KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
About six years ago, Johnathon Shillings was in jail waiting for trial. He was looking at up to 30 years of prison time if he got convicted. And he called home.
JOHNATHON SHILLINGS: My daughter's mom, she wouldn't let me talk to my daughter. She said, because your daughter is young enough to forget you. And I'd rather her grow up not knowing you than grow up knowing that you're in prison. Like, just something about that, man, just really destroyed me because I grew up without a father.
MCEVERS: At that point, Johnathon had already been to prison twice. He says he was violent and dealt drugs. And at the time of that phone call, he was facing charges for his involvement in a homicide. Johnathon pled guilty to helping transport and dump the victim's body, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. During those five years, Johnathon says something in him changed. This time he had a little daughter to think about. Her name is Victoria (ph). So in prison, he decided to really change things. He worked on his anger issues. He enrolled in an entrepreneurship program. And he kept in touch with his daughter.
There are a lot of people who go to prison who want to do what Johnathon did - change their lives, leave prison and never go back. Macario Gonzales Jr. is one of them. And we connected him with Johnathon as part of our series Been There, where we bring together two people on either side of a shared experience.
MACARIO GONZALES JR: This is my first time ever going to go do time at a correctional facility. So my daughters - one's a 2-year-old and one's a 1-year-old. So I just got to get out to them and take care of them.
SHILLINGS: First off, man, I'll tell you I feel for you, especially with the two daughters. And there's no other pain than staying up late at night, wondering what's going on with your kids or having the fear of saying, man, what if my kids don't know me when I come home?
MCEVERS: Macario was sentenced to seven years for drug charges and an assault on a police officer during an arrest. We reached him at Bee County Jail in Texas, where he was waiting before being sent to a state prison. And the two started at the beginning. Johnathon told Macario what to expect on his first day.
SHILLINGS: As soon as you get there they're going to strip you down butt-naked. And so you're going to be in a big, massive room, probably a warehouse-type gym, concrete, with a whole bunch of little individual cages. And then they're going to start pushing you in there 10, 15 at a time. And slowly they're going to start calling your name. Everybody go take a shower. And the first thing they're going to do is give you a razor. And they're going to put you into a barber chair. It's kind of like an assembly line. And they shave your whole head. (Imitating razor). And you know what's crazy? Probably about 85 percent of the time they miss patches and spots.
And then after that they push you down even further down the assembly line. And there's going to be a guard there. And he's going to go through all your property. And it's crazy. These are your only belongings that you have - pictures and letters, your Bible. You'll see how these officers just kind of just pick it up and toss it and say, you have too many pictures. Throw this over here into the trash. And there's nothing that you can do about it. Listen, man; this is the officer's world. Man...
GONZALES JR: We're just living in it.
SHILLINGS: Yeah, exactly. Man, we're just passing through it. Man, 10 years from now they're still going to be there. And that's what helped me get through because I was like, man, this is just temporary for me.
GONZALES JR: Yeah. Well, like, me, I just - like, I know there's gangster life or whatever. That's not me. Like, I don't - I'm like the hardworking type person. And having that mindset of outside the gates, like, being a hardworking man because most of the guys in here, they feel like they've got to be, like, the hardest dude in here. I don't care about being the hardest dude or none of that stuff.
SHILLINGS: I want to tell you something, man, and this is my honest opinion. Regardless of what people might say, everybody is nervous because you know what? Nobody wants to be in prison. Everybody wants to go home. Everybody wants to be with their family despite what they might show.
GONZALES JR: Yeah.
SHILLINGS: And you can kind of tell the difference between a person who's lived a life of crime and is in prison than somebody who's just like, man, I messed up this one time and this will never happen again. Prison has - they're real keen on picking up on stuff like that.
GONZALES JR: Like, if they feel that, like, if I'm just a person that's just going to go in there and change my life and come out, then they're going to try to, like, mess whatever I have going on - they're going to try to mess it up or something. Is that what you're saying?
SHILLINGS: No, no, no, no, no. That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying, man, if you go in there, if you prove as an authentic person like, man, I'm just a man that made a mistake and I'm changing my life, prison is so sensitive to, like, feelings and auras. Like, they can pick up on that. Like, this is a really genuine person. And so we're not going to push these prison ways on him. You understand what I'm saying?
GONZALES JR: Oh, OK. OK. Yes, sir. And like, how would I make sure that I don't become a target? Like...
SHILLINGS: Well, let me tell you the people who usually become targets. Let me tell you those 'cause there's predators in prison. There's people who pass their time by preying on people. The ones they mostly prey on are ones who are first off really, really friendly. Sharing all your commissary - you met somebody at the domino table and you're like, hey, do you want some coffee? You know, that's a normal thing. You're like, you know, you're having a casual conversation. You want to offer somebody something. But certain people and certain individuals will...
GONZALES JR: Take that as weakness or something.
SHILLINGS: Exactly, man. And so just be aware of your surroundings. When you're in prison, you feel the energies. You feel the auras. I mean, you're in county now, so you know, like, man, if there's a fight fixing to go down - right? - there's a tension.
GONZALES JR: Yeah, you can feel it when something's going to happen. Yes, sir.
SHILLINGS: Exactly. And there's a Bible verse, man, that really helped me out. It's James Chapter 1, Verse 19. It said, swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.
GONZALES JR: Everybody always says that.
GONZALES JR: There's a lot of guys in here that say that. They say, be quick to listen and slow to speak.
SHILLINGS: Exactly. And those things alone, man, really just proved as good principles throughout my walk in prison.
GONZALES JR: Yes, sir. Like, I just feel like my daughters - one's a 2-year-old and one's a 1-year-old - so how do you be a good father from prison?
SHILLINGS: Oh, man. The first thing, man, I would tell you is pray for your kids every day. Just develop a very sacred and special place in your mind and your heart for your kids. Like, my daughter was 3 or 4. And I would envision her going to college. And I would envision her - like, what college she's going to. So basically I had this impression in my mind of my daughter as a young professional. And then I would work on me.
One of my mentors told me, man, I used to walk everywhere as if my daughter was right next to me. And I said, man, you know, that's a really profound saying. And so I would - started acting as if my daughter was next to me. So what that means - I wouldn't cuss anymore. I wouldn't tell, like, crude, like, perverted jokes or even watch, like, crazy stuff on TV because I wanted to start representing myself as the father that my daughter deserves.
GONZALES JR: Yeah, 'cause I feel like whenever I see stuff like that, I feel like those are distractions from, like, trying to make you do right or being a good example, like, towards your kids and stuff like that.
GONZALES JR: My whole way of thinking right now is way different from the way I used to think.
SHILLINGS: That's good, bro. And one thing I'll tell you, bro, is write her. Commit to once every other week or the last Friday of the month. But, man, I used to write my daughter. Every six letters I sent I might get a letter back. But, man, when I came home my daughter had everything I ever told her memorized, embedded in her brain. And she would say, Daddy, you remember that time you wrote me and told me blah, blah, blah, blah (ph)?
And it would just fill me up with joy because that whole time I was crying because I wanted to hear back from her. And she was thinking about me. She was thinking about me because of what I sent her. And be confident that your mistake was just a mistake - right? - and that it's not going to define you. And that there's life for you and your children past this point.
(SOUNDBITE OF HINT'S "COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS")
MCEVERS: That was Johnathon Shillings, who has been out of prison for seven months, and Macario Gonzales Jr., who last week entered prison on a seven-year sentence with a chance of parole.
(SOUNDBITE OF HINT'S "COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS")
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