By David Brand
Shawn Williams cried when the jury delivered the not-guilty verdict at his Queens Supreme Court trial last week. “Like a baby,” he added.
Williams, 40, had spent most of life in and out of jails and prisons after his first arrest for drug possession at age 12. When he was released in 2010, he vowed never to go back.
For seven years, Williams managed to keep his life on track and then some. He was accepted into elite Columbia University, started a family and earned good money driving an Uber VIP car.
But an arrest following a violent dispute with his ex-wife’s family threatened to derail the progress he had made. Williams was charged with second-degree assault and sent to Rikers Island for nearly two weeks before posting bail in the fall of 2017.
“That was the hardest time I did in my whole life,” Williams said. “I’ve done years in prison, but that was the longest time. I cried every day … It crushed me.”
The experience was a new layer of trauma in a lifetime of challenges, most of which Williams had overcome in the years since he enrolled in the Cornell Prison Education Program and prepared for a successful life in the community.
Williams grew up in South Jamaica during the crack epidemic, which disrupted the lives of many in the community, including his mother. By age 7 he had seen a friend’s uncle beaten nearly to death with a street post and his mother’s friend show up at the family’s front door covered in fresh wounds, her severed finger dangling after a man attacked her with a knife.
He began selling drugs at age 12, after his grandmother died. “She was the only one who truly loved me,” he said. Looking at old photographs now, he said he can see the changes brought on by her death.
“I can see the innocence leave me,” he said.
Later that year, he was arrested and sent to juvenile detention for the first time. It was the start of two decades in and out of jails and prisons.
“I was conditioned early on to accept jail,” he said, explaining how his neighbors would talk to preteens about how to handle dangerous situations behind bars, like avoiding sexual predators and striking first in encounters with bullies. “I was conditioned before I even went to jail to know to act.”
He wasn’t taught how to succeed on the outside, he said. But he began making lasting improvements to his life when he earned his GED with a near perfect score.
During his last prison stint, he enrolled in CPEP, which hosts college classes for people in New York prisons. His first class was “Growing up in Japan.”
Though he said he initially enrolled in the classes to meet women, he took to the education program.
“Education for me made me a better human being,” he said. After his release in 2010, he was accepted to Columbia University. He had long since vowed never to go back to prison.
“No matter how bad it might look for you, no matter how bleak it may look for you. You can do it, man. You can change, man. You can do better man. Whoever you are. I’m you’re living example,” Williams said in the 2015 short documentary “Human Again.”
But two years after shooting the 15-minute film, Williams faced a return to an upstate penitentiary.
In 2017, he got into a fight with a group of men outside his ex-wife’s home. He had visited the home to see his baby, but his presence angered his wife’s son and a few other men, who jumped him. He fought back and cut one of them.
The jury acquitted him earlier this month, but the incident cost him his job with Uber. He now works at a health food and smoothie shop near his home in Staten Island.
Williams was represented by attorneys from The Legal Aid Society and called the three-week trial before Justice Stephen Knopf “very fair.”
He began to tear up as he recalled the stomach aches he felt in the mornings during trial and the extreme relief he felt when the jury foreperson read the “not guilty” verdict.
“I felt vindicated. Like people finally understood I’m not that person,” he told the Eagle.
Over the last several years, even as he went through with pretrial proceedings, Williams has continued to advocate for the program that helped him get on track after his release. he said the support he received from CPEP instructors rivaled the love he felt from his grandmother.
“Shawn has made it one of the things he does in his life is to pay forward the experience he had with CPEP in prison,” said CPEP professor and coordinator Jan Zeserson in “Human Again.”
“I am inspired very much by the resilience of people who are incarcerated to be able to motivate themselves to bring themselves to the point of getting into college courses,” Zeserson continued. “They live in quite a grim environment and it takes a lot of self motivation.”
Legal Aid investigator Savendra Somdat said Williams’ story is represents what individuals in incarceration can obtain with supportive programs in place.
“A story of redemption like Shawn’s is one that has the potential to positively influence many people,” Somdat said. “By not letting his past define his future, he has been given a second chance and truly endeavors to make the most of it. That is his greatest strength.”