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Is There Hope for the Survivors of the Drug Wars?

They're criminalized and discarded, falling at the bottom of every statistic.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Laurin Rinder / Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

Travis Jones got out of prison in 2007, but he talks about his time there like it ended yesterday. It surprised him, he says, the stuff he missed. He knew he’d long for his family, and his girlfriend, but it was the absence of everyday things that kept him from feeling human. “When you open your refrigerator and that cool air hits you? I missed it like crazy,” he says. “They cut the lights on you, and they flip the switch. Little things like that.”

But when he was released, returning to a compact corner of the unfinished basement of his girl’s mom’s house in West Baltimore, he turned it into a cell: bed, TV, weight bench, stacks and rows of books, DVDs, and video games, accumulating dust and teenage-boy-bedroom smell. He rarely left. When he did, he was jumpy. He was no fun at parties. “It seemed like when he came home, he was still locked up,” says his childhood friend Kendall Wilson. “It seemed like he was still in jail for a long time, just in the basement.”

Travis is 32. He’s short, at five feet six, but broad and muscular. He keeps his hair shaved close to his head and maintains a slim goatee. He has a way of sitting with his legs splayed and his head hanging slightly forward but his eyes looking up and his mouth unsmiling—half-relaxed and half-tensed. Around new people, he’s shy and suspicious that they’re talking about him behind his back, but he can be funny, too, and draw a crowd around him. In the basement, Travis spent a lot of time reading, as he had in prison ( Black Boy, Native Son, books about Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela). He binge-watched premium cable.  The Wire. (“It was sad how Dukie ended up being a fiend.”) The new show that the guy who played Omar, Michael K. Williams, is in. (“I like him better on  Boardwalk Empire.”) Game of Thrones. (“Khaleesi, she shaped herself up toward the end. She turned out to be a real force. When she freeing slaves you know I always get behind that. I ain’t like her at first; I fucks with her now.”) He played a lot of video games with his girl, Joyce Fisher, and a few other friends who’d stop by. Travis especially liked Call of Duty. He’d always wanted to be a Marine, but when he’d finally caught the charge that sent him to prison in Hagerstown, Maryland—police found vials of cocaine in his house—he’d given up on that. Just like he had on everything else.

When his stepdad left after two years of marriage to his mom, Travis was 14. They’d done father-and-son things like go fishing together on weekends and been close in a way he never was with his own dad, who was in the Navy and had never lived with him. His stepdad’s absence fed Travis’s teenage rebelliousness. He dropped out of school his junior year. His mom blames his attention deficit disorder, which was diagnosed when Travis was 12. (“Did she talk about the ADD?” he asked me one day and shook his head. “She always brings up that ADD.”) But Travis says he just acted out. He’d been a Boy Scout and his mom was a teacher, and he wanted to fit in. “Nobody likes a church boy,” he says.

Travis grew up in the same West Baltimore neighborhood where he now lives with Joyce, who is ten years his senior. It’s the kind of place where a walk to the 7-Eleven could get him robbed and where everyone is hustling all the time. People talk about the 1980s as the good days, when guys in the neighborhood could do well for themselves, when crack and heroin pumped money through the streets and gave neighborhoods an economy of their own; now, there is just violence, little money, and a lot of prison.