I will not sugar coat anything as I write this. I have seen the worst of the worst. Reality is I have been the worst of the worst. Growing up in Chicago I learned to adapt to the community I was raised in. People who have never been where I am from have no idea what it is like. Cabrini-Green was once known as one of the worst places to live in the United States. I would have to agree it was.
Being taught how to survive never came across as crime. There were rules – not government rules – but rules that were followed in the streets. Some might well say my path was already chosen for me by having a mom who used drugs and a father in jail for murder. I ran with a gang and I did things I will never be proud of. I made mistakes and I learned from those mistakes. Choices – I had them but I did not believe in them. I only had gang leaders to look up to.
All I wanted to do was be like the dudes I saw running the streets. I could care less about anybody or their feelings. I had a “ready to die” outlook on life and a reputation to protect. Life is what you make it and I made it one big mess. When you’re taking chances that might put you in prison for a long time, people say you’re “throwing bricks at prison.” I was. My sister even tried to help but she was just as messed up as me. She did make me come to Minnesota though, which seemed like a dreamland compared to Chicago.
I spent some time in Cook County jail in Chicago but I was able to complete my probation while in Minnesota. Then I got caught in downtown St. Paul with drugs. I got probation again, but my sister couldn’t take it anymore and kicked me out of her home. I was homeless at 18 without a clue on how to make it in an unfamiliar place.
The first signs of change came when my probation officer (who would have been justified in sending me to prison) decided to give me yet another chance. I went to say hi to her the other day, asking why she never sent me to prison. She said it was because she saw “good in me.” I am so grateful that she was my probation officer because almost anyone else would have just put their hands up and walked away.
There are three reasons I stay out of prison. The first reason is my kids. My kids got me through a lot. If my sons Marcus and Johnl where not born when they were, I think it would have been easy for me throw away my whole life. I believe something happens to you to make you realize that you have to be a man. For me that moment came when my sons were born. I did not stop doing bad things at first, but thinking about my kids while spending 77 days in the Ramsey County work house made me think about my life in a new way. I told myself ‘I refuse to be like my father and leave my sons.’
Then my beautiful daughters came into my life and I really began to change I left my homeboys alone. I started to care about life because now I had a family. I had people on this earth who looked up to me and wanted to be like me. I admit I didn’t get it right the first several times but I eventually got the message around the time when my son, Johnl, was playing football in seventh grade. Because I was free, I had a chance to see him play. As I was watching, I thought about my own past and it occurred to me that my son has the chance to never have a criminal record and pursue his dreams.
Inspired by him, I began to pursue my own dreams. I got off my butt, got into school and made a real change. I have goals now. I want my son to play college football, but more importantly I want him to get a college degree. To set a good example, I went back to college myself. My dream is that he might carry my name to his own son and through all our actions, people around us begin to see it as an honorable name.
I also stay out of prison simply because I want to be a man and accept responsibility for my own decisions. I’m learning to stop making excuses and focus instead on making it right. It’s easy to blame everyone else for my problems. I’ve learned to accept what I did wrong and put the blame on myself. I used to blame my mom and dad because they were not in my life how I wanted them to be. I’d tell myself that if they were there I would have turned out differently. The truth is I make my own future, and after a certain age what I do is no longer their issue.
Finally, I stay out because I am focused on getting my life together and building a future. Leaving the past alone was the most important step to staying away from prison. The fast money and the wild times didn’t mean anything when I went to jail. No matter how many friends I thought I had on the streets, jail is still a lonely place. I learned that when I am in jail, I cannot expect anyone to be there for me, because I shouldn’t be there in the first place.
My advice to others who are struggling to avoid prison or stay out of prison is to believe in themselves. We are tempted to give up because it’s easy to think that money and power make us who we are. I don’t have the money I once had. I don’t have the cars or the lifestyle. I do have respect for myself and I do have more power now than I ever did running with a gang. I have the power to make my life better, one day at a time. I work hard and I don’t hurt anyone else or myself to get what I have. What I possess these days means so much more because I did it the right way.
editor’s note – Johnl Jones is a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College who is interning at Amicus, helping those coming out of prison in their searches for jobs, housing and other basic necessities through Amicus Reconnect. He is also an accomplished hip hop composer and artist. We’re grateful to him for offering others the gift of his story.