Evening had settled in Birmingham. While several cars headed toward the interstate, others curved into a small parking lot outside a nondescript downtown building. Inside, community leaders and a few law-enforcement officials took seats on the left and right sides of a large meeting room that remained silent until a group of young men were ushered in and began to fill empty folding chairs in the middle.
The young men were victims and offenders of violent crimes in Birmingham. Standing in front of them was Gerrel Jones, dressed in khakis, a collared shirt, and a sports jacket. But 20 years ago, he wore a white prison jumpsuit after turning himself in and being sentenced to 20 years to life for stabbing another man to death.
His message to the young men was simple: turn around your life while you are still free.
Jones knows about street violence, and he knows about turning around a once-wayward life.
Jones, 49, is a support and outreach coordinator with SAFE Birmingham, part of the Birmingham Violence Reduction Initiative (BVRI), and a student majoring in social work and minoring in psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). The rest of his time is spent helping young men avoid some of the mistakes he’s made.
Jones said he committed his first strong-armed robbery at age 9, and he committed a homicide at 24.
“I was an angry person who really did not have all of the skills to handle it,” he said. “It was more so rage. The idea of being able to protect myself from ever being hurt by anybody was my primary motivation. I was never going to be anybody’s punk. I developed this philosophy that if you tried to hurt me I was going to try to kill you, and that was that.”
After being threatened by another man, Jones said he couldn’t let it go.
“I committed the homicide in April 1992—then I turned myself in,” he said. “It was as if I just didn’t like me anymore. This was beyond what I thought I was capable of. I knew I was capable of killing, but I didn’t understand that I was capable of this kind of killing. … I felt like my life had been a failure. I had been addicted to cocaine. I had been an excessive drinker. I had been in violent conflicts. And I just didn’t want to be me. So, I hitchhiked all the way to Atlanta to turn myself in to a white police officer who had arrested me for domestic violence in College Park, Ga., and would harass me about Jesus every time he saw me on the corner selling drugs.”
That officer, by the way, became one of Jones’ biggest supporters during his 20-year stint in prison and after his release.
“When I got out and couldn’t get a job, he got me a lawn mower and a trailer and told me to go start a business,” Jones recalled.
A lot of who Jones became was a result of his childhood experiences, he said.
“My mother was a 15-year-old child [when she had me], and she had been severely abused. She got pregnant by a 20-year-old drug addict and ghetto player. I only remember seeing my father twice,” Jones said. “[My mother] married my stepfather, who was in the military. He, too, was a drug addict, as well as an alcoholic, who had been severely abused. The two of them were very damaged people.
“I was legally blind, but I didn’t know that until I was 7 years old. I only found out because the school said something about it, so I learned audibly. I could pick up how to do things if I could hear them.
“I went through stuff that was normal then but could get you sent to jail now. I was beaten with extension cords. I ran away from home when I was 13, and when the police brought me home my mom broke a broom across my back.”
Jones said he was given opportunities but never took advantage of them.
“This is why mentoring is so important,” he said. “I had the opportunity to go to Department of Defense Dependent Schools, [a network of primary and secondary institutions for dependents of U.S. military personnel], but my home life—the system I was being developed in—was one of drug, alcohol, infidelity, and abuse.”
After turning himself in for the 1992 murder, Jones was incarcerated in Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, including time served at two maximum-security prisons.
“I started getting my life together when I went into prison, so I had 20 years of preparation to get my head right,” he said. “I came out with an attitude that I wasn’t looking for any handouts. I did whatever it took. I looked at it as, ‘I’m out of prison, and that’s a miracle. A few months ago, I was just waiting to die.’ Every problem I have today is a problem that a free person making progress has, so that’s pretty good.”
Jones had been up for parole five times; he was denied the first four times and released the fifth time, in 2012. During his time in prison, Jones never got into trouble and would often counsel other inmates. Once out, he continued to look for work and eventually secured a job at the Foundry Ministries in Bessemer.
“[I started] as a warehouse worker there, and 11 months later I worked my way up to be a counselor,” he said.
Jones is now a key member of the BVRI, an initiative of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham that, according to their website, “works by holding street groups or gangs accountable for the actions of their members” and offering support to those members who want to change their lives. The BVRI partners with Birmingham’s business community, social services organizations, and law enforcement officials, as well as UAB.
Jones said, “I deal one-on-one or in small groups with high-risk individuals.”
Asked what he believes is the reason behind the increase in the city’s homicide rate, Jones said, “One is the influx of heroin into the city. Drugs drive violence. That would be the more significant factor: the influx of drugs.”
“Also,” he said, “fewer and fewer parents are developing their children because they’re preoccupied with drug use and the drug trade. There’s a lot of evidence to support that. Other factors contribute, as well, but any level of violence in the nation relates to family relationships. But now I think [the main cause] is the drug problem.”
Given his background, Jones knows where the problems are—and the solutions.
“It begins with every set of parents sitting at the dinner table, talking with children, bridging gaps, working toward restoration,” he said. “I don’t expect that our society will change that way because some people are going to do what they are going to do. In the meantime, [those of us who work with] the BVRI are dealing with the symptoms and helping as many people as we can.”
Jones encourages as many as possible to get involved with reducing violence.
“I need people to knock on doors with me,” he said. “I need not only volunteers but people who are going to bring opportunities to high-risk individuals. People need to understand that this is not a government problem. This is a citywide problem, so everyone in the city needs to make a contribution.”