This past weekend, I was watching a young man, not even 30, get sentenced to life plus 45 years on MSNBC’s reality TV show “Lockup.” I could tell the guy was smart and personable, but, unfortunately, he made some very bad choices. I can’t help but notice how many people on that show seem to have so much going for them personally, but, for whatever reason, they find themselves trapped in prison for long periods of time. I couldn’t help but think about the people I met last week while working on an upcoming story for the Chicago Defender. Hard-working people who had done time, but who had also decided not to be defined by it.

One young man spent 10 years as a drug dealer, but learned that the sales skills and street savviness he honed on the street, if refocused, could give him quite a bit of success in a legit and legal field. The guy’s name is Darius Jones and he’s now the vice president and general manager of Garfield Produce Company, an indoor, vertical hydroponic vegetable farm that creates sustainable local employment and generates wealth in disinvested neighborhoods through the production and sale of high quality fresh produce year-round. 

Then, a few days after meeting Darius, I visited another organization called Sweet Beginnings, which makes honey (yes, honey!) and personal products all in a very small facility on the West Side. Sweet Beginnings was created with the main purpose of helping ex-cons learn business skills that they can use to get full-time jobs.  I saw pride in the faces of people who realized that it wasn’t too late to learn new skills and turn their lives around. I look forward to sharing their stories with you in the upcoming weeks in this newspaper and in video on ChicagoDefender.com.

Although we all know that ex-cons face unique challenges when trying to make better choices, I have to admit that the people I met changed my worldview on a lot of fronts. Going back to that TV show “Lockup,” I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched how many of the men I saw featured couldn’t have been a Darius if circumstances were different. If they could see that they might just have skills to turn their lives around if redirected in a positive direction.

Much has been discussed about the Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign. We know that nationally, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, 1 in 3 Black boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime.  When the closest you’ve come to someone who has been in a prison is watching their life story on a TV show or reading a news story, you can’t appreciate the potential that has been lost. I believe some folks didn’t balk at Trump’s suggestion that we call in the National Guard if things get too out of hand here in Chicago because they simply can’t understand what leads to bad choices. Maybe these people should meet a Darius. 

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