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Life Inside

All I Really Need to Know I Learned on the Streets of the Garment District

“The runaways, the mobsters, the pimps—they saw me as someone credible, someone who didn’t judge them.”

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 70s, starting when I was around nine, I often played hooky and took the train from Brownsville to 42nd Street. In those days, you could watch three movies for $1.50, but you had to maneuver around the truant officers. When I wasn’t watching movies, I would stroll down to the area between 34th and 42nd streets known as the Garment District.

These blocks were run by mobsters. I didn't know that until I got older and started reading about them in the papers. I used to wonder why nobody took their garment racks when they left them out on the streets. Nobody would even take a shirt. But it was because they had that area so locked down.

Sometimes I used to make a couple of dollars helping them take stuff off trucks, and they would buy me lunch at a diner over by the docks. I would sit and talk to the prostitutes, the runaways, the mobsters, the pimps and all of these different people.

I used to ask the prostitutes and runaways what their lives were like. They all had their own stories—some told me about bad parenting, about molestation, abuse, drugs. A lot of times people just see others for what they are doing. They don't see the steps that it took to get to where they’re at.

Through our conversations, I developed relationships with a lot of these people—with drug addicts, with the homeless. I was young and innocent looking, so I wasn't threatening. They saw me as someone credible, someone who didn’t judge them. I just wanted to learn. And doing all this—it helped me in the future.

I was 17 years old when I got into the drug business, selling marijuana and crack cocaine. This guy was trying to get me to open up spots to sell drugs. He told me, you can relate to people, make conversation with people, whether they’re young or old, gay or straight. So I started doing it, making business.

A few years later, in 1988, one of our stash houses in Harlem got raided by the police. I wasn’t there then. But I was there the next day when the stash house got robbed by five dudes. They couldn’t find anything because the police had swept the place clean, but they saw me.

A week later, one of the guys that robbed the stash house ended up dead. A guy who was with him that day pointed me out. When the police came to get me, a lot of other stuff that I did in the past started coming up. I got arrested, pleaded not guilty but was convicted at trial, and I was sentenced to 30 years to life—25 to life for homicide, and five for weapons possession.

Getting sentenced 30 to life didn’t really faze me, because I knew that my actions had consequences. That’s one of the lessons I learned in the Garment District; know what you’re getting into, and if you can’t handle the consequences, don’t get into it. A lot of people ask me, how did you do 30 years? I tell them, it’s because I knew what I did.

For my three decades in prison, my time in the Garment District as a young boy and the conversations I had with mobsters, pimps and prostitutes kept helping me. I was able to build relationships with the hardcore criminals and get them to start changing their ways.

I told them, if you want a seat at the table, you've got the inmate liaison committee and you’ve got a grievance committee. Get someone who's smart among your groups and have them run. That way now you’re face to face with the superintendent to express what's going on in your group, and you don't have to go through a third party.

I only saw people for who they were, not what they did in the past. People always knew that they could come to “E”—that was my name in prison—when they was down and out, and that E would give them a dollar or two or talk to them and not judge them. I didn’t have enemies in jail, I had allies. And this is why, during my 30 years in prison, I never got into a single fight, not a single altercation.

When I went up for my parole board hearing in March 2018, they said I was going to get out in July. Freedom was an unbelievable feeling. But for months, I mostly stayed home. I was walking on eggshells, worried that I could somehow violate my parole. Eventually, I decided to go up to Harlem to the Exodus Transitional Community, a nonprofit organization that helps formerly incarcerated adults and youth reintegrate into society. My friend Julio Medina, who taught a class I took in prison, is the CEO there.

I told the people there my story, and let them know that I could be a liaison between the youth and the police. The kids there never had that relationship, and we need to start building it. But it has to be built by someone that's reliable and that they know is going to guide them in the right direction. I now work as a liaison between Exodus Transitional Community and the NYPD. I also coach a basketball team for Exodus, through the Mayor's Action Plan and the police department.

The police station here in Harlem often escorts us to basketball games in the five boroughs. One of the first times, I told my guys we were playing a team in Brooklyn, and they were like, “Nah, we’re not getting in a police van.”

And then I had to use my skills. I asked them if they’d even been in a police car before, and they were like, “Yeah, they cuffed us up and all.” And then I was like, “Well, I've been in a police car before too under different circumstances, and this is not one of those circumstances. You've got the opportunity now to get in a police car on your own accord.”

Plus, we got the police to escort us. The officers gave my guys walkie talkies to let them talk to each other in other vans. It was nice. Every game after that, the kids wanted to get in the police van.

I also teach teenagers how to do their resumes, mock interviews, etiquette, being at a workplace. I feel that they shouldn't wait until they’re out of college to know how to do a resume, how to find a job, what to say, what not to say. I give them tools that I did not have growing up.

I teach my students in the classroom that titles and appearances don’t matter. It’s like that with the police. I say, “Y’all don’t have a beef with the person, y’all have a beef with the uniforms and the colors, not the individuals.” I tell my students to look at each other as people, as individuals, and not by their affiliations or associations or gangs or whatever.

I’ve been out of prison for like a year now. And I’ve realized that I’m still doing what I used to do in the Garment District back in 1982. I’m making connections, telling them my own story and helping them make better choices, making sure they know that we are there for them. But whatever I am doing today, as a liaison and a coach at Exodus, has been shaped by my time in the Garment District—with the pimps and the mobsters and the prostitutes and the homeless and the drug dealers, that world within a world.

James E. Williams, 53, is a youth mentor at Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem, New York.