An ex-con tells kids they’re no match for gangster life.
Jamal Nasir was 15 the first time he sold drugs. It was an easy choice for the gullible teenager: As a Baltimore high school student in the late ’80s, he watched many of his peers arrive at school sporting flashy clothes, showcasing new cars and brandishing huge wads of cash.
“It was eye-catching,” says Nasir, who lives in North Philadelphia. “These guys had all the girls and made the football and basketball players seem obsolete. I wanted to be part of the team.”
Being a player on the drug-dealing team was as easy back then as it is today: Nasir and a friend were recruited and given a package of crack along with instructions to bring back half the money they made.
“I would go out there on the corner and within 20 minutes that stuff would be gone,” he says.
Before long, the teen had enough cash rolling in to keep him hooked in the lifestyle. But the game has a way of turning on its players, and within a few years Nasir’s choice started him down a 20-year path of crime and prison stints. He got caught in his first undercover sting at the not-so-tender age of 17, and served 30 days in a juvenile detention center.
Now 35, Nasir knows he has no one to blame for his life of crime. In fact, he praises his parents for exhausting their resources trying to turn his young life around. Nasir says they tried everything, including sending him to a psychologist who provided him a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The young gangsta was intrigued—for a moment, at least—but the game proved more alluring.
“A lot of what I knew was wrong was often outweighed by peer pressure,” he says. “I returned to the streets … hustling and selling drugs.”
Nasir’s choices caught up with him again. “The next thing you know I got caught up in a drive-by shooting at the age of 19.” He was sentenced to 10 years behind bars, but served only two. After that, he did a short stint at a drug rehab program—and then went back to the streets.
Like with many repeat offenders, Nasir’s transition back to the streets was easy. “No one looked at you differently because they were into the same stuff,” he says. “Being placed with other criminals from different places they begin teaching you things that you never knew. These guys in jail taught me how to buy weed, how to buy powder, how to boil it up.”
When Nasir returned to the streets, he put his newly found skills into practice: “Instead of being on the block hustling, I began doing it by phone,” he says. “People would call and ask me to meet them in certain places and I would go.” The cunning drug dealer even got a side gig delivering pizza and used the car to drive from neighborhood to neighborhood in Maryland pedaling his poison. And it worked, for a while. Then a client got caught in New York City for possession of cocaine. Nasir was heard on the wiretap cops used to bust the buyer. He was arrested, charged and shipped off to a Baltimore super-maximum-security prison to serve a nine-year sentence.
That was the turning point.
Nasir was released in 2007, and decided to get his life on track. He moved to Philly to live with his father, Amjad El Nasir. Now he works hard to make sure he stays out of prison. He’s a janitor at Harambee Charter School in North Philly and attends DeVry University, where he is working toward his bachelor’s degree in computer-information systems.
But turning his own life around isn’t enough for the ex-con. He wants to use his past and his present to steer young kids to make better decisions than he did. Like Nasir, most career criminals begin pushing through the revolving door of crime and incarceration during their teenage years. Two decades later, Nasir watches hundreds of kids in his school repeat the cycle he got caught up in.
“I look at them and see their attitudes and you can almost see their future,” he says. “I feel sorry and sad because of the situations that they are putting themselves in.”
Nasir may have a hard time getting his message across to the next generation, though. According to the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders, there are approximately 298,400 adults living in Philadelphia who have a criminal background and are considered to be ex-offenders. That’s a lot of bad examples. Despite the lack of role models, Nasir wants kids to understand that the game is not easily played. Federal prison, he says, was “tight and hot.” He recalls an inmate, facing 20 years, who committed suicide.
“I remember the screams of one guard ... radioing for backup. The guards entered the cell and left with a red-faced body. The inmate had somehow hung himself.”
Things got even worse for Nasir when he was transfered to a federal-corrections center in Petersburg, Va., where gang tensions were high.
“Everything was broken down into affiliations. You had the Latin Kings, the Vice Lords and the Mighty Keystone Nation. Then there were the Bloods and Crips. The gang Dirty White Boys mostly stuck together since there were not many of them. They were tricky and dangerous.”
The reformed dealer confesses that as tough as prison was, the challenges created by his earlier choices are even harder to deal with. This, too, is what he tries to share with young people.