were right there in his own apartment.

“I got a lot of beatings,” he says. By the time he was eleven his mother was so frustrated with his behavior – staying out all night, selling drugs, robbing – that she moved him into an efficiency across the street from their apartment. He lived in that room, alone, while his mother kept watch from afar to make sure he went to school every day.

Which he did. He liked school. He sold drugs there. “I made a lot of money at school,” he says, laughing. “It was the 70s, you know? Still a little like hippie days. We were all smoking dollar joints.”

He did his schoolwork, often during quiet points of a night on the streets, even if he didn’t make it to class. Sometimes he had his sister turn in the work for him. He made Bs and Cs, mostly, with an occasional A.

At school Stephen was well-known for his generosity. “Sometimes the school would call my mother,” he says, “saying, ‘do you know this boy got thousands of dollars in his pocket?’” He used the money to take are of everyone around him. “I’d buy my sisters lunch and treats for everyone else. It was like, I’d see chocolate chip cookies, and I’d say, ‘Gimme all them cookies right there. I want every last one of them.’”

When he was twelve he bought a car from a local dealership for a thousand dollars and drove himself to see his grandparents in Harleyville, South Carolina. He didn’t know the way, couldn’t even see over the steering wheel, but he made it.

Stephen’s first arrest came in 1985. He was twelve, selling crack on the street one evening, when he saw police watching him. “The dude I was serving didn’t see them. He was trying to pick what crack he wanted,” Stephen says. He rushed the guy along, pointing out the cops. “He put his little four rocks in his mouth and we both ran.”

Stephen knew if he could make it to the projects he’d be safe. They had him in their net, but he escaped.

They caught him a day or two later at his mother’s house. He had a pocketful of cash, and they pinned a lot of other things on him, too. “They found a big old bag of crack that was not mine,” says Stephen. “And a couple of pounds of marijuana that was not mine…and about a half a kilo of cocaine which wasn’t mine.” The judge tried to throw the book at him, but a technicality with a gun’s serial number got him released instead. Stephen, still only thirteen, asked the judge if he’d get his pocketful of confiscated cash back. The judge told him he could sue for its return, to which Stephen replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll just get more on the streets.” The judge threw him out of the courtroom.

“And that,” says Stephen, “was the last time I sold drugs. From then on I had people working for me.”

Throughout his teens he lived in Florida and South Carolina, hustling, with a staff of dealers working for him. In 1993 he went to prison for trafficking cocaine and was released in 1994. His first real stay in prison came in 1996 when he served four years for assault and battery with intent to kill. His mother died while he was inside. He wasn’t able to attend her funeral.

But, he says, “I never stopped hustling in prison.” When he got out in 2000, he went right back to robbing. This time it was grocery stores, jewelry stores, and even banks. The only thing he knew, and the most unsustainable life imaginable.

By 2001 he was back in prison on racketeering and armed robbery charges. He served 18 and a half years of a 20-year sentence. This time it was his father and his grandfather who passed away while he was inside. Stephen finally realized things needed to change.

“Prison doesn’t rehabilitate you,” he says. “You got to rehabilitate yourself.”

He enrolled in every program that came along, from janitorial certifications to culinary arts. He worked with two women in the kitchen who had a big impact on him, teaching him how to cook while imparting him life lessons. “They told me, ‘Don’t be scared. Sometimes you’re going to mess up, even in life,’” he says.

Stephen found Turning Leaf through a friend at the halfway house after his release. At 48 years old, he’d missed so much of his life, he knew he could never go back to prison. As soon as he got here, he knew he wanted to stay. To learn. To change.

“I learned a lot from Joe,” he says. Joe was the Classroom Facilitator at the time. “He taught me how to deal with pride, and about the Man Box and how to get out of it. Society tells us what we think a man should and shouldn’t be. It’s not always right.”

He also learned the difference, as he puts it, “between a citizen of a community and someone like me, doing crime. I shouldn’t expect a person that’s a law-abiding citizen to feel and think the way I do.”

“Turning Leaf is like a family,” he says. “Growing up, everybody loved me. I was always loved. When I had all the money I shared it with everybody, but then, in my time of need, I never had anybody there for me. Until Turning Leaf. In my time of need, they supported me. They said, ‘Okay, man, we’re gonna give you all the tools to succeed.’ They helped me find the path out.”

After graduating Stephen was hired by a global company pending his background approval. He was crushing it at work and his manager loved him. But the background check went deep and found the extent of his crimes, so he was let go. His manager fought for him but was overruled. “It was big for me, to have a GM fight for me the way he did,” says Stephen. “He let me know I was doing the right thing. He told me I could call him anytime.”

“But it makes me wonder. Even with all the time I did, when will I have paid my debt to society. I feel like no matter how much time you did and how hard you worked to rectify the situation, you’re still in debt.”

“I was young and made wrong choices. But I did my time. When will it be enough?”

* * * *

At Turning Leaf, we believe it’s more than enough already. He’s back with us while we work to find another job placement. We will never turn our back on you, Stephen. Like you said, Turning Leaf is family, and we’re your family now.

Alizé

At 24 years old, Alizé is younger than most of the guys we see at Turning Leaf. A lot of times, guys younger than 25 struggle with the program. They’re youthful, still impulsive, and not quite ready to say goodbye to the streets.

It’s different for Alizé, though. A quiet man with a polite smile and a “yes, ma’am” from beneath his mask in the hallways, it’s taken me a minute to get to know him. But in the classroom, he’s a calming force, always doing what’s asked and more. He’s been to prison and come out on the other side determined to be a better example for the two people who matter most: his little brother and sister.

This is Alizé’s story.

* * * *

Alizé grew up in North Charleston. He knew his dad a little but didn’t actually spend time with him. It was just Alizé and his mother and then, after a few years, his little sister, and a little brother a few years after that. They lived with his grandmother, but Alizé knew his mother wanted a place of their own.

The most positive role model in his life was Alizé’s granddaddy, who had his own story. “My granddaddy was a bootlegger,” he says. “A liquor man. You come over there, you buy liquor, buy cigarettes, blunts, cigars. Candies and chips. He had a little bit of hustle.” He had diabetes, and was an amputee which, according to Alizé, kept him from “straight” work for the rest of his life. So while he was loving and cared for Alizé, he wasn’t exactly modeling great behavior for a little kid desperate to help his mama out.

“I was trying to be the man of the house,” says Alizé. “I was looking up to the wrong people, not listening to my mama. Seeing her struggle, I wanted to help, but I was too young. The only way I could see to help was to go out and try to hustle.”

He was 11 years old the first time he smoked marijuana. He’d grown up watching his cousins and other guys in his neighborhood. “I had a lot of family tied up in different things,” he says. “I didn’t have a real father figure so when I went outside I was trying to run around and be like my older cousins. And instead of pulling me on a different path, they put it in my hands.”

At 12, Alizé was dealing. He says, “My mama stayed on me as much as she could, but there’s only so much she could do. She had to worry about my brother and sister.” He was trying to help, but now he knows, “even though I was helping her financially, I was hurting her mentally and emotionally. She knew what I was out there doing.”

He stayed in school until the 9th grade when he was expelled for truancy and fighting. He was full-fledged in the street life from then on. “I might be up all night and sleep all morning,” he says. “I’d get up late – about one or two o’clock – with a bunch of missed calls. I’d catch up, go make plays. I’d make sure my gun was with me all the time no matter where I’d go.”

He’s had to use the gun but doesn’t like to speak about it. It was an integral part of him, though. A piece that could literally never be left behind. “Once you get a little bit of money,” he says, “people get jealous and they might try to rob you. Or somebody might have a problem with someone in my clique, or they might see me and try to get at me. The gun is mandatory. You gotta keep it on you.”

Somehow Alizé stayed out of trouble with police until he was twenty, when the feds caught him on a drug trafficking with possession of a firearm charge. “I had a feeling about the informant I served when I did it,” he says. “But they waited so long to get me.” The sale went down in 2016 but they didn’t arrest Alizé until October of 2017.

That day, he was with his granddaddy, helping to take care of the older man. “I got up early that morning to go over there, get him up, wash him, fix him something to eat and get him together,” says Alizé. His granddaddy knew what he was doing with his life and didn’t approve, but that morning Alizé was in the back room anyway, sealing up some dope, getting ready to make a play. Suddenly, he says, his grandfather called, “’Man! Man!’ He called me Man. ‘The police are outside,’ he said.” Alizé thought they were just riding past, that his granddaddy was exaggerating. “But when I looked out the window, I saw the FBI and the sheriff’s office, and I knew they can’t be here for my granddad.”

They weren’t. The feds had finally caught Alizé.

He sat in county for about 15 months before pleading out to a five year sentence. “Prison and jail are different things,” he says. “In jail I was more laid back. I knew a lot of people there. I was just waiting, trying to see if I’m going home or if I’m going up the road.”

“In prison,” he continues, “you can’t let nobody think you’re soft or try to play with you in any type of way. You have to stand your ground.”

He was part of a race riot early in his prison stay. Blacks and whites fought each other, and while a lot of people “got messed up,” Alizé came away unscathed.

Eventually, he settled in and realized it was time to make a change. “I got in good with a couple of older dudes, trying to point me in the right direction. To calm me down. I’ve been really getting into the word of God,” he says. “I’ve been reading the Bible a lot.” He got a job in the movie room and found a way to be his laid back self again, just trying to stay out of the way.

His granddaddy died while he was still in prison. It was hard, but Alizé believes he’s in a better place now.

When Alizé was released from prison to finish his sentence in a halfway house, he knew he wanted something different. “I wanted to see a change in my life,” he says. “My sister is 17 and my brother is 12. They look up to me and, you know, my little brother, he’s been looking up to me for the wrong reasons. I’d like to see it rub off on him now that I’m back and things are better. Because he’s 12, and that’s the age I was when I got started. I can see him wanting to do things like that so I really need to set a good example for him. I don’t want him going down that path.”

“I also want to make a good life for myself,” he adds. “I want to have a family, a wife and kids, and I don’t want to be back and forth in jail for the rest of my life.”

It’s a great motivator for Alizé, as is Turning Leaf. His case manager at the halfway house told him about the program shortly after he arrived, and he called the next day. While the classroom was overwhelming at first (no one likes to roleplay in their first week, it seems like), he loves it now. “It’s a way to express yourself, for me to be myself,” he says. “It also helps you to think about stuff. It’s easy to get in trouble and hard to get out, but if you use the skills you’ll be all right.”

Deciding to say no has been a hugely important skill for Alizé. “I came home to a lot of people trying to get me to go down the wrong path,” he says. “They’re trying to put drugs in my hands, to put guns in my hands.” Setting boundaries helps, too. “I love some of them. We grew up together, but I have to distance myself sometimes.”

In the future Alizé wants to get his CDL and to get certified as a diesel mechanic. He smiles when he talks about the future. He has a plan, and for the first time he knows how to implement it. He knows he can get there. And he knows he’s on the right path.

* * * *

We know you’re on the right path, too. And we’re going to do everything we can to help you, Alizé. We’re so proud of you, and at 24, you have a lifetime waiting for you!