Deshawn went to prison when he was 19 years old. He stayed for nine years, got out, and was back in for another three. That’s twelve years in the prison system. His entire young adulthood.

This is a story of how prison – not the streets – can take a life and make it something none of us on the outside could ever recognize. It’s the story of how one man finally had enough of it and decided to do something about it.

This is Deshawn’s story.

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Deshawn never had to turn to the streets. His family was stable. The lifestyle wasn’t a part of their world. However, as a teenager, the neighborhood drew him in. “I wanted to be on my own,” he says. “I wanted to fit in with other people.”

His late teens were a wild ride. “I was reckless,” he says. “I had no cares in the world. I was out every night, using drugs, selling drugs, partying, messing with the women. It was fun at the time.”

The fun came to a screeching halt when he was 19. He was home in bed, sound asleep. His mother, brother and uncle were there, too, when police kicked the door in to get him. “I was asleep,” he say. “And then I was up with handcuffs on.” The experience was devastating to his mother, who cried the whole time.

The charges involved guns and crack, and Deshawn was sentenced to 147 months. He served 9 years. His girlfriend was pregnant when he went in; she severed contact with Deshawn, moving on with her life. She never called; she didn’t send pictures. Deshawn had to lock his son away in a part of his heart he couldn’t access if he wanted to get through his time.

Lots of things had to be locked away during those first nine years. He had a great support system – family and friends made sure if he needed something, he had it – but still. Prison is a different world. “Prison is what you make of it,” says Deshawn. “You have to make a schedule. I’d work out, go to school. I stayed to myself as much as I could. I minded my own business.”

During those years, holidays were the hardest time. He says, “I’d call, and everybody would be gathered together. Everybody but me.”

He preferred phone calls to physical visits from family and friends, though he could spend up to eight hours with visitors at a time. “But then when it was time to go,” he says, “there was a feeling. I can’t explain it. But they get to go and I have to stay.” Phone calls were easier. Not seeing a face, just hearing a voice.

Hearing about the world outside was also a challenge. “I’d know my world is what’s going on in here. I have to focus on that to survive.”

When the nine years were up and Deshawn was facing release, he had two thoughts: he wanted to meet his son, and he wanted back to the lifestyle. “I can do it better this time,” he thought. “It ain’t over for me yet.” He had a lot of time to make up for, a lot of money to make, and he only knew one way to do it.

On his first day out he saw his 9-year-old son for the first time. “It was a joyful feeling, but it also wasn’t,” he says. “He was born when I was in. We never bonded.” But he was determined to create a relationship where none existed, and so was his son’s mother. She brought the boy to see Deshawn every day for the first week he was home. Deshawn bought him a cell phone so they could continue to talk. That part was good.

But the streets beckoned, and Deshawn answered their call. “I needed money in my pocket, fancy cars, clothes, women,” he says. “I was 28 years old, but I’d missed out on my 20s. I still felt like a young’un.”

Three months later he was arrested and bonded out. Two months later it happened again. When four months later he was arrested again, there was no more bonding out. He was headed back to prison. And by that time, he was expecting two more children.

One of the babies was born the August before he went in; the other was born the following May. He now had three children and was facing another three years in prison.

His experience was different this time, thanks to the children. He already had a relationship with his oldest son, and the babies’ mothers wanted Deshawn in their children’s lives. They talked; sent pictures; visited. Deshawn finally realized the lifestyle he was living wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t okay. “It wasn’t worth it,” he says. “I didn’t accomplish anything. I had fun, but I got nothing but a large prison sentence to show for it. I was making lots of money and blowing it all. I have nothing to show for any of it.”

When he got out of prison this time, he came straight to Turning Leaf. “It was rough at first,” he says. “But, like prison, it was what you make of it. It shows you the right way to go about things.”

Deshawn had never had a real job. He’d never received a regular paycheck. Suddenly he was getting a check every week and learning how to manage it. The change forced him to slow down, to pay attention to what he was doing.

“You can do whatever you put your mind to,” he says. “Anything is possible. I’m a better person for having been through Turning Leaf.” He learned to set boundaries, to stop and think before reacting to situations. Managing frustration was a skill he mastered and uses every day. He went through the full program, meeting every expectation set, and graduating with flying colors.

Today, Deshawn is a crew supervisor who leads by example. He works hard. He knows sometimes, when things get a little tough with his crew, he has to sit down, take a breather, and think about how to approach the situation.

He has his own apartment, his own car. He is proud of what goals he’s already accomplished and isn’t afraid to set more. He’s planning to buy a house soon.

And through all of this, he has his children. “I’m a family man now,” he says. “I’m home early every night. I play with my kids. They’re 14, four, and three years old now. I never imagined I’d be like this. I love them.”

“Even though I wasn’t there every day of their lives,” he says, “I want to make up for lost time. The little one says, ‘I want to be like you, Daddy,’ and I always say, ‘No, you have to be better than me.’”

The four-year-old recently told his mother that he wanted to go to work with his daddy because he wanted to make some money. He got all dirty, like his daddy always is after a long day of work. Imagine that; he wants a regular job, just to be like his daddy. Amazing.

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You’ve created a life to be proud of, Deshawn, and we at Turning Leaf are thrilled for you. Congratulations!

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne