Standing Up Again: James and Amicus
“I know in my heart that if it wasn’t for Amicus I would still be in prison.”
Released in fall of 2012, James is tasting freedom for the first time in 28 years. He’s out and determined to stay out because he believes that’s the best way to thank those who helped him.
The world looked bleak for James as he grew up in Louisiana with a family struggling with alcoholism, mental illness, abuse and more. He belonged to a sharecropper family in which education was something that was possible only after the harvest came in. As a result, James was functionally illiterate for much of his life.
His first taste of incarceration came 45 years ago at age 13 when he was caught breaking into a home, looking for food. He recalls spending a year in county jail and upon his release being placed on a bus to Chicago. A family in Chicago tried to be supportive but James rebelled and found his way back to the street, stealing what he could. He eventually followed the promise of work to Minnesota.
He had started using cocaine and was high, looking for cash and more drugs, when he and some cohorts broke into a local home. James didn’t know there was an elderly woman in the house and he came across her in the bedroom. The woman started screaming and James panicked, squeezing her throat to stop the noise. He crushed her windpipe and the woman died.
He was caught, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Part of James froze on that day, nearly 29 years ago, and he stayed that way for 16 years.
“I’d been doing time, for a long time and never really thought I’d be doing something else.”
The thaw came about 13 years ago. James described meeting with Susan, an Amicus staffer who took the time to talk with James and convince him that he could try to make positive changes and improve his chances for release. He agreed to be matched with a One to One volunteer. He was matched with Pete, and that was the start of a friendship of 13 years and counting.
“Pete saw something in me that I didn’t see myself,” James said.
With Pete’s encouragement James threw himself into his efforts to reclaim hope, attending dozens of classes and seminars, learning to read and getting his GED. He got involved with an Amicus monthly support group called Connections and participated in an Amicus program customized for African American inmates preparing to reenter society. James attracted the attention of Department of Corrections personnel and he had a surprise waiting for him the next time he was called before a parole board.
“Nobody understands what it feels like to try to convince eight people that I’ve made changes, but you know what happened? They convinced me!”
James was told that if he could stay on the right track and incident free for one more year, he would be placed on supervised release, and one year later he walked into the Amicus offices. Amicus helped him in a variety of ways, connecting him with transportation and providing basics such as hygiene items, signing him up for “Heads Up Strategies” to help him practice his job seeking skills and maintain employment.
James has a tough road ahead but he’s making progress. He found a low-paying but steady job and has kept it for several months and is looking forward to moving from a halfway house into his own place. He attends the Amicus Ex-Offender Support Group and has spoken at volunteer information sessions in support of Amicus One to One. And through it all, his One to One friend, Pete has been a constant.
James recently ran across an early mugshot of himself as a younger man and he believes the image bears little resemblance to who he is now.
“It was a dead person on that card. It took a lot of time but I’m alive again.”
“I can never bring that lady back that I killed, but I learned. I’m telling you this day that I am an entirely changed man.”
“Amicus was the first place ever that stood up for me and showed me a different world. I know I don’t want to let anybody down, because they stood up for me.”