Hey good people. It’s Ty Spells. Last week you got to hear from Ski, Jeff and Connie Sweeney from Downtown Boxing Gym on the importance of dignity. Well, this week I am so thrilled because you’ll get to hear from my friend, JJ Velazquez, who was wrongfully incarcerated for 23 years, 7 months, and 8 days. However, on the other side of that incarceration, he walked out with a greater understanding of his purpose, the power of community, and a belief in people. I am so thrilled and so excited to learn even more and share with all of you his great story.
JJ, thank you for being here with us today.
How you doing Ty?
I’m good. But that was literally my question, how are you doing?
I’m doing well. I’m actually doing great.
Doing great. Can you tell me a little bit more about what’s so great?
Well, I’ve only been home 11 months, actually yesterday made 11 months, and within 11 months I’ve been able to do so much out here. I’ve traveled to several states. I’ve been able to raise awareness based on my situation and based on the situation that a lot of brothers and sisters are still dealing with and battling and suffering from. And for me that brings purpose and it sets me in a place where I feel like my time that I spent in prison wasn’t wasted, was actually an investment. And although there was a lot of suffering and trauma involved in that, overcoming that and being able to do what I’m doing now in society is really uplifting and rewarding. So it doesn’t balance it actually—there was a lot more pain than joy—but the fact that I can get some sense of satisfaction out of that trauma and turn that trauma into triumph, that’s very important for me.
So I know your story and I’ve heard your story, but can you share with myself and the listeners, knowing that you were wrongfully incarcerated for 23 years, 7 months, and 8 days, what was it like one second after being wrongfully incarcerated for that long?
One second after being released?
Yep. One second after being released.
Well, I would say that the minute the gate opened up, my dreams were realized. Because my dream during those 23 years, almost 24, was just to be able to hold my sons and my mother. And the way that everything was constructed when I was released was a little bit different than the average person when they’re released. They let me go through the gate, they were filming the process, and when it actually occurred and the gate opened up, my mother and my children were waiting for me. Usually they have to drive you to the train station and then they take you from the train station—your family could wait for you there. They made other accommodations for me. So when that door opened up, the first thing I saw was my mother and my children, and that was the best moment of my life. I left my youngest son at five weeks, my oldest son at three and a half. My mother was in her 40s when I left. Everything was different. My son was 26, my oldest son was 26. My youngest son was 23. They both had birthdays. Since I’ve been home they’re 24 and 27. My 27 year old just had baby twins and life is great.
Now, let’s go back a little. Knowing that you were wrongfully incarcerated, what was life like being incarcerated?
Imagine your worst day and living it every day over and over again perpetually. That’s what that was like. Whatever anybody’s worst day is, just consider that. Because the truth of the matter is that a person who’s never been incarcerated, there’s nothing I can tell you that can bring you into my world. There’s nothing I can tell you that will help you realize what we go through on a daily basis. Living in a cage, who knows what that’s like? I know people with bigger bathrooms than the cell that I was living in. I can touch both walls just by standing up.
The toilet is two feet from where I sleep. You got a sink in there. It’s like your tub is your bed. Living in a small bathroom, maybe even somebody’s closet. And doing that every day and seeing the bars in front of you—I mean, there’s no way to escape the madness. You really understand that you’ve been stripped of your humanity. You really start to understand that your rights are gone. When I came through the system, they took my name and gave it less value and gave me a number. My number was 0082303. And what that means is that I was the 2303rd person to come through the system in the year 2000. Now I actually was incarcerated in 1998, fighting for my life until 2000. But in 2000, that’s after I was sentenced and that’s where they basically branded me and labeled me.
At that point, they take you through a whole series of things that diminish your humanity. They take off all your clothes, take all your property from you, they shave all your hair, and then they hose you down. They hose you down with some germicide and lice and all this other stuff. And then they give you a new number and they say, this is who you are. So at that point, you’re no longer Jon-Adrian Velazquez. At that point you have no property, you are the property of the state.
So from having property and having a name and having an identity, all that gets changed. You become the property of the state, you lose your identity and your identity that exists from that point forward is identified by number, not your name. Your name doesn’t matter, your number matters. And when you start to take all that in, it’s really hard to digest, particularly for an individual who didn’t commit the crime. And I’m not an anomaly, there are plenty of innocent people inside of prison today.
I guess I never really thought about that. That they are stripping you of your name, your identity. One thing that my family used to always say was, before you would leave the house, they would say, “Don’t embarrass the family name.” Because your name is a representation of legacy, who you are, what was poured into you, and then it also guides you on this thing called life. But here you are being stripped of that and a number.
So, can you tell me more about, now being stripped of your name, them hosing you down, and kind of coming to the realization that you are now property… How do you engage with other individuals? How do you treat each other? What were some of the restrictions—in addition to being incarcerated—what is the sense of community or feeling of being incarcerated?
Well, those are great questions and believe me, they’re loaded, in the sense that when I first came up, I was very young. I was 21, just turned 22, but when I came upstate and got that number, I was 23 years old. And it was real hard for me to assimilate into the culture that existed in prison because everything is divided. You’ll have Puerto Ricans on one side, Dominicans on another side, white people over here, black people over here. And then there’s so much black people in there that gets broken down a little bit more. It’ll be Brooklyn’s over here, Bronx’s over here, Harlem is over there, the Bloods are over here, the Crips are over here. Everything is segregated. You can’t just go and sit down wherever you want because that seat belongs to somebody or some group.
So you had to find out where you fit in. And I came from a world where Black and Spanish and everybody else, we were all together. It didn’t matter. I mean, there was always racial tension in the world, but the way I grew up, where I grew up, it was mixed. And we went to school and we were mixed. So it didn’t really matter because we just grew up hanging out with each other and loving each other and getting along. When I came upstate and even Rikers Island was a little segregated, but when I came upstate, I really saw it. It was crazy.
Finding a place to fit in and then trying to learn to trust individuals, it wasn’t easy. I mean it’s very difficult to explain because when I first came up, there was just so much confusion. First of all, confusion as to why I’m here, what purpose am I serving, and then how do I deal with this? And then them sentencing me to 25 years to life, that’s a life sentence. 25 years is an opportunity to be released, it doesn’t mean you’ll be released then. I wasn’t even 25 years old, I couldn’t fathom that. And then just trying to figure out where do I fit in, just because these people might look like me and want to accept me, how do I know I can trust them? And then these people are from my neighborhood, but they’re stuck over here, and either a gang, or they’re with this clique over there, and I don’t want to be with them.
So it was really hard and I kind of learned very quickly that, you know what? I’m my best company. So I didn’t look for friends. I didn’t seek to be accepted. I actually tried to be invisible, which was kind of impossible because I was the new guy on the block and everybody’s looking at me. Everybody knows each other, but they don’t know me. So everybody’s watching. So, it was difficult in the beginning. But if I fast forward after that learning experience, after going through that, I started to realize, you know what? I just need to be me and I need to find something in here that I can identify with. And it started at the law library of course, because I had to fight my case. So I had to learn the language that they used to put me away to try to get out.
Being in the law library, I started to meet individuals and we started to relate with individuals because we had something in common. We were trying to learn the law, we were trying to fight the system. And that’s where certain things started to really kick in. It was like, you know what? Not only do I belong in the law library because I know how to read and write very well, I can help others here. And if I can help others, then I could feel a sense of purpose. I can survive this. Because when you have no purpose, when you serve no purpose in the world, it’s really hard to deal with yourself, because everything’s been stripped from me. So I have to try to reinvent my reality. It’s very limited when you’re confined in a correctional setting. It’s not like, “Oh, I can go get a new job or I can move to a new state.” No, I got to stay here and I got to create my reality here. Then sometimes you create a reality and they’ll just lift you up and send you to another facility.
So fortunately for me, I didn’t have to go to many facilities. I had to go to a few, everybody does. But eventually I landed in Sing Sing. And when I landed in Sing Sing, everything changed for me, because there was a lot of positive programs. It was close to New York, so there were a lot of volunteers coming in from outside. And it was like, you know what? I can change my life here.
So I signed up for the college program. I got into that. Eventually I graduated from that, took about six years, I got two degrees. And then I became a person who actually ran the program from the inside and helped increase the program and let people know and understand that this is something that we all need to do. Maybe everybody’s not built for it, but a lot of people underestimate themselves. You can do it at your pace and you have people that will help you.
And then we started to realize as a group, people that were in class with me and everything else, that we were studying behavioral science…How do we apply this? This is meaningless if we just sit down, take tests, pass it, write papers, do research, and don’t do anything with it. So we realized that it was important to try to take the information that we were learning and the research that we were acquiring and apply it. And we decided that if we can’t apply it anywhere else, we can apply it here amongst ourselves. And what we started to real realize is that a lot of people in the population, they just need permission to change. A lot of people want to change. A lot of people don’t want to be in gangs, don’t want to get stabbed and stab people all day. They don’t want to live in fear. And I mean, you’re never going to get away from living in fear when you’re incarcerated, but you can minimize the fear, you can minimize the altercations that may arise.
When we started to create this space and give people that permission to change, we started to see humanity flourish inside. We started to see that people didn’t even understand the gifts that they had and that there were even individuals that were borderline geniuses. I know two guys that learned five languages during the time that they were incarcerated. They were actually battling with each other to see who can master which language first and it was just amazing to see how a lot of these people were able to change the dynamic of their lives. A lot of individuals that I met initially felt like they had nothing to offer people in society. I mean, we’re talking about fathers who felt like, “I’m a burden to my children so I’m not even going to reach out to them.” But when they started to learn that they do have something to offer. Their lived experience was enough. “Do you want your child to come and follow in your footsteps? My son did. Children of incarcerated parents are six to seven times more likely to be incarcerated themselves. We have to stop this cycle.” People started taking active approaches in doing that.
And then we created a culture where choices became very important to everybody that was around us, those that were incarcerated. And I can’t say everybody because nothing’s absolute. Some people don’t care, some people won’t change. And, well—go ahead.
Can you share with me, when you said once individuals started to understand that they had gifts, and I hear you saying that they started to actually believe in themselves, and then they started to pour back and create a healthier culture. What does that look like, or what is the process for one to start understanding or start believing in themselves when they’re incarcerated?
Well, it takes a while for an individual to come to that level, unless they were already partially there, because everybody’s at a different place in life. But once you get an individual and you get them to try something, something that they figured that they can’t do, or that they wouldn’t normally do or that they may not be successful in—and it could be something small—but once they see that they’re capable of doing it they start to believe in themselves. You have to give somebody an opportunity, and the only way you can do it is by listening to an individual. You have to listen to what’s on a person’s heart and figure out what’s right for them. A lot of people are misguided because they’re always told, well, you should be a lawyer or a doctor. And then when they don’t see those possibilities just coming at them, people are waiting for it.
People from where I come from, they’re waiting for something to come to them. They need to understand you can’t wait for it, you got to go out there and get it. But first you have to prepare yourself for it. So once you start showing people that they can do certain things… Like in school we give you a class, you pass that class. If you pass that class, you could pass every other class. And if you pass every other class, guess what? You can get a degree. And maybe when you go for a job, when you go home, they’re going to ask you why is there a 20-year gap in your work history? You can explain yourself and say, “Well I was incarcerated, but while I was incarcerated, I invested in myself. In fact, I’ve earned a degree. I may have earned two degrees and possibly three.”
“I’ve helped people.” And explain how you’ve helped people, and explain how that can transfer into something that the place that you’re applying for work from can utilize and benefit from. And that’s how you turn that around. Because even with policy change where they’ve banned the box, so they can’t put that box—have you been convicted of a felony—on your application. They still going to be able to ask you in an interview what happened during this time.
When you have a 10, 15, 20-year, 25-year gap, there’s no way around it. So we help prepare individuals for that. And everybody doesn’t come through the school line, which is why we’ve created alternative programs for individuals that may not be academically inclined. There’s a lot of people in prison that never learned how to read and it’s not their fault. The truth of the matter is nobody cared to teach them. There’s a lot of public schools that are just passing you for showing up.
I’ve kind of heard you say in a couple things. One, I love the concept that you’re saying, we developed. So in the time that you were incarcerated, you had a shift take place. And I’ve heard you say in the past that you wanted to be intentional of making sure that your purpose was not only just felt in these four walls of incarceration, but outside into the world. How did you go about doing that? How did you go about making sure that you did have purpose but then also you were able to impact the inside of a jail or prison, but also make sure you touch the hearts and the world outside?
So, I would attribute it all to my mother. She’s my hero. And there was a time where I felt like I was losing myself, and it’s because I knew my humanity was stripped from me. And I was allowing the system to dictate how I live, who I am. And my mother stopped me, she stopped me right in my tracks and she was like, “Listen, I see a change in you. And what I want you to understand is that they can lock up your body but they can’t lock up your mind. You have the freedom to be who you want to be right here. You may be limited, but you can be who you want to be. And that starts inside.”
And when I started to really digest that, it started to change me and it gave me an opportunity to look deeper. So I started to learn certain things, and one of the things that I learned that was really significant was, that between a stimulus and a response is the freedom to choose. And that’s why choices became so important. And then, CHOICES became an acronym that was developed by another guy that was incarcerated, because he was good with words, he was a rapper. And we labeled that at as basically something for people to really lean on and hang on when they needed it.
CHOICES stands for “choosing healthier options and confronting every situation.” And what we tried to explain to individuals is, in prison it’s monotonous, in the sense that I can tell you what I’ll do on Thursday two months from now, because I’m going to do the same thing every Thursday. I’m going to eat the same thing every Wednesday if I go to the mess hall, nothing changes. You come out your cell, you go to program, you come back. You can go to the yard. Your conversation may change if you speak to somebody outside. Most of the people inside, it’s going to stay the same unless we’re discussing ideas.
A lot of people in prison like to discuss other people and you have to change that. Let’s start discussing ideas. “What’s on your mind? Don’t tell me about what you saw on TV, tell me about something that’s real to you.” And once we started changing our conversations and we started changing how we thought, and every day when we went back to ourselves before we went to sleep, we started to contemplate the choices that we made in a day. And we started to say, how could I have done that differently? What could I have done better?
So that the next Thursday, or the Thursday after that, when I’m confronted with the same situation, I’m able to change how I responded. And that’s when I started to learn, it’s not so much what happens to us that matters. Although it does, but it’s not so much what happens to us that matters. What matters more is how we respond to what happens to us. And in these little ideologies we started to see certain freedoms, the freedom to choose, the freedom to respond the way that I’m going to respond, despite whether I may get punished or not.
Like I’ve shared with you before, there’s a policy that prevents me from sharing my food with somebody without getting permission. And an officer, depending which officer it is, is not going to let me take food to another cell somewhere else because I’m supposed to be in my cell. And then if, let’s say I poisoned the food, that person can get sick or whatever. There’s a lot of different excuses that can be used. But the reality is I’m not poisoning another individual. I see somebody who’s hungry, I have ample food, I’d like to provide some food to that individual and I can actually face punitive sanctions for doing what’s human.
Right. It’s like you’re saying, I appreciate the fact that you’re kind of mentioning—what I’m hearing or taking away from this is there are moments when you are listened to, or able to actually share what you’re trying to do. That is preparing you or showing you what humanity looks like when incarcerated. However, the times when just rules, or systems are being implemented or forced upon a person, that’s when you’re just going right back down to being that number, and no longer being seen as the individual that you are.
You’re absolutely right. The crazy part of it is that you have to be intentional with it. I have to make you respect me, I have to make you see me. So like I said, I was working in the school area, because I was running the college program. When officers come there that are not like the regulars or the studies, I make sure I introduce myself to them. I make sure I explain to them what I do in the school building, and the access, and the movement that I need to have in order to be successful. And that that individual will not have any worries on their hands, and that if they need to ask somebody else about me that they can.
So integrity matters. Respect matters. And sometimes we have to step forward and be intentional and say, listen, this is what’s happening here. I don’t know what they told you, but we run this and we’re going to run it right, and we’re going to let you know every step of the way so that you don’t have to do anything. We’re going to make your life easy. And when they hear certain things, like, “You run what?” Sometimes some people get excited and get upset and be like, “You don’t run anything,” and be like, “Okay, so you want to do my job for me?” And at that point it’s like, you know what? Go ahead, do you.
But the big part of it is, what you’re trying to articulate is that we really are trying to walk in agency.
We are trying to build a culture where there is integrity, respect, and we’re helping ourselves to understand purpose. And when we walk in that this space, this incarceration becomes safer for all parties involved.
For all parties involved.
And then in that same breath, those that are incarcerated understand and start to develop purpose, so that they can be better prepared if they get the opportunity to be back into the free world.
Exactly. And that preparation has to start from day one.
Can you share with me, I know now you serve as the program director for the Frederick Douglass Justice Project. What is that project and what does it do for society?
So the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice, first of all, it’s named after a pioneer in our world of social change, Frederick Douglass. And what we try to do is, we try to raise awareness. And I think that we do a very good job at it for those that participate in our program.
Because what we do is, we bring people from outside, inside of prisons to expose the humanity that exists in there. And we don’t tell you this, we don’t mold or shape it in any way. We bring you in there and we have a structure. We bring you inside, we make sure that it’s a safe structure where we start conversations and we open dialogue, and we put prompts out there to try to make people feel comfortable with one another. We try to guide the initial introductions in a way that people see commonality between each other despite whether they are inside or outside.
And they are all participants and they are all people. We don’t say, oh these are the incarcerated people, or these are the inmates. It doesn’t work that way. Everybody has to recognize that everybody here is a person, some of you are inside and will not be coming back out with us. Some of you came from outside, and you’re coming in, and you will be coming back out with us. But at the end of the day, we try to really push the commonalities that exist between people. And we allow them to see for themselves what the value is of another individual who’s incarcerated, what the worthiness is of the insight an individual has that’s incarcerated, and they have conversations. So, we start doing an introduction all together and everybody answers the same questions pretty much in their own way, and they have their own independence, and nobody’s forced to answer.
If you don’t feel comfortable answering a question, you don’t have to. And then we go and we break out into these smaller groups, and that’s where the magic happens, because in these smaller groups they get to ask each other whatever questions they want. We’ll put prompts in there, two or three questions to get the conversation started, but you do not have to stick to them. You do not even have to use them at all. It’s just there in case you feel awkward and you don’t know what to say, ask the question, ask it to anyone and that’ll start everything.
What are some of the examples, or some of the conversations that you’ve either heard about, or you’ve even experienced, in these small groups that you feel like is the magic, as you put it?
There’s a lot. There’s so many to pick from. The majority of them are usually centered on people from outside trying to figure out how do people survive what’s happening inside. And a lot of survival is based on hope. Survival is based on purpose. So when these individuals are given a sense of hope, and when they can find a sense of purpose, then they’re on their way.
I once read in prison, and I share this with a lot of guys that are incarcerated, and I don’t remember who the author was, but it said, “Service is the rent we pay on earth.” And when you start to serve others—I was wrongfully convicted, I was fighting hard to get myself out of prison. I couldn’t do it, especially not by myself, but I was able to help others with the tools that I was using and learning to help myself, I was able to use those same tools to help others.
And I was fortunate enough to help three other guys get out of prison that were wrongfully convicted, before I got out. And that felt good. Some people were like, “Don’t you feel messed up? Like you’re getting other people out of prison, you can’t get out.” First of all, I didn’t get them out of prison, I helped them get out of prison. They helped themselves. And secondly, I feel great, because that individual didn’t belong in prison. And just because I’m still here, that’s not that person’s fault. That has nothing to do—we’re talking about apples and oranges right now. And it was so rewarding to know that I can help others.
And it’s not even about helping people get out of prison, because that’s not easy. Helping people in any way, seeing somebody with their head down because their heart is heavy, and just pulling up on them and saying, “Yo listen, you need an ear right now? I’m here for you. You want to talk?” And letting that person get all that out, and letting them lift their head and walk away with their head up, that’s enough for me. I’m going home. I’m not going home. I’d be going back into my cage. I’m happy to be going home now, but I’d be going back to cell and I’d feel like, wow, all right. Tomorrow I got to try to get two people or three, because now you start to chase it. It’s like a high. I want to feel good and the only way I’m going to feel good is by helping others, because I’m in a helpless situation. And in turn, what happened to me was that other people started to help me and it took a lot of help for me to get home.
I love how you kind of talked about one, you could help someone and that felt good. And then, I also appreciate that you kind of mentioned, in the sense of other people were looking like, “Aren’t you upset? Aren’t you angry?” And you’re like, “No. I am walking in that joy, because I had power in that.” There was purpose in that, and it was all based off of you sometimes just listening to another individual. Then, I also appreciated that you articulated that you didn’t get them out, you helped them get themselves out. Can you share with me about what is the importance of proximity when trying to understand what it is like for an individual being incarcerated versus someone who is in an outside community?
Proximity is everything. Proximity matters. Had I not had the access by being incarcerated myself, I wouldn’t have the knowledge that I have of what takes place in there, what it feels like to be there, and what individuals in there endure, and how poorly they are being prepared to re-enter society. Recidivism rates that are higher than 50% over 10 years is ridiculous. If we knew that planes were crashing 50% of the times that they went up, we wouldn’t be getting on them.
If we knew a particular car brand had malfunctions 50% of the time when you purchased them, they wouldn’t be purchased. Yet, we understand that people are coming out of prison and going back within three years. More than 50% of the individuals that are coming out are going back within three years. And we’re not looking at the system as broken. We’re not looking at the system as something that really needs to be overhauled and fixed. We’re not realizing that the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do, because it’s a business. And making a business out of warehousing humans is not human. That’s what we’re dealing with right now.
As a society, what would you say to society to make sure that we start looking at it differently? What does change look like or what could work to make sure that, one, those that are incarcerated are actually being prepared for a life after incarceration?
Okay. In terms of society, I would say that the only way… Well, it’s not the only way, but the best way. The best way to be a part of this change is to become proximate. Don’t judge somebody until you get to know somebody. Right? And don’t categorize a whole pool of individuals that you have nothing to base it on. And so, what I’m saying is, I’m inviting anyone who wants to really learn about this or who wants to be a part of this change to come inside of an institution and to meet individuals for themselves, be able to take the blinders off, be able to filter out the public’s perception of what exists inside. See it for yourself, learn for yourself. You have a question, you can ask it. You can get a response. And if you have another question after that, you can ask it. You can get another response.
Asking somebody who’s never been in the system about the system is not the same as asking somebody who’s been in the system or who is currently in the system. I wouldn’t go to a doctor and ask them about my dog. I’ve got to go to a veterinarian. It’s really a simple process. And for people who don’t want to go inside of an actual institution, we have virtual visits available that we do regularly during the winter and fall. We do it weekly. In the summer, we slow it down and we do it every other two weeks. Because a lot of people want to be out in the summer, and it’s not as busy in terms of the business that we do. People don’t really care about prison in the summer. They care about the beach.
But we are willing to invite anyone to learn for themselves what exists behind those bars. And that’s the starting point. Once you realize that there are human beings being mistreated inside, then we can start to have a conversation about how we can change this. But until you understand what you’re attempting to change, you’re not really doing anything. So, I think it starts with proximity.
And then from there, it’s really about going back to the listening piece, and listening to an individual, and realizing, how does this person fit in this puzzle? Where is this person’s strength? Where is their superpower? And how do we harp on that to help change something? There is no absolutes. Again, everything is individual. And we have to be willing. I know I am. I’m willing not only to be a part of this movement, but to lead it.
It sounds like, in essence, you’re saying you have always believed in people rather than the system. At what point in your life did you know, I’d rather believe in people than believe in the system?
Well, that’s a good question. I think I realized it in prison. But when I look back, I had been doing it a long time. So, when I grew up, I grew up believing in the system and believing in people. I was a little naive. But that stemmed from the fact that I loved my father. My father worked for the system. And rather than tell me all the bad parts about it, he sheltered me from it, and then died while I was still young. So, I had that belief in the system there initially.
My belief in people, I mean, came from the love that my mother and my father instilled in me. They taught me to love people from a very young age. They taught me about community. I knew what a community was when I was young. I was going to school outside of my district and realized that where I lived was my neighborhood, but the people I went to school with was my community. And I learned that at a very young age.
And then, I got involved in sports and I became a team captain. And then, I realized that I not only have responsibility but I have accountability and agency. Whereas, I have to lead these people and I have to lead them right. And I have to inspire people around me sometimes when their heads are down. So, I was doing that at a young age. But I wasn’t conscious of it when I was young. I was just doing what I was told or doing what I felt was right based on what I learned at home, and what I learned in school, and in my community.
But when I got to prison, I really started to realize that the system doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, the system didn’t care about us, but we cared about each other. Like when I told you earlier that I was telling officers like, “I’m running this right here, down here in the school building.” We were running the prison, the people. And it didn’t matter what prison they put me in because they put me in several prisons. And what I realized is that prisons are just geographical locations. What made them either violent or less violent were the people inside of them. So, it all came down to the people.
And then, if you can get a person to believe in themselves, they are going to change. A person doesn’t want to believe that they were meant to be a monster. A person doesn’t want to believe that they are only capable of violence. That’s not what they want. But sometimes they don’t know anything else, because hurt people hurt people. And a lot of these people have been hurt all their lives. A lot of these people were never listened to. So, they felt like their voices didn’t matter. But when you take the time to listen to someone, they start to realize it. If I don’t matter to anybody, at least I matter to JJ. Right? And then, when you start to bring other people into the circumference, and they start listening to them, they start to realize that what they say, and how they feel, and what they think, and what their views consistently matter. And then, they start to believe in themselves. And once they start to believe in themselves, the change happens.
When I came home, I told you earlier, that my son was a victim of intergenerational incarceration. I was incarcerated, and eventually he became incarcerated. And I feel like part of it, I know part it was me not being there to guide him in the right way. But the other part of it was, I used to come down to visit on a regular basis. My children used to visit me regularly. My mother used to bring them up. I mean, the first 10 years it was weekly, until I realized that they were doing five days in school and one day in prison. Where was their social life? You know what? Don’t automatically bring them up here. Bring them up here when they ask to come up here. That changed after the first 10 years. And it still became a monthly thing. They still wanted to come on their own, sometimes every two weeks or every three weeks, but at least monthly.
At some point, I realized that my son was looking up to me, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I was wearing a mask. I was coming down on these visits all these years acting like everything was fine. So in some sense, my son didn’t fear prison. And in some sense he thought maybe prison’s cool. “It’s all right. Dad comes down, he’s always looking good, feeling good.” He didn’t realize I was wearing a mask for them. And I think that has a part to play in why children of incarcerated parents are six to seven times more likely.
Imagine what these children have to go through when people realize that their parents are incarcerated. So, you have people in society looking at your father or your mother as the worst person in the world. But yet, you love them. You see something in them that nobody else sees. And a lot of us sometimes, growing up, want to be like our father or our mother if we love them. If they’re not abusive to us, we want that.
At some point, I don’t know what it was, but my son fell victim to this lifestyle. And he came through prison like a revolving door from the age of 15 to 26. And I mean, I tried to get him so much help. And people that tried to help were coming back to me and telling me, “Jay, I don’t know if this is going to work. I think this kid is lost, man, and we don’t know what to do.” That was unacceptable for me, that even strained relationships that I had with individuals outside. Because, I was like, “If you don’t care about my kid, you really don’t care about me either.” And it was a painful experience.
When I came home, within the first nine months of my release, my son’s life changed. And I’ve had people ask me, those same people who said they felt like my son was a helpless case, “How’d you do it?” You know what I told them?
I helped him believe in himself. What I did was I got the community to believe in my son. And in turn, he started to believe in himself. And with that, that’s all he needed to change. Because, he didn’t want to be all those things that he was. He wanted to be better.
And it all just led back to belief.
It all led back to belief.
Well, I have enjoyed chatting with you, but we’re going to go on a break really quickly. I do want to circle back to the power of belief when we return.
JJ, it’s been amazing to have the opportunity to connect and learn more about your life. But can you start with telling me what was life like prior to being incarcerated? How were you raised, and what led to your incarceration?
Initially, I was raised with a lot of love in my household. I had my mother and my father in my life. At some point during my younger years, prior to adolescence, my father and my mother broke up. My father still played a major role in my life. He would pick me up from school while my mother was at work, stay with me until she comes back, I saw him regularly. But it wasn’t until like the age of 10 that I learned I had a five-old-brother from another mother, of course. That was the strain that was taking place between my mother and my father that I hadn’t been conscious of. I used to see it, a lot of arguing and everything else, but I didn’t really know it. And it was that break, not having my father in my life anymore, that led me to look for something different.
For the most part, it was always school, family, and sports. Those were my loves. That’s where all my time and attention went into. And then, eventually, it just became I started to lose interest in school. The only reason why I was doing anything in school was because I wanted to continue playing sports. And in order to continue playing sports, you had to continue going to school. So, I did that for a while.
And then, at the age of 16, I was hit by a bus. When that bus hit me, it changed my life in the sense that I was no longer able to participate in sports at the same level that I was. And that took the wind out of me. And so, I started to just hang out more, and I started indulging more with the wrong crowd. I got kicked out of parochial school and ended up in public school. And in public school, nothing matters. You don’t have to go to school, you don’t have to do anything. You can do whatever you want. Nobody cares. And so, that led me on a path.
That path had led me to being arrested at some point. I was arrested on felonious nonsense. I can’t even remember exactly what it was. I’m talking about I was like 13 years old. It was just, “Call your parents, tell them to come pick you up, and you’re gone.” But what people need to realize is the minute that happens, the minute you go into a precinct and they take a picture of you, the minute that they are able to take your fingerprints and create a profile, you are setting yourself up for a very ugly future.
After that, later on in life, I ran away from home at the age of 16, which was shortly after I got hit by that bus. And it was just like, how do you survive? I remember sleepless nights, homeless nights, hungry nights. And it was my pride and my ego that kept me in the street. Because, I had a loving mother and father. Either one of them would’ve embraced me and been like, “Listen, you can stay here. You can eat here. You have a bed here.” But it was me. I left and I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want anybody to feel like I needed them. Because, when I left, that’s what I said, is like, “I don’t need anybody. I can do what I want.”
That was just the wrong trajectory. It just led to nothing but despair. I’ve been picked up several times, whether it was for trespassing, whether it was for drinking in the street, whether it was drug possession, whatever it was. And that led to multiple photos and profiles now in the system, none of them having any particular… I wasn’t convicted of a crime. I’ve never been convicted of a crime, until I was convicted of a crime that I didn’t commit. So, that’s how it happened.
My profile, my picture, being in the database and being available to individuals to be able to look at is how I must have been misidentified. And I only say it in that way, because I don’t really know how I wound up incarcerated for a crime I didn’t commit. I was informed by police. Well, I was actually informed by my brother’s mother, Carmen. She had called me and said the police were looking for me, because the address on my driver’s license was my father’s driver’s license. He had already died 10 months prior. And they said they were looking for me, that they knew my father, and that as soon as they got in contact with me that I should contact them.
When I contacted them, they said that I was a suspect for shooting a police officer. I said, “What? You got to be out your mind. You got the wrong guy.” They said, “All right, well come inside. We want you to come to 28th Precinct.” And so, I did. I contacted an attorney first, of course, and then eventually I turned myself in. And when I turned myself in, we realized they didn’t have a warrant for my arrest, and I can actually leave that day. But something inside of me was like, “No, don’t walk away from this. You didn’t do nothing. You have nothing to fear. What is it that they want?” And my lawyer’s like, “Well, they want you to volunteer for a lineup, but we suggest you don’t. Just go home.” I said, “Nah, let’s go volunteer for that lineup. If I don’t get picked in that lineup, I go home?” He was like, “Yeah.” “Charges, no problems, everything’s gone, disappeared. They’ll leave me alone?” He said, “Yeah.”
Because, it was like you believed in the system, right?
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And he was like, “But if you get picked, you’re going to jail.” I said, “I’m not going to get picked. Let’s go.” And I went in there and I volunteered for that lineup, against my attorney’s advice, thinking I didn’t have anything to fear. And that was the last choice I made as a free man until I was released on executive clemency. My fight still continues. I don’t feel free. There’s parts of it, like me being able to travel. Like right now, I’m traveling to four states in 10 days. Yeah, there’s a sense of freedom there. But I still feel like the chains are still on me, like I’ve been branded.
When anybody looks at my employment history, you’re going to see almost 24 years of no activity. How do you explain that? When I went to open up a bank account, I gave them a driver’s license from 1994, because I didn’t want to give him the ID that the prison gave me that says released in red on it. Like credit, I’m just establishing credit now. I’ve only been home 11 months. I’m doing good. Thank God I invested in myself while I was in prison by learning and doing research.
But the reality is, I can’t escape my experience. I lost half my life for a crime I didn’t… Forget about not doing it. I didn’t even know it happened until I was a suspect. I was in the street. I wasn’t paying attention to the news. I didn’t know that a cop got shot in Harlem. I didn’t know nothing about it. And then, all of a sudden, I became a part of the story, and I had to suffer behind it.
And I had to suffer behind it and it didn’t make any sense. And to this day, it still doesn’t make any sense. The only thing that I got out of it was this sense of awareness that I have now, this sense of purpose that I have now. And it defines those moments. And the reality is that I created my own defining moment.
Because there are a lot of individuals who suffer the same plight that I had to suffer. And some of them don’t make it out of it. And unfortunately, based on the stress that some of these people have endured, I’ve known at least two individuals who were exonerated and died within the first year of their release. There’s one that had two back to back heart attacks. This is crazy. But I’m glad to be healthy. I’m glad to be out. I don’t necessarily feel free, but in some regards I know that I have freedoms. This world is twisted. I don’t think anybody’s entirely free when you really start to look at it. But that’s why we’re here. We’re here to raise awareness. We’re here to start inspiring people to really look at what’s happening. And hopefully, because I believe in people and I believe in humanity, this will help change people’s lives.
I feel like you’re saying, because to your point, you talked about the things that kind of got you into that purpose or allowed you to feel inspired or have a sense of some sort of freedom was community—your mother, your children, the gentleman that you developed a strong relationship with when you were incarcerated. It seems like there was power in that. Can you tell me when you see or you understand that there is power in community, what does that mean or what does that look like or how has that played out in your life?
Okay. So during the initial first maybe five years of my incarceration, I felt powerless. And then I met somebody. I met Dan Slepian, a producer from NBC, who was doing a story on a friend of mine. His name is David Lemus and he was wrongfully convicted, and eventually he got out, and that gave me a sense of hope. And I met Dan in 2002, and we made a promise to each other that we would not lie to each other. And he basically told me, “The first lie you say, I pull a plug on this whole project. Nobody will ever hear his story.”
And in working with him, he made me realize a lot of the power I had, besides my mother telling me that I had the power to choose, to choose what I do and that my mind couldn’t be locked up without my permission. I understand right now that a person can say what they want to say about me. They could be yelling in my face trying to denigrate my whole life and experience. But in order for me to get upset, I understand I have to give them the permission to upset me. What you’re saying and what you’re going through is reflection of how you feel. That has no bearing on me. So that’s where the power is. The power is to understand who you are as a person, to believe in yourself as the person that you are and the capabilities that you have. And not to let anybody interfere with that. I didn’t let prison interfere with it. They told me I was 0082303. They told me that I was not Jon-Adrian Velazquez. I made them respect Jon-Adrian Velazquez while I was still 0082303.
I did it intentionally. It took some time, took a lot of work. But integrity is the key. Being serious about what it is that you do and what it is that you represent. The bottom line is that it was something about once Dan got involved, and actually started filming me in the prison, security started to look at me different, right? I guess in some sense they realized, “We have to be careful with this guy because he has access, access to the outside, access to publicity.” And that was power in itself. And instead of using it in some retaliatory way or trying to spotlight necessarily what’s wrong, I used it in a way to leverage change. So these people are doing a documentary about me. They’re learning about what’s happening inside. We can change the way that docs is looked at if you allow us to do more.
In 2014, we did a TEDx, the first TEDx Sing Sing—the first TEDx event in a maximum security prison in New York—at Sing Sing. And our theme of the day was “creating healthier communities.” In one of the most unlikely places, prison. And so a lot of the talks were about creating healthy communities and we had people from outside talking about creating healthy communities in society. And we were talking about creating healthy communities in society and showing them how we created a healthy community in one of the most unlikely places from different perspectives so that people can understand how possible it is.
And really what happened was that we were able to get individuals inside to believe in themselves. Because a lot of them didn’t think that they could do a TEDx Talk. A lot of them didn’t think that they would be prepared for it. And then they were like, “Well, who’s going to be our talking coaches?” We’re going to be our talking coaches. We’re going to do this. And we did it and we pulled it off. And on that same day, which I believe was the December 3rd or December 4th, 2014, we presented to the world a seven and a half minute short film that we called Voices From Within. And we let Dan Slepian introduce it to them because he’s the one who filmed it, produced it, and spent that time with us and believed in us. So we wanted to show him that we believed in him by allowing him to use this platform to push out our content.
And it was a seven and a half minute short film based on CHOICES, but more focused on gun violence, because gun violence was so prevalent at that time. And we wanted to do something to reach out and say, “Listen, there are guys in here that were living that life and this is what happened to them. And we wanted to just share this with you so that you can learn from their experiences and possibly not fall into the pitfalls and life traps that they fell into.”
And we ended up having, I think it was some… I forget what organization, but some type of platform picked it up and pushed it on their own. And we got over 10 million views. And that put us in a position where we were able to sit down and speak to public officials about how we can use this in New York to minimize gun violence.
So we had gotten together with the commissioner of the Department of Probation. We had gotten together with former Mayor de Blasio’s office, and we had gotten some administrators from there. Then we had gotten some of the police chiefs and from NYPD and we sat down and we decided that we would give them the film, basically license it to them for free, which is something unheard of. We’re talking about prisoners, people that are incarcerated. We were able to put up a website legitimately. We were able to sign contracts with the mayor’s office, with the Department of Probation.
Who else had it? NYPD had it. And somehow it just started getting out. We had gotten letters that there were nurses in hospitals playing it for victims of gun violence. While they were in the bed healing, they were actually watching the video in the hospital. So we were really getting it out. So just to think, it’s something that’s unfathomable for individuals who are incarcerated, 11 men who were able to make such a great impact just by using their voice.
And by doing what we did, the individuals in our population, other incarcerated individuals, they started to see something. I was like, wow, look at that. If they can do it, we can too, but we got to get serious about this. Let’s speak to them. Let’s see what could be done. And then as people in the population started to approach us, we started to approach the administration and say, “Listen, we can change this culture in here. People want to change. They just need permission. We can create safe spaces, but in order to do this, we need your cooperation. We need your permission. We need to do things that you wouldn’t normally allow us to do, but you have to believe in us.”
And when the superintendent decided to believe in us, the prison changed. And that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now. The truth of the matter is politics played a big role in my case. The truth of the matter is Governor Cuomo issued executive clemency based upon the work that I was doing in prison, more so than the fact that I was innocent. And that’s a sting. It hurts. And I was doing that work for 15 years in prison. So it’s not like I made a drastic change in the year that you actually released me. It was the power of community. You had a community that was supporting me. I mean, multiple letters, phone calls, all kinds of pressure was being applied to the governor’s office because the district attorney wasn’t trying to comply. I had a judge who wasn’t trying to hear me. I’ve been fighting this system for two decades.
But it feels like… Or what I hear you saying is that your true power came, one, when you brought in all the people that did believe in you and the people when you started to believe in yourself. But then the aha started to happen when you brought perspective to the outside world. And it also really started to happen when you started seeing collaboration. There was collaboration between the police force, there was collaboration between political offices, and there was collaboration between those that were incarcerated. So it was a matter of you just had to start doing things differently. You had to say, “What has been going on hasn’t been working.”
Yeah. The catalyst to the power was based on getting individuals in a community to believe in ourselves, both individually, and the power that we would have together collectively as a community. And it’s so infectious that it just continues to grow. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re incarcerated or not. We were a team. We had administrators from prison on our team. We had public officials from society that are arms of the government, which essentially would be looked at a lot differently from individuals who are incarcerated, who feel like they’ve been victimized by this system. But we were able to bring everybody together for a common cause, for a human cause to save people’s lives.
And there is so much power in that. It’s why I’m doing the work that I’m doing now. It’s essentially the point that I was making with Governor Cuomo is that it’s essentially why I’m free. I’m not free because people recognize that I was wrongfully convicted. People recognized I was wrongfully convicted 10 years before I was released. That’s not what freed me. What freed me was the power of community. The power of individuals, and what they can accomplish when they start to believe in themselves and in their community.
That’s powerful. So I always try to make sure I ask a question based off of something that my grandpa always used to say to me, which is, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Well, can you tell us what you’re standing for today, JJ?
I’m standing for humanity. I’m standing for a lot of individuals that are left behind personally. And I’m standing for a lot of individuals that I never got to meet. And I’m not only standing for the incarcerated population in our nation. I’m standing for anyone willing to take a stand for themselves and join this movement.
JJ, it has truly been a pleasure. Thank you for sharing your story today.
Well, thank you for having me. And I would say goodbye. But in over two decades incarcerated, we’re trained not to say goodbye to people. We prefer to say, “We’ll see you again sometime soon.”
Host for this Episode: Ty Spells
Guest: JJ Velazquez, Frederick Douglass Project for Justice
Produced by Stand Together and BitterSweet Creative
Executive Producers: Obiekwe “Obi” Okolo and Robert Winship
Editing, Engineering, and Sound Design: Robert Winship
Special Thanks to Producers: Molly Ringel and Elgin Cato
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The Stand Together Podcast is a podcast for people who care about tackling the biggest challenges facing our country. New episodes drop every Wednesday, exploring the origins of philanthropy, the challenges and opportunities facing community organizations, and the experiences of nonprofit leaders across the country. Click here to learn more and subscribe on your platform of choice.