Cornelius

Captured by Leah Rhyne

What’s in a name? Shakespeare wrote about the importance of names in Romeo and Juliet, a tragic story in which names kept two young lovers from ever being together. But can a name have such importance in contemporary society?

It can, when it’s a name a beloved grandfather proudly passed down to one of his favorite grandchildren. It can, when that grandchild didn’t honor the name, choosing the easy route of the drug trade over honest, hard work. It can, when that grandchild is now determined to bring pride back to the name, turning his life around to finally be the father his daughters deserve.

As a child, Cornelius was proud to take on his grandfather’s nickname, DP. He knows he squandered it, though. However, after 10 years in federal prison, he’s working hard in the Turning Leaf program to bring honor to that nickname, and his grandfather, once again. This is his story.

Cornelius was raised by a family who loved him. His grandfather was a well-known local farmer who taught him the value of hard work. Known around the neighborhood as DP, his grandfather brought Cornelius under his wing, and Cornelius helped him around the farm. “He used to feed the neighborhood,” says Cornelius, pride in his voice. “He’d plant so much, then he’d go around. If you didn’t have it, he’s gonna give it to you.” The two were together so much that people started calling Cornelius DP, too, something he loved to hear.

Between DP and Cornelius’s grandmother and mother, a diabetic who took care of her parents, Cornelius grew up with structure, a roof over his head and clothes on his back. But that’s not always enough for a growing boy in a troubled neighborhood. “There were lots of bad activities in my neighborhood,” he says. “It was drug-infested.”

After his father took off when Cornelius was 13, he “got caught up in the wrong thing.” He started smoking weed at 14, staying out later. “I tried my hand at dealing, things started coming in easy, and I just didn’t stop.”

His grandfather was appalled, but DP was getting older and couldn’t give Cornelius the attention he’d lavished on him in the past. “My grandfather used to get on me a lot,” he says. “He loved when I took on his nickname, but then when I was on the street, he didn’t want me ruining his name.”

That motivation alone wasn’t enough to stop Cornelius from walking the path of drug dealing. It was just too easy to make money that way. He’d get in trouble on state charges – the first came for driving without a license when he was only 16, followed by DUIs and multiple drug charges, but he had the money to pay his lawyers to get him out and keep him out of jail.

His first serious charge came when he was 18. He was riding in a car with two of his friends. They had alcohol and drugs on them, and when police pulled them over, one of the boys ran. He dropped his stash, but the cops found it. Street code meant none of the boys ratted each other out, so all three got locked up, which started a domino effect that kept Cornelius hurtling toward federal prison.

It started with county prison first though, where he was kept in isolation. “You’re tossing and turning in there,” he says. “It feels like the walls are closing in on you. You’ve just got a hard bunk and you think you’re gonna change, you’re not gonna do it again. But the moment you walk out of the county jail, you’re back full-fledged in it.” (“It,” in this case, is the drug dealing lifestyle. Again. Still.)

Things went downhill for Cornelius from there. He and his brother were caught in set-up sales, in which someone wears a wire and asks for drugs. If you sell to them, you’re caught on video and audio, and you’re in trouble. Police found weed, other drugs, and guns in their house and he was arrested again. He got out on bond, but from there he caught charge after charge. Each was state, though, and he was able to buy his way out.

His brother got out of the business, then, and through it all Cornelius had kept their two youngest brothers out of the business, too. He made sure they went to school and stayed out of trouble. He’s proud of them – they’re both grown up and married and work hard to take care of their families.

That wasn’t Cornelius’s path, though. One night, three short months after his beloved grandfather’s death, Cornelius was home, putting his baby daughter to sleep. His girlfriend begged him to stay home, but after the baby was asleep, he went out for a run (a drug drop-off), and police were watching one of the guys he met. There was a high-speed chase, and the police caught Cornelius. He was already on probation and had loads of drugs in his car. This charge went federal.

The judge gave him 23 years in federal prison.

In court, his mom was crying. His whole family was hurt. He finally knew he had to change. He had to earn back the nickname of his grandfather and make his family proud again.

Cornelius was sent to prison in California, which was tough but also a blessing in disguise. Prison in California is different: it’s got a lot of politics, gangs, and it’s very strict. You have to walk a certain way, acknowledge the various cultures within its walls. “Going to California,” he says, “guys got knives bigger than you. It made me take the time to analyze myself, to study, and to take the trade classes.” Cornelius came away with a certification in painting from Sherwin Williams, a useful trade skill that can help him on the outside.

After 5 years on the west coast, during which he never had any visitors, he was transferred back east to a North Carolina facility. There, he was finally able to reunite with his family, including his daughters. The littlest had been a baby when he was arrested. “My baby girl was spooked when she first saw me,” he says. “But when I called her, she ran to me, and that was the best feeling in my life. She felt safe.”

He served 10 years of his sentence, reduced thanks to Barack Obama’s sentence reform legislation. The day he got out was amazing: he got to wear regular clothes instead of handcuffs! In the halfway house, he heard about Turning Leaf’s program, and how amazing it is. He was happy to get in.

“Here,” he says, “you can learn skills that mean a lot in life. If you can’t conduct yourself in the right way, getting a job won’t mean anything.”

At Turning Leaf, Cornelius is working hard to manage his frustrations, set boundaries for himself, and to stay calm in tough situations. It’s helping. He’s learned not to force himself on his daughters; he was absent much of their lives, and if he wants to have a good relationship with them now, he has to be patient and to show them he’s a different person than the man who went to prison. “I love them,” he says. “I’m working hard to be the daddy they need me to be. I want to have a good job and a house so I can see them running around in the yard. I’m trying every day to be a better person. It’s hard, but if I can do it, anybody can do it.”

And as for his grandfather, DP, if he could say one thing, it would be, “I’m working hard to be a better man so I can continue his legacy and make sure everything he left behind is taken care of.” He’s earning back that nickname one day at a time.

We are so proud of you, Cornelius! We see you working, and we know you’re going to be great!

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