In February of 2012, Jamal Faison (above right) was a 20-year-old college sophomore home on school break in New York City when he, along with two others, were arrested for attempting to steal mobile devices from a subway rider.
Transit police arrested Jamal and he spent the next eight months on Rikers Island—New York City’s massive main jail complex that can house as many as 15,000 people at one time.
While incarcerated, Jamal struggled with the difficult conditions on Rikers and turned to his uncle, Born Blackwell (above left), for support. Throughout his teens, Jamal had been close with Born, and during those eight months, almost weekly, Born made the arduous trip from his home in Brooklyn to visit his nephew. His uncle’s support, telling him to “keep his head” and reminding him, “just because they treat you like an animal doesn’t mean you have to act like one,” soothed Jamal and helped him maintain a sense of worth while knowing that one day he would again be free.
In September 2012, Jamal pleaded guilty to grand larceny and attempted robbery charges and a month later was released from custody. Dropped off in Queens around 2:00 AM, he immediately understood the challenges that would await him outside jail knowing that his conviction would haunt him and his opportunities would be limited.
One year after his re-entry, Jamal became a father and is now raising his son as a single parent, and he hopes to someday return to college and resume his studies. He works at The Osborne Association—a New York-based nonprofit that helps people who have been in conflict with the law change their lives—mentoring youth and helping people who have been incarcerated find employment.
Jamal came to StoryCorps with Born to remember the night he was released from Rikers, and to discuss how their relationship supported Jamal through the conditions of his incarceration.
Originally aired June 3, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.