Phaedra Trethan Cherry Hill Courier-Post
Updated 5:02 AM EDT Sep 6, 2019
Antonne Henshaw was speaking to a room full of people in East Camden.
“This is a little surreal,” Henshaw said, leaning on the podium at a reentry resource fair in August. “This is my first official speaking engagement in the city I love …”
He paused. He talked about how he’d changed over the three decades he’d spent in prison for murder.
Then, he got something off his chest.
“I want to apologize to everyone in my community,” the East Camden native said. “For the damage I did to my community, for the harm I caused, the things I did to poison and hurt the people here.”
Also in the room: Diamond Thomas and Anthony Ways, friends of Henshaw’s who, like him, had been a part of Camden’s thriving drug trade decades ago. Like Henshaw, they’d both served time in prison.
And, like Henshaw, they’d both resolved to be part of the city’s redemption, helping its young people and men like themselves heal from the pain inflicted by drugs, violence, incarceration and decline.
Henshaw, who was released from prison Sept. 5, 2018, is 49 now, a much different person than the 18-year-old who said he was “wilding” on the streets of Camden. In 1988, he was reeling from the loss of his newborn daughter who was born prematurely and died shortly afterwards; and filled with rage over childhood trauma and the feeling that God rejected him because He didn’t spare his daughter’s life.
Henshaw was riding around East Camden, high on Xanax and alcohol, with friends one February night when what began as a verbal altercation turned physical, and then ended with the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Leonard Butler.
Convicted of murder, evasion and weapons charges on Jan. 21, 1989, his first criminal offenses, Henshaw was sentenced to 30 years to life.
Behind bars, he merely existed at first. His other daughter took a bullet while in her stroller when she and her mother were caught in the crossfire of a Camden street fight.
Henshaw felt helpless, unable to be there. So he prayed.
This time, his prayers were answered. His daughter was injured, but survived and is thriving today.
Henshaw, with the help of a mentor, set out to change his mindset. He sought refuge in education: He studied the law, becoming a paralegal, earning a college degree, tutoring other prisoners. He advocated for more educational resources inside prisons, not only looking for access and books, but also for financial assistance for those who wanted to spend their time inside learning.
“If you came to (New Jersey State Prison in Trenton) or (Eastern State Prison in Rahway) and you were from Camden, I made sure you were in school,” he said. “If you weren’t, then you were with the knuckleheads. But I made sure everyone from Camden I could get in school, was.”
And he thought about what he’d done: to Leonard Butler, to himself and to his community.
“There isn’t a day that he doesn’t feel remorse,” said William Stetz, a fellow parolee and friend. “That’s why he’s worked so hard to repair himself and his community.”
“I hustled at McGuire Gardens (an apartment complex in Camden’s Marlton section), and I felt like I was nothing there,” Henshaw recalled. “I felt worthless. I would ask myself, ‘Is this all you have to offer? Is this all you have to give?’ “
As a young drug dealer, he believed his crime was a victimless one: The people who bought drugs from him made a choice, and he was merely providing a product they wanted.
He knows the truth now: That addicts have a disease. “And I was profiting off of that disease.”
A Diamond in North Camden
Suddenly, recalled Diamond Thomas, it was everywhere.
Crack cocaine hit the streets of Camden in the mid-1980s. Soon, the money that dealers were making off it was everywhere, too.
“The way Camden was then, nobody on my block had money problems,” he remembered. He grew up at 5th and York streets, the site of a notorious open-air drug market, and the dealers were, perversely he admits, both a blessing and a blight on the neighborhood.
Thomas dealt, too, beginning when he was a teenager, to support his family.
“It was the Wild West out there,” he said. “And back then, hell, it was easier to get a pound of coke (to sell) than it was to get a job. I thought it was normal; that’s how everybody I knew made money.”
Thomas, a radio personality who runs WCMD Radio, is warm and funny, a self-described “smiley guy” who hid the pain of losing his mother at a young age by creating music, writing rap lyrics and making others laugh — even about topics that are deadly serious.
“I had my first gun, an AR-15, at 15 years old,” he said during an interview at WCMD, housed in the Dare Academy campus at the Jerrothia Riggs Community Center.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he remembered. “But I thought I needed it — problem was, everybody else around me felt the same way!”
The first time Thomas was sent to jail, he felt a sense of pride. Lockup seemed like an extension of school, he remembered: So many people he’d known from Camden were there, it was almost like being home. Camden prisoners stuck together, eating together and looking out for one another, he said.
His recollections are dotted with humor: Going before a judge for the first time wearing a fur coat, and the judge’s reaction. The jargon prisoners use and how it’s meaningless to anyone who’s never been imprisoned. The role reversals with teenage hustlers supporting their families, fathers asking their sons for money.
But he’s serious about what happened in Camden, his role in it, and wanting to make things better for young people in the city today.
“I spent four years accumulating what I thought was wealth,” he remembered. What Thomas called the “ebb and flow of my street career” led him in and out of prison, but there was also a realization, shared by his peers, that mandatory minimum sentences and drug convictions were disproportionately affecting young black men like them.
“Everybody in my cell block was facing mandatory sentences,” he said. “I didn’t understand the politics of all that back then. I just knew what was in front of me.
“It was like a war on young black men.”
“It was a war on young black men,” his friend, Anthony Ways, corrected him.
After he got out, Thomas went South for a few years, then to Baltimore. But he became homesick for Camden and returned. He organized and emcee’d community-centered events, spoke to young people and hosted an annual music festival. He was featured in a 2014 VICE News feature, “The Face of Camden.”
Last year, Thomas started WCMD Radio, where hosts not only play music and entertain, but also tackle hard topics like racism, oppression and urban blight. The station hosts back-to-school drives and food drives, and gives airtime to guests who highlight the good things happening in Camden.
Ways and his will
Ways was no innocent, he acknowledged — he hustled, too, and his reputation spread beyond his own Centerville neighborhood out to North Camden, East Camden and all over the city. He also ran his family’s bar, Three Ways Inn, on 8th Street, and a corner store nearby.
In 1989, Ways was arrested for murder, a crime he didn’t commit. He was convicted in 1991, and remained in prison until 2004, when courtroom testimony and another man’s jailhouse confession exculpated him, and his conviction was overturned. A year later, while Ways was on parole awaiting a new trial, prosecutors dropped the charges against him.
He had maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal.
He remembers the backwardness of Camden at the time of his arrest, a city deserted by the industries that once sustained it: “There were three ways in the city back then: welfare or disability or whatever government assistance; narcotics, or you were the police. That was it.
“Corporate America, Campbell’s Soup and all that, they boogied out of Camden and the only way for you to make money for your family was narcotics.”
Neighborhoods were flooded with cheap drugs, and the money that went with it.
“At that young age, all that money was tempting to us,” Ways said. “And we blew through that money like fools.”
His stepfather was addicted to heroin; Ways remembers being angry as a child, not understanding where the family’s Easter money went.
“Then at 15, they’re handing me a bag and I’m the one selling,” he said. “I didn’t think then about how I’d become the one I despised.”
He, like Thomas, remembers spreading the cash around the neighborhood.
“You’d have guys, I know I did it, they’d take the money from the mom, whatever little she had, and sell her dope knowing that was all her kids would have,” he said. “But you’d go to the oldest kid, or the uncle or grandmom or somebody, and give them some cash and say, ‘Don’t let her have this; just go buy some food for the house or pay the electric,’ or whatever they needed.”
He knew then it was wrong.
“I accepted this thing, but it was all out of order. But I’d said to myself, ‘Well, I’m not robbing anyone or cutting anyone.’
“We told ourselves we never forced this on anyone; it was their choice. We didn’t know what addiction was. It was like a child’s state of mind.
“I learned about institutional racism, and how I participated in the subjugation of my own people. And when I learned that, I regretted it beyond measure.”
In his 2018 memoir, No Ashes in the Fire, author and Camden native Darnell Moore recalls the same neighborhood where Ways operated:
…the crack epidemic in Camden was in full swing … The streets were hot then. We referred to some sections of neighborhoods in Camden by the drug sets in operation within them. After my day was over at Camden High, I would walk down Louis Avenue in Whitman Park, along a series of busy street corners known as the Hilltop. It was common when walking through Hilltop to accidentally step on tiny plastic bags and glass vials emptied of the crack and weed they once contained. Quick-moving drug dealers, desperate users, and gang-like police units hovered around the corners, where fights, drug sales and shootouts sometimes took place. Those were the effects of the crack epidemic I saw with my eyes. I was less aware of the causes.
When he came out of prison, Ways could easily have taken the substantial settlement he won and started over elsewhere. Instead, he started Camden African Neighborhood Development Organization (CANDO), getting gang members onto softball diamonds and basketball courts to interact in a safe place, so they might relate to one another as people instead of as rivals.
That has evolved into what is now on the campus of the Jerrothia Riggs Center, a sprawling complex that houses WCMD, Dare Academy, Dare 2 Dance, CYLAB and other community resources for people of all ages.
‘Everyone I knew’
Bryan Morton ended up in prison, he remembered, “through dealing, addiction, homelessness,” serving 8½ years of a 20-year sentence.
Before that, he hustled.
“I don’t want to say everyone (in North Camden) was doing it, but everyone I knew was doing it,” he remembered. He and his peers were taught that as men, they needed to support their families and so, faced with few job opportunities, they took the one that was in front of them.
“The streets were telling you to go out and support your family, so I dropped out of school in ninth grade and started hustling.”
He served time in Bordentown and Rahway, but not at Riverfront State Prison in North Camden.
“I saw gang fights, prison riots, I was in isolation … I went through it all,” he remembered. “But then it dawned on me: All these older prisoners kept telling me, ‘You don’t belong here.’
” ‘There’s no reason for you to be here,’ they’d tell me, ‘and once you get out, there’s no excuse for you to ever come back.’ “
A judge took a chance on Morton, allowing him reconsideration and shortening his sentence. Morton took full advantage, returning to school and beginning the process of rebuilding his life — and his neighborhood.
“When I came back, I saw there was an absence of many of the things that made (North Camden) a community,” he said. Churches that once ministered to the neighborhood turned inward. Community centers shuttered. Youth sports leagues disbanded.
“I realized how many people had to flee. Or they locked themselves away inside their houses because they didn’t feel safe,” he recalled. “We took all this as normal when we were here, but once we were away we saw it wasn’t normal.
“We realized, finally, how much was lost in pursuit of the dream, in pursuit of the game.”
‘Time to get to work’
For Ways, coming out of prison wasn’t a joyful occasion — it was a call to action.
“I wasn’t thinking, ‘This is freedom,’ or anything like that,” he said. “It was more like, it’s time to get to work.”
He worked briefly at a shipyard, but it wasn’t a good fit for him and he wasn’t satisfied with the pay or the feeling that others were profiting off his hard work. He began investing in real estate and started his own holding company, but also launched CANDO.
“I knew I could go home and go back to selling drugs,” he said. “It was strictly warehousing then in prison; there was no job training or rehab for drug addiction or anything like that then.
“So the question for me was, I’m going home, but to do what? I couldn’t go back to narcotics; I didn’t have an education. What am I supposed to do? Some minuscule job?”
Instead, he put the knowledge he learned on the streets to a different use.
“I knew we already had those skills: We know what a re-up is, right? What’s a re-up for corner boys is capital gains in Corporate America. I knew guys who could turn a penny into a dollar on the streets. They could do it legitimately, too.”
Morton applied the same work ethic he had as a dealer to creating a better North Camden.
“I knew that I had been out there hustling all night long,” he said. “I knew I could do that — I could work for days and not sleep, go all day and all night.
“I thought, if I can do that and channel it into something positive, I will. I wished I had never listened to the lure of the streets.”
Morton worked to revive the North Camden Little League, building it into a powerhouse with 650 children playing baseball and softball on 38 teams in North Camden, Centerville, East Camden, Whitman Park, Bergen Square and Cramer Hill.
Henshaw, a graduate student at Rutgers–Camden who speaks about mass incarceration and post-incarceration all over the Northeast, continues his advocacy for education — and for more resources to prepare people coming out of jail.
“I wanted to be the person who got out and developed (an avenue) for others,” he said. “I wanted to create an avenue for scholars so we’re better when we come out.”
Learn how we reported this story here.
Henshaw looks back on the person he was when he went into prison, and sees a much different person now.
“I have thought a lot about Mr. Butler and his family,” he said. “He was 19, and he was innocently walking down the street (when Henshaw shot him). He didn’t deserve to die. He deserves to be here. I know that, and I have to live with that.”
He’s worked to spread the word about the value — and the accessibility — of college to young people in Camden and beyond.
“It’s about producing people who can be an asset to the community … creating a platform for restorative justice. Instead of sending your babies away, they can go to Camden County College or to Rutgers. They can get an education and we can reverse this inter-generational trauma.”
According to a recent study by the RAND Corporation, more than 700,000 people leave prisons and jails each year. “Many individuals incarcerated in U.S. prisons are disadvantaged in terms of low educational attainment, which, when they get released, makes it challenging for them to find employment that provides a living wage,” the study notes.
A 2013 RAND study found that those who participated in an educational program — including high school and GED programs, adult basic education, college education or career and technical training — were 43 percent less likely to end up back in prison than those who did not. Participating in college courses, RAND found, reduced recidivism by 16 percent over those who did not.
“Put another way,” RAND’s study said, “individuals who participate in (post-secondary education) programs, including college coursework, while incarcerated are roughly half as likely to recidivate as those who did not participate in any type of correctional education program.”
“People get angry, wondering why a convict should get an education when they can’t afford college for their own children,” said Gale Muhammad, founder of Women Who Never Give Up, a nonprofit that advocates for the incarcerated and their families.
“But they are coming back, either way. So let’s prepare them. It’s a reinvestment, a shift in spending from keeping them in prison to helping them stay out.”
Morton, standing in the dugout as he coached the Lady Wildcats in a playoff softball game on a warm August evening, talked about the importance of not only talking to Camden’s young people about staying in school and off the streets, but about making the commitment to them, and giving them real alternatives.
“There’s plenty of guys who’ve been in prison who’ll tell (kids), ‘Hey, young’un, you should do this or not do that,’ but there’s not enough people in this city giving them the time, doing things, showing them they matter.”
Camden still has a lot of single-parent households like the one he grew up in, he noted, and gangs are happy to offer the illusion of family.
“Remember, the street taught them not to trust, so you have to earn that trust by being there, giving your time and energy.”
Asked if he felt like he redeemed himself by giving back, Morton thought for a few moments about the question, gazing out at his team of middle- and high school girls as they played against a team from Cherry Hill.
“In understanding the role I played in it, I realized I didn’t want to be another agent in the destruction of the black community,” he said. “I didn’t want to take away another young man’s future, or steal the promise of a young lady like these young ladies.
“I always say I’m still trying to earn my way into heaven,” he said as the sun began to set over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the ball field where his team played.
“The things I’ve done … I think I’m still somewhere in one of Dante’s levels.”
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden since 2015. She’s called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at [email protected], on Twitter @CP_Phaedra, or by phone at 856-486-2417.
Help support local journalism with a Courier-Post subscription.
- Home Truths: Time for Help to Buy for average and low earners
- Staggered pub closing times to help make streets safer
- Smacking ban ‘will do nothing to help vulnerable children’
- Back on track with part-time student help
- 'It's incredible what they can do time-wise'
- ‘I will stab you. I will do time for you’
- BBC 'must do more to help older people'
- Energy firms told they must do more to help at-risk customers
- IMF 'ready to do more' to help battle Ebola
- Josh in Wright place at right time to help O's start with win
- 'As an accidental landlord, do long leases make sense?'
- A-level results day: Camden School for Girls pupils
- Police make two arrests after boy, 16, knifed to death in Camden
- Two arrests over fatal stabbing of 16-year old boy in Camden
- Prison service spends €325,000 so inmates can watch Sky Sports
- How the UK's cushiest jail gets inmates back on track
- 'Tooler' the heart of Dublin in rare oul' times
- Fantastic fund-raiser wants to inspire others to do the same
- A helping high: Why we're still a nation of willing volunteers
- Tired all the time?
After doing time, these former inmates are helping Camden have 3502 words, post on eu.courierpostonline.com at August 14, 2019. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.