I met Jordan at work, assuming he was the usual teenage fast-food employee. He was always smiling and polite, doing all the work he was asked to do. I was shocked when I learned he was part of “the program”: a place that helps young men reintegrate into society after they’ve been convicted of a crime.
“I remember when I was six – and it was so funny that I knew what this was – I was so young. It was probably bad. But these guys are doing this blood handshake, but it was so long. When I sat there looking at them, it felt like it was an hour. But at that time, they had payphones and stuff, so my mom was at the payphone and I’m looking at it. And I’m just like, ‘yo… those guys are doing a gang handshake.’”
Jordan grew up in Trenton with his mother, grandmother, and uncle. Being in that area, there were many things he was exposed to that most children aren’t. Money was always something they worried about.
“The only person working was my mom, and she’s trying to stretch her money across four people.”
At a young age, he had to start helping his mother support an entire household. There was so much pressure to help his family financially; Jordan inevitably slipped into the behaviors he had been surrounded by.
“As I got older, it kind of shifted a lot. I kind of became the head of the household. I started actually working at AMC when I was fifteen, right before I turned sixteen. Started working. You already know my history so… started doing my thing. Hopped off the porch, as we would say. Started selling a little bit of drugs here and there, doing a little paid stuff here and there. But yeah, pretty much started getting money by myself, you know what I mean?”
It’s hard to imagine a fifteen-year-old selling hard drugs, but it’s easy to fall victim to that lifestyle when it’s what you see everywhere, all the time.
“The way I look at Trenton is… it’s like… raw. Raw material. You’re gonna get it just the way it is. As far as people selling drugs, you’re just gonna see it – that’s just what it is. As far as the downtown area, where cops are literally on every single block, people still do it. They don’t care.”
This way of life will always be a part of him, even when he’s far away from the city.
“To me it always seemed normal, you know? Even whenever they have shootouts and stuff like that. It’s to the point that I can’t even really go to sleep unless I hear a little bit of noise – like a TV on, something like that. ‘Cause I don’t do quiet. In my town, there’s cars always driving by … So I’m used to it.”
Despite the challenges, he managed to do very well in school. When he was just in elementary school, he decided to start taking his education seriously. He didn’t want to treat it as a joke like so many around him did. From then on, he got honor roll every year, and was even accepted into multiple programs for exceptional students.
“I’ve always been that person that can get an F in the beginning of the marking period and then average it out later to a B. So I was like, ‘You got this. This is Jordan. Come on.’ And I didn’t have it. It was just going down and down and down and down. So I’m kinda happy that saved me a little bit. I would’ve been dropped out probably.”
In the months before his arrest, Jordan went into a downward spiral. Because his friends often skipped school, he started going less and less. His grades plummeted; he saw himself heading towards the life he had always feared. He admits that a part of him is glad he got caught – otherwise he may have never been taken off that path. Although there were some positives to his arrest, there were many internal struggles he faced as a result.
“I probably would say the biggest, biggest, biggest obstacle I had to face was – I can’t express this enough – the fact that when I got locked up I realized that I could not help my mom anymore … I wanna run. I wanna get away. I just wanna go and help her. But if I do that, I’m gonna make it harder on myself.”
He harbors guilt for another reason as well: since his time in the program, his grandmother has passed away. He realized that he lost time with her because of the trouble he got into. And now, she would never get to see him get out.
“When I was working at AMC I had all these free movie tickets and I was taking these girls; I should’ve been taking my grandma. Or when I was at Wawa … I should’ve brought her a BLT or something.”
What I’ve seen in Jordan is something I never expected. He’s not a dangerous criminal; he wants to make the world better. He doesn’t want to end up as another statistic like so many of his peers have.
“There’s people in my town that die at fourteen. They didn’t even get a glimpse of life yet … I don’t wanna die before I make sure my mom is good. If I die now, she’s gonna be in Trenton for the rest of her life.”
Jordan has one of the biggest, brightest personalities I’ve ever known. He’s someone who constantly looks for ways to make people’s lives easier and to make the world better. He dreams of giving back to the place he grew up in. Growing up, he wasn’t lucky enough to have positive examples to follow; Jordan hopes he can make a difference for those who find themselves in the same position he was in. He wants to be able to give kids from his area the opportunities that he never got.
“There’s so many people that’s made it out of Trenton and never looked back. And I used to always hate that. I’m like ‘damn.’ You never hear about success stories from Trenton, New Jersey.”
Jordan grew up in a household supported solely by his mother, surrounded by people dealing drugs openly on every street. He knew no other lifestyle. When all you see is one city, it’s hard to imagine a world outside of it. I’ve been told countless times not to trust guys from the program because they’re “thugs” who will trick you into believing anything. But when it comes to Jordan, he couldn’t be farther from that. His intentions and heart as genuine, if not more genuine, than the people I talk to every day. He has the potential to move on to better things, leaving people wondering how he ever lived this lifestyle.
Of course not everyone is a diamond in the rough; some people don’t want to change. But Jordan is a perfect example of someone who doesn’t let their past dictate their future. He doesn’t look at this program as a punishment, but as an opportunity to grow. To Jordan, it’s not a temporary setback before returning to his old ways. While he’s in the program he’s working hard to create a future for himself. He’ll do whatever it takes, from moving up in his current job to attending college classes in preparation for future ones. Every day, he moves closer towards his own success – not forgetting his roots, but never letting them hold him back.