We say all the time around here that trouble is easy to get into, but really hard to get out of.
Ben is a great example of this. Coming from a childhood that was a mix-up of difficult experiences and glimpses of what life could be like, if only there was enough money to support him and his mom, his induction into the streets was perhaps the easiest, most natural thing he’d ever done. But almost two full decades in prison have shown him that change is necessary, and he’s dedicated to making a difference in the lives of his children and his community. It’s not easy, but Ben is committed.
This is his story.
* * * *
Ben’s childhood was one of contradictions. He and his mama left his daddy to move to North Charleston when he was very small. “It was a struggle,” says Ben. “My mama was working all the time so I’m home by myself a lot.” He was beloved by many, and most thought of him as a good kid, but he was always into mischief. At age nine, while visiting his daddy, he was playing with a handgun on the front porch and accidentally shot out the window of his daddy’s insurance agent. “I probably shouldn’t have been playing with a gun,” he adds.
Despite their financial issues, his mama was loving. She was involved in their church, always working hard to provide for the two of them. He got to see how the other half lived when visiting family in New York and Atlanta. They were well off. Comfortable. They lived in nice neighborhoods, big houses, and paid for things like summer camp for Ben and his cousins.
But in the end he always returned home to the rough neighborhoods of North Charleston. And that’s where trouble found him. It was just so easy.
“I was twelve years old,” says Ben. “I’d go over to see older neighbors, and I’d see what was going on.” He didn’t fully understand it, but when an older guy asked Ben if he wanted to make some money, he said yes. Of course he did. He and his mama didn’t have enough; anything he could contribute would help.
The guy gave Ben a pill bottle full of crack-cocaine and told him to walk down the street. Strangers approached, asking what he had, and bought drugs from the twelve-year-old boy. He didn’t make a lot of money at first, maybe $50 of the $1000 he’d bring back to the older guy, but to him, that was a ton. He could pay a bill for his mama with that kind of cash.
And it was just so easy!
Ben stuck with it, and when he went to a fancy high school, he sold drugs there, too. It was still so easy. “People wanted me to succeed,” he says. He was one of the only Black students. “So they helped me. If I didn’t do the work, other people would do it for me. And I’d serve them weed in exchange.” He didn’t finish high school despite all the help. He was expelled in the 11th grade after a fight at a football game, and he never went back. Why bother? The streets provided everything he needed.
He moved into an apartment with his friend and started hustling full time. He was arrested for the first time when he was 17. During a routine traffic stop, police found weed on him. He spent a few hours in jail before his mama was able to bail him out. She shouted at him, trying to make Ben see the error of his ways, but like any other 17-year-old, Ben was sure he knew better than mama.
When Ben became a daddy himself, life got all sorts of complicated. With three kids born in two years, providing for his growing family was harder than ever. So too was managing new relationships. It was impossible to keep everyone happy. In 1998, a woman he knew stole money, drugs and jewelry from Ben. When he and a friend went to confront her, things went downhill. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” he says. “But you also have to remember, you’re always trying to make a name for yourself. In the streets, you can’t let someone rob you.”
The woman struggled loose and escaped, so Ben tried to hide. Little did he know narcotic officers were also on his trail, as he was actually making a name for himself in some of the worst ways possible. Police surrounded him at his mama’s house, and Ben faced his first big charge. He beat it (the fact that the woman had stolen from him first made it easier), but the lawyer fees added up to over $15,000.
“That was all my money, and then some,” he says. “Just because you sell drugs don’t mean you’re making tons of money. It’s just like any other job. You have good nights and bad nights. Good weeks and bad weeks. If you don’t budget your money right, you’re not going to make any money.”
“At that point, I was selling drugs to survive,” he says. “I wasn’t into the lifestyle really. As long as my family was living in a nice place, I didn’t care about the jewelry. You see, I grew up in places that weren’t good, so I was always going to make my home look very nice.”
The next several years are a blur of drug sales, narcotics arrests, living on the run, and eventual prison time. A set-up by a so-called friend wearing a wire resulted in a YOA (Youthful Offender Act) charge for which he served about 10 months in a juvenile facility. He emerged from that stay reinvigorated…to sell more drugs. “I was around older guys there,” he says. “You hear their stories, you learn different things about the drug game. I got out thinking I could do it better than before.”
Besides, he had so many bills to pay. “I definitely needed the money,” he says. “I’m looking at prison time coming up, and then you have all these lawyers telling you that if you give them this amount of money, you’ll never see any time. I’m hustling just to pay the lawyers.”
And the hustling was working. Somewhere in the late 1990s, Ben started making serious bank, but life grew more and more precarious. He served a couple years here, a few years there. He’d make as much money, if not more, in prison than on the streets. Finally, another friend set him up and Ben received his biggest (and last) sentence: 16 years, of which he served 14.
At first it was business as usual for Ben. He’d do programs to better himself, then turn around and break all the prison rules.
But then, in 2013, Ben got put in solitary for a whopping 18 months. “You’re supposed to get out for at least an hour a day,” he says. “But the prisons are understaffed, so that rarely happens.” He was alone, 24-7, for 18 whole, long, quiet months. What did he do? He read books. All the books. Anything he could get his hands on. From marketing books to financial books to urban and cowboy novels. It didn’t matter, as long as he was reading.
And he realized something had to change. “Once I got out of there,” he says, “I knew I wasn’t going back.”
Ben served the rest of his time staying out of trouble. He did more programs and focused on the good things he could learn from a prison life. “I learned respect in prison. You have to have respect for people first in order to get your own respect,” he says.
But change is hard, and even though he’d set his mind to live a better life when he got out, it hasn’t always been easy. This is his second time at Turn90, for example. “The first time, I wasn’t doing the things I was supposed to be doing,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily agree with everything at first.”
That’s different now. “I really feel they [the staff at Turn90] all have my best interests at heart,” he says. The classes help him learn to sit and think and remember that he’s trying to change his life. He’s learning to communicate better. Turn90 feels like a family to him. He makes more money per hour at a weekend job than he does at Turn90, but that’s okay. “It’s not about the money now. It’s about trying to stay out of prison and doing the right thing. We all fight urges, all the time, and Turn90 is helping me learn to manage mine.”
In the future, Ben wants to pay the work forward. “I think I’d be able to get through to guys like me,” he says. He hopes to support his family legally, and if he can help people, that would be a major bonus.
“Once I set my mind to a thing, it gets done,” he says. “And I’ve set my mind on finishing up at Turn90 and never going back to prison again.”
* * * *
We believe in you, Ben. With that mind-set and a newfound commitment to helping others, we know you’ll go all the way!