Portrait

6x8 Portrait is a research project that will explore the impact of mass incarceration on families in the New York City metropolitan area in a way that aims to trigger a national conversation on the topic. 

Tobias Brown, Part 3: Leaving, Reintegrating, and Rebuilding His Life

Tobias Brown, Part 3: Leaving, Reintegrating, and Rebuilding His Life

On leaving the Blackstone Gang

After he came to faith, Tobias knew he needed to leave the Blackstone gang. But leaving a gang is not easy—and can be life-threatening. He shares about his experience. 

“It was a hard decision, because I knew the consequences. I’ve seen guys leave the gang in the past, and I’ve known what happened to them. I was just at a place in my life where I was tired of fighting. I was tired of getting more and more time because of the things that I was doing while I was in prison. There was something that was stirring in my heart, a conviction that was growing that there was something more to my life. 

I approached one of the guys when we were out in the yard one day. I told him that I had found Jesus. That conversation spurned on into a full-blown testimony about what that process was like. As I was sharing with him the story about what God was doing in my heart, I just noticed his countenance start to soften. After I shared my testimony with him, after I shared my story with him, I just remember him looking at me and saying that he wished that he had the conviction to do what I was doing when he was my age. He was serving a life sentence for the Blackstones, and no one wrote him, no one talked to him, no one called him. He told me: Go out there, make a difference, and that he didn’t want to see me back in there again. And that if he did, then he was going to kill me. We made a deal, and the rest is history. 

We made a deal, and the rest is history. 

Even after that conversation, there were still moments when my life was being threatened by the former gang I was a part of. But what kept those guys from doing any physical harm to me is that there were other rival gang members who would seek out my counsel and advice on spiritual matters. And they would tell me after every conversation they had that they weren’t going to let anything happen to me. So even though I wasn’t a part of any gang, there were two gangs in the prison that I was that essentially let everyone there know that if something was to happen to me, there was going to be an upscale riot.

There was a promise that God made to me before I made the decision to walk out of the gang: that if my ways please Him, then He would make even my enemies to be at peace with me. And that’s what I saw happen.”

On his relationship with his parents

“My mom was devastated [when I received my sentencing], and my dad was heartbroken. My mom lived with a lot of anxiety and fear because being in the system, especially when I was first introduced, I would be in a particular place for three months, and then they would ship me off. And they wouldn’t tell my parents, and my parents would have to call the jail and go through the process of trying to locate me and where I was in the system. There was this sense of fear and anxiety that my mom had. My dad said that he felt like a failure. He felt like he didn’t do a good job with raising me.

But they stayed committed. They visited me at least once a month, and depending on how close I was to Chicago, they would make trips out there twice a month. But there was a time when they sent me way down south in Illinois, near the Illinois-Kentucky border, and that was really hard for my parents [as it was about a five-hour drive].

When I told them that I gave my life to God, everything changed. Everything changed. Their response toward me and their response toward others who criticized them—because being in the church world and my dad being a pastor, people just automatically judged them and just assumed that it was bad parenting. When they found out that I gave my life to the Lord, it was a cause of celebration. They told everyone that their son was following Christ in prison. That really helped to redeem a lot of the frustration and a lot of the anger and guilt that they struggled with. And it really helped me to ride out my last year in prison with a sense of peace and comfort that God was in control of my life and over my time there.”

On the pressure to join gangs in Chicago

“The whole idea of family and loyalty, it was a myth. It was what those guys used to attract me and pull me in. I was a disillusioned individual, a young man just trying to find his identity. I couldn’t connect with what my parents were doing in terms of ministry. And I run into these guys, and they look cool. They look like family; they look like they’re all for each other. But the deeper I got into the gang lifestyle, the more I realized that there were a lot of dissensions, a lot of inner tensions and rivalries. And there was a lot of death. You don’t see that initially. But it’s just this vicious cycle of watching people die. And it’s something you become blinded to initially. The first time you see something…it starts out with something simple, like a fight. One of my friends gets hurt in a fight, and we’d go back and retreat and the next minute you know, we’re retaliating with guns. And then they’re retaliating. And it’s just this cycle. You had to keep these anniversary killings going. It’s just something you don’t know or realize initially. 

If I would’ve known that, I would’ve never joined. I would have never been a part of it. I thought it was a group of guys who hung out and shot dice and smoked weed and got all the girls. But it’s much more sinister than that.”

On reintegration

“It was a bit of a double-edged sword. I was excited because I was re-entering as a new person. I had this zeal for God and this new passion for learning and education. I was pretty optimistic, but the reality hit when I went in for the first job interview, and it didn’t matter how saved you were. It didn’t matter how much of a believer you were. It didn’t matter what your grades were in school. You have a prison record, and it was discouraging. There were moments when I had second thoughts of maybe going back into the lifestyle I was a part of. They weren’t serious, but those thoughts were there.

I was trying to do what was right and redeem the time and get an education and get on the right path, and no one was giving me a chance. That was pretty discouraging.” 

It took a while. The first time someone really gave me a chance, I was a junior in college at Moody Bible Institute. I got the job from a friend who went to Moody, and he was managing the store. He just put in a good word for me, and I didn’t have to put in an application…They gave me the job; I talked to the top manager. We had a really good conversation, so there was a sense that there were no questions asked…I had a lot of friends at the time who were speaking well of me. That was the first job I ever got.

I remember telling myself that I wished that others had given me a chance, because I was a hard worker…The senior manager didn’t realize I was in prison until a few years later…He couldn’t believe I was in prison.

It was exciting but it was discouragement and a lot of frustrations, as well. Because you really don’t realize how much a felony record affects you. And I never lied on an application. I always was up front and honest, and I never got a call back. I never got to first base.”

On how society can serve those who have been incarcerated better

“Just having a prison record in society…you can’t redeem that. Society really needs to rethink how they treat former inmates and start looking at them as individuals and not as animals who they think are going to go and commit more crimes.

I think there need to be programs that keep inmates up to date with what’s going on and with relevant job skills. When I was released back in the ’90s, there were really no programs.”

Takia Parham + Charles Moore, Part 1: Background and Rehabilitation

Takia Parham + Charles Moore, Part 1: Background and Rehabilitation

Tobias Brown, Part 2: Conviction, Prison, Faith

Tobias Brown, Part 2: Conviction, Prison, Faith