Taking stock of life outside of prison during National Reentry Week

Colwin Williams has a job, a car, a new baby girl, a new home and a life he once only dreamed of. Here he is pictured with his girlfriend, Sabrina Gadson and their daughter, Aisha Katiffah Muhammad Williams.

I can’t help but smile while Colwin Williams talks about wanting a speed bump on the West Philly street where he and his family just moved.

There are a lot of children in the neighborhood, including his own 2-year-old, Aisha. That was part of the attraction to the place.

Did I notice all the grills in front of the rowhouses? he asks. I nod, smiling.

Neighbors like to grill while the kids play out front, he continues, but they need to be hawk-eyed about the speeding knuckleheads who use the narrow street as a short cut. I nod, smiling some more.

I met Williams in 2012, days after he was released from prison after serving nearly two decades behind bars — six in solitary confinement — for multiple armed robberies. Over the years, I’ve chronicled his ups and downs. He’s had plenty of both.

For the first few years, most of our conversations had a sense of urgency about them. He was 25 when he was sentenced in 1993. He turns 49 on Sunday.

He was desperate to find a job. Get a car. A place to live that he could afford and that his parole officer would approve. He dreamed of becoming an anti-violence speaker.  

But the longer he was out, and the more he settled into the rhythm of his new life, the more the tone of our conversations changed.

He got that car...

He was working a lot of hours...

We’d been trying to get together for months by the time we finally connected this week, but I only realized afterward that it was National Reentry Week, designed to call  attention to the challenges faced by people coming home from prison.

There’s been a lot about our relationship that’s been serendipitous, including the day I  just happened to turn and see him approaching then-Mayor Michael Nutter at an anti-violence rally at LOVE Park. He'd just  gotten out of prison after “18.9” years, he told Nutter, shaking his hand. He wanted to help tackle the violence in the city.

That drive has mostly helped him. There were times I worried his sometimes outsize expectations would do him in.  He had to leave school after trying to juggle a two-hour commute to classes and mandatory probation programs.

But slowly he realized that sometimes no matter how hard you grind, life works at its own pace, and that as much as he had prepared himself for life on the outside, there were some things he didn't predict.

Over the years, he watched inmates come in, younger and harder-looking.  But it wasn’t until he was out, working on the streets as a violence mediator with Philadelphia Cease Fire-Cure Violence, did he appreciate how much things had changed.

The people at both ends of gun violence were getting younger. 

That was never clearer than in the case of Mahaj Brown, a 6-year-old who last year miraculously survived 10 bullet wounds from an AK-47.

He recalled how Mahaj's shooting affected him.

“This wasn’t a kid,” he said. “This was a baby.”

He looks over at his little girl, playing nearby.

The stakes are higher, in and out of the house.

He’s lived in a couple of other places since his release, but says those were more addresses than homes. 

That was clear as soon as I walked up the front steps, past the garden his girlfriend, Sabrina Gadson, is tending, the wind chimes hanging from the porch and the apron hanging in the kitchen that reads, “Home Sweet Home.”

They’re waiting on his tax return to get some furniture for the living room, he tells me, and the basement he's hoping to turn into his retreat.

But his daughter’s room is already decked out in Disney everything.

Before I leave, Williams admits he still hopes to fill up the Convention Center as an anti-violence speaker, a dream he’s stoked since his release.

But until then, he’s settling into the routine of life, watching his little girl grow up in a way he didn’t with his other children who were babies when he went away, living a life he once thought impossible.