“The power to grant pardons and clemency is one of the most profound authorities granted to the President of the United States. It embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance.”
–President Barack Obama, January 19, 2017
It’s not every day you get a letter from a sitting President of the United States, giving you a second chance at life. But then, not everyone gets lost in the darkness of the streets and not everyone begins using his voice and leadership while still in prison to lead others into the light. In the words sung by then-President Barack Obama in the hallowed sanctuary of the Mother Emanuel AME Church, “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.”
This is Deon’s story.
* * * *
Deon grew up in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, a few short miles from Magnolia Plantation, a thriving tourist attraction where his direct ancestors were once enslaved. His street was populated by extended family, and in his house were packed his grandmother, granddaddy, mother, sister, auntie, and two cousins. “We made do,” he says. “We always had food and clothes.” Deon’s auntie used WIC to buy groceries while his mother, a phlebotomist at the American Red Cross, paid other bills. One of his uncles on the street was an electrician. Another was a plumber. They all took care of each other.
After school each day, all the kids piled into Deon’s house, and his grandmother cooked giant bags of French fries and eight-packs of hot dogs for all of them. Afternoons were spent riding bikes and playing games outside.
Sounds idyllic, right? It wasn’t, at least not for Deon.
“I’ve experienced pain all my life,” he says. He was diagnosed with sickle cell when he was eight months old. The blood disorder creates sickle-shaped red blood cells that get caught up in veins and arteries, causing inflammation and debilitating pain. In the 1980s, when Deon was young, the life expectancy for a child with sickle cell was only 25 years.
It’s a lot of baggage for a little boy who only wanted to grow up to join the Army.
He found marijuana at a young age. Some of his older cousins smoked, and they showed him how to sell just enough to keep smoking for free. Deon still had dreams, though, of working a regular job and having a normal life. He got a part time job at McDonalds when he was 14 and was crushing it until he had a sickle cell flare up. He was in the hospital for two weeks, and he came back to find his hours cut drastically. “They told me they didn’t want to make me sick. It was a blow,” he says. “I thought I had potential.”
The cycle repeated itself in quick succession. “All the jobs sucked after I’d get sick,” he says. “But I noticed when I was selling drugs, if I got sick, people were looking for me, and when I get well, they were happy to see me.”
So Deon went all in on dealing, hollowing out textbooks to hide and sell weed at school. That backfired on the last day before winter break of his freshman year. A friend was forced to turn him in, and he was hauled out of class and brought to the principal’s office. He tried to hide the drugs he’d stashed under his belt, but the game was up. He was arrested, taken out of the building in handcuffs while the rest of the kids were leaving for the holidays.
Determined not to let her son’s academic career flounder, Deon’s mother enrolled him at the Henry P. Archer School for the rest of the school year. Built in the 1930s as a school for Black students during Jim Crow, by the 1980s Archer was, in Deon’s words, “a mosh pit of people who got kicked out of school from everywhere. Archer was my first taste of jail.” There were stabbings despite metal detectors at the entrances. Fights were daily occurrences. Even now, over 20 years later, Deon gets visibly uncomfortable talking about Archer School.
The next year he went back to his regular school, academically behind and with a bad reputation. “I wanted to better myself,” he says. “But how? I tried so many jobs, but the streets were always easier.” He got deeper and deeper into the life, first selling cocaine at college parties, then, eventually, guns and crack.
By his side, always, was his younger cousin. The two were more like brothers; they grew up in the same room, shared the same bed. It was his cousin who told Deon how much money they could make selling crack. At first Deon was resistant. “I didn’t want to sell that. Those guys go around with rocks in their hands, looking crazy. Some of them even have rocks in their mouths.” The money was too good to pass up, though. “We would drive into a neighborhood and get a line of thirty people who would come to the car. It’s crazy.”
It was an endless party…until the party ended.
First, in 2003, Deon’s cousin killed himself. “I just thought, if his life is that destructive, what’s my life, if he’s mimicking me?”
Deon spiraled into depression, praying for guidance. He stopped selling drugs, trying to leave that world behind, but he didn’t change his expensive lifestyle. When his live-in girlfriend told him they were out of cash, he fell right back into his own ways. It wasn’t right, though. He still wanted out. “I prayed to God to take me out of this. I can’t do it anymore.”
Soon after, police kicked in the door to his townhouse. He should have been killed; he was armed when they found him. But he wasn’t. He was sentenced to 25 years instead.
His prayers were answered, but he didn’t know it yet. For a long while, things would only get harder.
Deon’s first stop was Estill Federal Correctional Institution, a medium/high security prison where violence is as much a part of the landscape as barbed wire. “I left the streets to go right back to the streets of prison,” he says. “I was selling drugs in the first month.”
It seemed like business as usual, until suddenly it wasn’t. One day he was playing cards in the yard when a handball game devolved into a fight. One man stabbed another with a knife pulled from his bag.
“We’ve got to break this up,” Deon said to the guys around him. “But they told me, ‘You don’t see nothing. You don’t hear nothing. Keep playing cards. Focus on the table.’ I watched the dude walk away, bleeding, and nobody helped him. And I just thought, this is vicious. It was worse than on the streets. In the streets, you see people shooting each other, but if someone’s shot, they always call for help. There’s hood, and then there’s Estill.”
A sickle cell flare up landed Deon in the hospital for two weeks, and Estill officials decided keeping Deon was too dangerous (and expensive – he was “property” of the Bureau of Prisons, and as such, Estill had to foot the hospital bill). They transferred him to Butner, a lower security facility in North Carolina. It was the first time sickle cell helped Deon, ever.
Things still wouldn’t be easy, though. The atmosphere was more relaxed, but he was still in the game, selling drugs, making wine, and running card games.
And then his beloved granddaddy died. “He told me before I went in that he didn’t do prisons,” says Deon. “So when he called me and told me it was time for him to come see me, I knew he was dying. When he died, it broke me all over again.”
Deon went back to praying. He found mentors, other men who were willing to extend a hand back down the ladder to pull Deon up out of the darkness. The first was a man who told him: “You’re a good leader. People listen to you. They follow you. You’re just playing for the wrong team.”
The second was a preacher who practiced what he preached. “He taught me to love people and care for people no matter what,” Deon says. “He didn’t judge people, so how could I?”
Deon’s life started transforming. “The last two years were a very deep spiritual journey for me,” he says. “I was finding myself by helping other people.” He took on responsibilities in the prison, working as a photographer for the warden and running various enrichment programs for other incarcerated men. He became a guy to depend on for help and kindness, rather than for drugs.
When President Obama began granting clemency to incarcerated people of color in an attempt to make up for racism in the criminal justice system, prison staff and inmates were behind him, but Deon was denied three times. All hope seemed lost, but Deon and his mentor had time for one last shot. They wrote a final petition as President Obama began his final year in office. They told the President about Deon’s life. Sickle cell. The endless cycle of going-nowhere jobs and hospital stays. The streets, yes, but also how he’d turned his life around. They talked about the work he did in the prison system, helping others, reaching his own hand back down to find ways to change the lives of the men around him. They told him how much Deon wanted to contribute to the world.
On January 19, 2017, he received the letter. “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong and change your life for the better,” the President said. Prison staff and fellow inmates cheered. Deon would soon be free.
He met Turning Leaf founder, Amy Barch, at the halfway house in North Charleston. “I didn’t hear her speak,” he says. “I heard her heart.” He knew he had to be a part of her program.
“Turning Leaf was a reinforcement of the work I’d been doing those last two years,” he says. “Coming home is different than prison life. Turning Leaf taught me how to adapt. It was a safe space. I could always talk to Justin. I could always get the help I needed.”
Deon graduated in 2017. He worked for a print shop before starting his own screen-printing business. He’s married now and planning to have children. He’s home every night instead of in prison or running the streets. And this summer, he’s reaching that hand back down again. Deon is joining the Turning Leaf team as the Classroom Facilitator for our Columbia center. “When I was in the program, Amy taught the classes,” he says. “Joe taught the classes. Justin taught the classes. Now I’m going to be teaching the classes. I still can’t believe it.”
Soon he’ll help men coming home from prison find their own path to success. He’ll do exactly what President Obama knew he could.
Congratulations, Deon, on how far you’ve come. We know you’re going to change the world.