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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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As a teenager, Travis came into frequent contact with police, but his first arrest didn’t happen until he’d just turned 19 and was charged with firearm possession and resisting arrest. The judge gave him probation and said she would dismiss the charges if he made it through without a violation. (“I violated that shit like 6 times,” he says.) A year later, he was picked up because he and a friend had beaten a man so badly the victim required stomach staples and had a contusion on his kidney. (“I didn’t think he was beaten that bad at the time, but it caught up with us.”) Travis says the guy had hit on a 13-year-old girl in the neighborhood, asking if she’d gotten her menstrual cycle yet. The charges were dropped when the victim failed to show up and testify. (“I guess somebody told him what’s what.”)

When Travis was 21, about a year before he landed in prison, his best friend was killed right in front of his face. “His homeboy died—he did go a little bit harder after that,” Kendall Wilson says. “We all hustled. We all did everything. But a couple people were wilder. Travis was one of the wild, wild ones.” I asked Travis once how many deaths he’d witnessed. He said, “It’s like saying how many red cars did you see this week.”

The year after he came out of prison, Travis worked a few jobs. The last one, cleaning cooking equipment in restaurants at night, paid $40 a store, which was better than anything else he could find. He was caught stealing brisket from Boston Market and was fired. He put in a few more applications but never got a call back. That’s typical. Nationwide, black men with prison records only get callbacks 5 percent of the time; for black men without prison records, the rate is 17 percent (the same as for white men with criminal backgrounds).

Travis didn’t want to deal anymore. Guys he knew were working jobs, had become husbands and fathers. “I wanted to be one of the people who get up and go to work every day without breaking the law and have a quality of life,” he says. “I wanted to be one of those people, and I felt like I couldn’t.” He remained unemployed after 2009, and it bothered him, not chipping in. “Your family will be supportive, saying, ‘Oh, yeah, take your time,’” he says. “But after a couple months with no money coming in, you just a bum.” So he started dealing again. Only pot, no hard drugs, out of his house to trusted clients—straight-up people, he says, working people, older people. He limited himself to selling $100 worth a day and figured he was making between $30,000 and $40,000 a year just by being there to pick up his cell phone. Travis was an almost-daily pot smoker himself and didn’t see the harm, but he still wasn’t happy about it.

In the spring of 2013, Travis met a guy who’d gone to college in Canada, come back to the old neighborhood, and landed a construction job through his aunt, Catherine Pitchford, who worked at the Center for Urban Families. The center was just a mile down the road, and it provided job training and fatherhood classes for men in Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods. Travis needed certification for a construction gig, so he went to the center. Normally, every client must go through the center’s four-week job-training course, called Strive, before being placed in a job. But Pitchford, who’s completing a degree in social work, had a soft spot for Travis from the start. He wanted a job so badly, plus he seemed sharp and ready. She decided to let him take the certification test without the Strive class. He failed to qualify by two points.