Colwin Williams was barely two weeks out of prison when he walked up to Mayor Michael Nutter after an anti-violence rally at Love Park.
“I just got out after 18.9 years,” he told Nutter. That’s right, he was that specific: 18.9.
“I want to help,” he told the mayor.
Nutter and Williams chatted, and then the mayor handed him his card with the address to his office’s re-entry program for ex-offenders.
I happened to be standing next to the men during their exchange and was struck by the preciseness Williams marked his time behind bars, and by his confidence. Plenty of people were scrambling to get the mayor’s ear; the ex-felon got it.
He got mine, too. And a week later, after Williams got permission from the North Philadelphia halfway house where he’s awaiting parole, we met at the park again.
We sat by the fountain, where more than a few times I caught Williams looking wide-eyed around the plaza buzzing with lunching city workers and wandering tourists.
Life on the outside after nearly two decades in prison reminds him of the science fiction movie “The Matrix.” When he went away beepers were cutting edge, he says, with a gravelly laugh.
A lot has changed. He’s changed, Williams says.
He’s eager to find his place in the world he’s just rejoined, which is why, he says, he was drawn to the anti-violence rally that day.
“The generation now is in the position that they are in because the black male was not responsible, he says. “We were negligent.”
He was negligent, he admits.
Williams was 25 when he was convicted of multiple robberies in 1993. He was a stick-up artist, he said, a criminal of convenience — literally. One place he robbed was a 7-11.
By the time he led cops on a high-speed chase the night of his last arrest, Williams had already spent much of his adulthood in and out of county jail, mostly for thefts. He got his GED while in a juvenile detention facility.
Williams grew up in Bristol, Bucks County with a devoted single mother. He promised himself that he wouldn’t abandon his children the way his father did.
Instead, he became a reflection of his father. “Worse,” he says. “He was at least reachable.”
Williams has seven children by four women. Two of his children were just about to be born when he went away.
The first time Williams read to his two oldest was during a prison visit. Williams asked his children if he could do something he never got a chance to do, and read them a children’s book called, “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie.” They were 21.
His namesake cried the first time he was able to hug his father as a free man.
“You can not make up for time lost,” Williams says. “When time is gone, it’s gone. The only thing we can do is catch on.”
And Williams, now 43, says he ready to do that — even if the statistics are stacked against him. More than half of the state’s inmates are back behind bars within five years of being released.
But Williams says the odds don’t scare him. “I’m a black man with a vision,” he says, smiling.
“When I got out, I looked back at the prison and said a silent prayer and made a vow that I was going to come out here and try to talk to the youth and try to tell them about the lessons I learned the hard
Already, he proudly reports when we talk later, he’s spoken at a vocational training program for ex-offenders and to kids living in a group home.
“My story is not unique,” Williams says. “There are prisons full of black men with my story. But I made a promise that I would speak for the voiceless men behind those bars, for the men who won’t get another chance to come out here to do better, to be better.”