Captured by Leah Rhyne
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.”
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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.