When I caught up with Colwin Williams, he was headed to speak to a support group at a South Philadelphia drug treatment center.
I got there early, so I sat in on the meeting while we waited for him.
As the group told their own stories of incarceration and addiction, I realized this was not going to be an easy crowd.
They’d seen and done it all. Williams was going to have to work to impress these guys.
“You a motivational speaker?” asked a man who just minutes earlier admitted to removing his own braces from his teeth with a pair of pliers. Yes, pliers. He hadn’t figured out how to remove the glue yet.
“I guess you’ll be the judge of that,” Williams said.
I first wrote about Williams in April, after we met at an anti-violence rally in Love Park. He’s the ex-con who made a big impression when he brashly walked up to Mayor Michael Nutter, shook his hand and told him he was fresh out of prison and ready to help.
But that was just part of his plan. He also wanted to reconnect with his seven children, two of whom only know him as a man behind bars. And he dreamed of maybe turning his experiences in prison into a career.
In the two months since his release, he’s had some success – a handful of speaking engagements. Renewed relationships with many of his children. And for the first time in more than 18 years, an opportunity to spend a real Mother’s Day with his mom.
But there have been struggles, too – including his 18-year-old namesake walking dangerously close down the same path.
For an hour, Williams shared his story. He told the men and women of his nearly two decades behind bars. Of soul crushing years in solitary confinement that affected his mental health, and still do.
“I still can’t shake some of the memories,” he told them.
But mostly he focused on how much a generation of men owed a generation of children they let down and left behind.
At that, many of the men in the group nodded.
“Man is right,” one of the older men said.
Williams also told them a little about his son. How he’s been getting into trouble. How he got kicked out of his mother’s house and isn’t taking care of business, including his own baby girl.
How it isn’t always clear how to save your children from mistakes you spent a lifetime making.
More head nods from the group.
Later, Williams and I headed to a nearby McDonald’s to talk more about life since his release.
Living in a North Philadelphia halfway house full of other ex-cons with different personalities, priorities and dedication to cleanliness has proven to be a challenge. Williams likes to keep a clean house; some of his housemates don’t share his attention to detail.
He’s in such a rush to get his life going that he’s run himself ragged trying to make something happen. Some days, he says, he’s just drained.
But his biggest concern right now is his son.
“I’m scared for him…because I’ve seen the reality of it,” he says.
He’s tried to counsel him. But, Williams says, just because he’s now able to be a father doesn’t mean his son is ready to accept him as one.
“I’ve been talking to him for 18 years from a distance. And only because I can touch him now doesn’t make my voice more clearer,” he says.
“The tool at my disposal right now is example. That’s the most powerful weapon right now, not words and lip service.”
So while he tries to convince his son to get his GED, Williams is headed back to school too. Williams’ said his sister is helping him get a grant for ex-offenders to attend the community college where she works.
He hopes to start in August and study communications and sociology.