But the lure of drugs and easy money are strong, and the lifestyle drew Antonio in. It’s taken decades and multiple prison sentences to show him: it’s time to grow up. His new life won’t be easy, but he’s dedicated to making a change. He, like many of our students, is dedicated to making it all work.

* * * *

Antonio’s favorite toy was a rocking horse his grandmother gave him when he was very young. “I loved that horse,” he says. “I loved it until I tore it up. My mom still talks about it.” He went to Church a lot: Sunday, Wednesday night, Friday, and choir practice on Saturdays. His mama, grandma, grandpa – they loved him. They didn’t cuss, didn’t drink, gave him everything he needed. His daddy was part of his life, too, albeit a bit of a more difficult one. “He was an alcoholic,” says Antonio. “Sometimes the neighbors would call to say Daddy was drunk, maybe he was falling down.” He knew his daddy loved him, too. If his mama needed money, his daddy provided it, and Antonio talked to his daddy all the time.

Still. Things weren’t perfect. Antonio was an outcast in his neighborhood, choosing not to do things other kids were doing. He realizes today, “They were less fortunate. I had everything I really needed.” The other kids often didn’t.

There was violence in his world, too. One day, his Mama came home married. “What the hell,” says Antonio. “He was just thrown on us, and I was mad. I didn’t like that dude, and I never really gave him a chance. But he abused my mama. That’s really the worst memory I have.” Antonio fought his stepfather, both to protect his mama and himself. “I hit him first. I was like, I know I can’t be a grown man but I’m gonna try.” He found out later his mother hid a lot of the violence from the rest of the family, and he felt alone.

The streets called. By age 17, he says, “My life was the street. Being your own boss, doing your own thing. I didn’t have to ask my mama for money. I didn’t have to explain why I spent $500.” He had a job for a while, working as a dishwasher at the original Noisy Oyster restaurant but, as he says, “A normal job isn’t instant money. You have to wait on a paycheck.” When he lost that job, he headed to the streets full time.

“It’s like a vacuum cleaner – it sucks you in,” he says. “And eventually you think, how’d I even get here? I’m in deep, getting high. I did everything. Cocaine, weed…everything.” He caught a bunch of charges but had good lawyers and shook most of them, so he had no reason to change. “I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do. I had females. Clout. I love going out of town. There ain’t too many places I’ve never been. I always had a lot of money in my pocket, and I was able to make decisions on a whim.”

He was into gambling, too, playing cards often and for high stakes. “It was nothing to me to lose $4,000 or $5,000 a hand” he says. “I liked the excitement of it.”

In retrospect, he sees how crazy the lifestyle actually was. One night he was coming out of a club when he and his friends saw a man lying on the ground. “He was dead like Jesus on the cross,” he says. “I had a rental car parked right by him. My friends wanted to drive away before the police came. I thought about it, looked at him, then rode off, never giving it a second thought. Now I think…that’s not normal. It’s not. But that was just a normal day.”

He’s had two major prison sentences in his life. His first child hadn’t yet been born when he was sent up the first time, so it didn’t hit him, not really. When he came out, he was right back to the lifestyle, with a caveat. “I was a drug dealer and a family man,” he says. “I wouldn’t stay out late. I took my kids to Disney World, Sea World. I was a family guy, I just also sold drugs.”

Through it all his mama and grandmother were still a part of his life. “They’d always tell me they love me, they pray for me. They never turned their back on me, ever, not even when I went to prison.”

One night, his relationship with his mama saved his life.

Antonio was recovering from an injury – he’d broken his foot falling down stairs while “rescuing” his girlfriend from the possibility of a bird flying through an open attic window. He was still on crutches and had borrowed his mama’s car since he didn’t have one of his own at the time. (Digression: he didn’t have a car because he’d purchased an F150 from a chop shop, and everyone involved in the transaction had gotten in trouble. Antonio took the charges for everyone, protecting his sister and cousins from jail time.)

Antonio was hanging out at his homeboy’s house, getting high. He had to pick up his mama from work at 10:00 that night. He must’ve fallen asleep because the next thing he knew, it was 10:10 and his homeboy was shaking him. “Go pick up your mama,” he said.

Antonio hobbled out the door on his crutches, leaving his homeboy alone with “his cocaine and shit.” He picked up his mama, dropped her at home, then went back to his homeboy’s house. He let himself in, and immediately felt like something was wrong. “I couldn’t figure it out, though,” he says. Then he noticed the couch was overturned. It took a hot minute before he noticed his homeboy, on the floor, covered in blood. “Someone stabbed him 57 times,” he says. “It was a robbery.”

“I left my crutches on the porch,” he says. “I was so scared. I hopped down the stairs and into the car and took off. I saw a dude who smoked crack on the street and I told him to call the police. Something’s happened to our homeboy. Then I saw the ambulance come, and it didn’t leave. I knew he was dead.”

Antonio’s fingerprints and DNA were all over the place and he was questioned for hours, but ultimately they let him go. After all, he didn’t kill his homeboy, but has that ever stopped someone from going to jail before? He got lucky.

It was just another day on the streets.

The next time Antonio caught a big charge, it was because he was caught with drugs his little cousin was selling. “I probably could have beat it,” he says. “But I was tired.”

He realized something needed to change.

The realization hit most strongly when his cousin called him one day. They’d been tag-teaming prison for a while already – one would go in when the other got out, and vice versa. It wasn’t intentional; it was just the life they were leading. He also missed his kids. He had to change.

It wasn’t easy, though, at least not at Kershaw, where he spent the beginning of his sentence. There, he says, “It was kill or be killed…but I’ve got a knife, and I’ll fight.” He saw people stabbed, saw a man hit over the head with an ax. “This is crazy,” he thought, but although he filled out transfer paperwork, he assumed he was stuck. He started selling drugs in jail, just like he did in the street. He guarded his possessions carefully. It was a crazy life, with no room for change.

Luckily, he got sent to Allendale, where things were better. He enrolled in programs and classes and was surprised to realize, “Man, this shit might work if you give it a try. My kids were saying, Daddy, I don’t want you to go back. I realized if I don’t do nothing for me, maybe for them I can change my outcome.” He worked his way into a different headspace. “It was time to grow up.”

There was much to de-program, though. Back at Kershaw, he couldn’t leave anything alone or it would be stollen. He’d wear his sneakers to the shower, even, relying on his few friends to keep an eye out when he changed into his shower shoes. He continued to do so at Allendale, until one day an older man approached. “Hey big man,” he said. “You don’t need to do that here.”

In his classes, too, he found things worked a bit differently. He began with a chip on his shoulder, his rebellious streak on full display. “At first, I thought, fuck this,” he says. “I ain’t raising my hand.” Another older man stepped in. “He said, ‘I can see you’re an alright dude. Is it gonna hurt you to raise your hand?’ I said no. And he said, ‘Then why you not gonna raise your hand? I’m a mentor and you make me look bad if you don’t.” Antonio says with a laugh, “I thought I was being a bitch if I raised my hand. That I was submitting to the system. But eventually, I started raising my hand.”

Antonio has been part of the Turning Leaf family for a month already. “I enjoy it,” he says. “That’s why I’m on time and I come every day. It’s changing me. If I want to change, I’ve gotta be uncomfortable. At Allendale, they taught me how to deal with white folks. I never had to deal with white folks before unless they’re buying my product. Dealing with white folks was a challenge – they’re part of the system. But I’ve realized, at Allendale and here at Turning Leaf, that every black man ain’t good, and every white man ain’t bad.”

“You can have new beginnings,” he says. “You can have new friends. You can have a support system.” At Turning Leaf he’s found access to the help he needs to remain on track. If he could tell people anything about himself, he’d say, “I’m just a guy, and I’ve been there, where you’re at, and I’m trying to make a change. But it’s hard,” he says. “I probably only have $10 in my pocket, but I’m good with that.”

* * * *

It won’t always be easy, Antonio, but you’re right. You have new friends and a support system. You have access to help if you need it. We’re here for you, today and always!

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne