David Hills overcame criminal past to work to defuse violent situations
A few weeks ago, two men ready to end each other’s life called a truce over a mediated meal. They’d exchanged bullets before trading words: One had put bullet holes in the van of the other. One had shot at the other several times.
“These guys are killers, literally. We know that they have bodies underneath their belts. But, they were going at each other’s heads, and we interrupted that,” said David Hills, one of the mediators in the situation who detailed the negotiation that started with individual talks to the men.
“I know when a person wants to reach out, sit down and wants to squash something. I can sense it.
You can feel it if you’ve been there. They know that I have their best interest at heart,” he said, nodding his head, affirming his own words and the truth he believes they hold.
A New Beginning
For over a month, Hills, 37, has worked with the Southwest Community Center as a community outreach worker as part of its S.N.U.G. program — “guns” spelled backward. Part of the group’s mission is to decrease gun-related violence in the Syracuse area. The program is part of New York state’s Cure Violence program that seeks to stop violence by treating it like a disease.
Unlike with these two men, Hills didn’t have someone to intervene in the two incidents that led to his being sentenced to 7½ to 15 years in prison for gun possession and assault as a teenager. He had shot at a man who said derogatory words to his mother; two weeks later, he was involved in a shootout.
“Somebody got hit. Somebody pointed me out and said I did it,” Hills said recently as he looked out the window near his table at Simone’s Soul Food, the restaurant he runs with his mother.
“This is the typical story, too, of a lot of young men, some women,” he said of his past. “The story’s complex.”
Hills is right when he says the story’s all too familiar for many young black men who come from neighborhoods like the South Side. One in three black males is expected to go to prison in his lifetime, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.- based advocacy group that champions prison reform, examines racial disparities in sentencing, and advocates for alternatives to incarceration. Moreover, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated compared with white men, according to a September 2013 report by the Pew Research Center that examined incarceration rates.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 60 percent of black men in prison were 39 and younger, as was Hills.
Doing His time
“I went to prison as a child. I was young,” said Hills, who recalls being a ninth-grader who once took a gun to school in hopes of targeting a foe.
He told his story around deliveries for Simone’s on a Thursday afternoon, excitement in his eyes while noting that he was “best in motion” behind the wheel of his silver SUV.
As he waited at a stoplight next to Galaxy Convenience store, a man in a black coat at the corner of South Avenue and Tallman Street happily threw up one of his hands to acknowledge Hills. Hills honked back, rolling down his window as the man approached.
“What up?” he asked. “I’m chillin’, baby,” Hills said in response after being asked the same question, sharing familiar laughter before the light turned green.
For the first few years of his sentence, Hills was chilling to the same tune that led him to prison. “I was still young, using drugs. I’m in there smoking weed, stuff like that,” he said, almost in disbelief, his left hand on his steering wheel as the thumb and pointer finger of his right stroked his full, clean-shaven beard.
“It’s like it’s a jungle on the outside. When you go to prison, it’s that same jungle just different faces, same routine, the same everything. […] Everything that’s out here that happens in the street life, it happens in prison. From drugs to you name it; it’s in the prison,” he said.
Phillip White, 48, was a former inmate with Hills who served more than 26 years for what he called “The Big M.” He did not think much of Hills, his fellow inmate.
“He was a young guy who thought that he was real slick. And, basically anybody that he encountered, he looked at as a resource to further his own gains,” White said in a phone interview.
White, who is now free and works as a mentor in the Bronx, was doing legal work at Woodbourne Correctional Facility when he first met Hills around 2000 while they were both incarcerated. “He needed some legal work done with his direct appeal. He approached me as if he wanted to trade some drugs for the service of me doing his legal work.
Personally, I was insulted. I didn’t feel that he was placing a priority on his own freedom to attempt to pay me in that manner,” White said.
White said he tried everything in his power to show Hills all the negative sides of his personality so he wouldn’t have to be bothered with him because he felt Hills lacked integrity. But Hills was a little more persistent than White had anticipated. “He just seemed like he wanted to be around me,” White said. “Once I took the time to talk to him, I felt like there was something in him that was redeemable.”
With strong influences like White, Hills said he was ready to make a change in his life and work on his education. “I used to stand in the prison yard. I’d sit back listening to some of these guys talk. I used to be mesmerized off the words they were using, the way their sentences were well put together. I would be moved by that. I could barely read and write. So, to hear guys speaking like that, I was in awe. I became interested; I wanted to learn more. I began to realize how much I didn’t know,” he said.
“You know, when you’re young and you’re in the streets, you think you’re a man taking care of yourself. You make a little money; you start to feel like a man. But the reality of it is that when I was put under those circumstances, I realized that I was lost.”
As their friendship grew, White started assigning books for Hills to read such as “Manchild in the Promised Land” by Claude Brown, “Native Son” by Richard Wright and “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire.
“I saw that his level of comprehension and literacy was somewhat lacking, but I never criticized him because I found myself in these types of situations regularly,” said White, who always had an affinity for academics.
“Once I saw where he was, as opposed to us sitting down joking and laughing, I started making time for us to sit down and study. I started giving him assignments, checking his assignments, going over things with him, making him read out loud. I would read out loud to him, and then have him read the same paragraph back to me.”
Growing Through Education
Hills credits White with helping him achieve literacy, which eventually led to Hills earning his GED.
“I acquired a theology degree. I attended Bard College. I learned a second language (sign language) and taught it. I taught men how to read and write, which meant I was a teacher’s aide. I was an HIV and AIDS peer counselor. I learned and taught real estate,” Hills said. “I was taking advantage of every program they offered. I wanted everything.”
After being separated and housed in different locations, Hills and White kept in contact through letters and through Hills’ family, who acknowledged White’s role in helping Hills become literate and change his life. White admired Hills’ large family.
“He empathized with me to a point because the majority of my family had passed away during our experience, and that’s something that I shared with him. Him being the caring, empathetic individual that he is, he shared his family with me,” White said of Hills, whom he now regards as a brother he speaks to several times a week.
“His whole value set seemed to change before my eyes. It came to a point where I actually began to admire him,” he said of his friend.
An older inmate who lived across the hall from Hills had noticed the changes. He and Hills had built a bond over laughter and shared family experiences. The older inmate even introduced Hills to his daughter, Letisha S. Johnson, something that isn’t common in prison, according to Hills.
“In prison, there are rules. It’s not good to play with a person’s food or their family. Certain lines you just don’t cross. There’s no staring at a person’s family. There’s definitely no talking to or speaking to a person’s family unless a person opens that door or gives you permission,” he said as he headed to his house after making his delivery, ready to show some of his bodybuilding pictures.
Hills asked the older inmate about his visitor. Before Hills was able to explain that his inquiry had no deeper meaning, the man had told his daughter that Hills had asked about her. A few days later, Hills was given the green light to write Johnson.
Johnson, 41, a registered LPN at Loretto, laughed when she recalled her first impression of Hills. “Wow! Nice,” she said, musing on her attraction to him. “I thought he was a very nice-looking man. He has very nice eyes, which attracted me to him first. Just the way he spoke in the setting that we did meet. For somebody to speak like that, that attracted me to him as well.”
In his first letter to Johnson, Hills included two pictures of himself: a “regular picture” and a shirtless picture to show off his frame from the bodybuilding he was doing. “I didn’t have to send that type of picture,” he said, chuckling at his own cockiness. “But, I wanted to figure out, ‘How can I win her over?’”
Johnson, too, laughed at his first contact with her. “I liked it, but I did say that he was a show-off.”
After about two weeks, Johnson began making visits to see Hills every other weekend, or when she would have a weekend off.
She had just ended a relationship, but said she thought their budding romance was mutually beneficial.
“He needed me to be supportive,” she said, “and I needed the attention from him.”
The two continued their romance for three years through letters, phone calls and frequent visits until the day Hills was released in 2006, a day he said was almost as beautiful as his wedding day to Johnson in 2008.
“I was actually emotional that day. I wanted to leave, of course. But it was like, I’m leaving behind guys I love, I hold dear,” he said. “I met some friends in prison.”
After Hills was released, he was eager to get started on the goals he had set for himself while he was in prison.
“Everything I used to sit down, write, and talk to my wife about on the visits, everything we spoke about came to fruition. Honest to God,” he said, sitting outside of his home in his car, looking through bodybuilding and family pictures of himself when he was first released.
Hills had a difficult time adjusting to the new technology that had developed in his 10 years out of the workforce, Johnson said. But he persevered, opening up a restaurant for his mother, a lifelong dream of hers, and helping others with his counseling.
Johnson isn’t surprised that her “determined” husband is doing what he told her he would do on their visits. “It’s something that he’s always wanted to do. Even being incarcerated, he’s always talked about doing for the community. He always said he wanted to be a philanthropist,” she said.
Raheem Mack, director of Syracuse’s Cure Violence initiative, said Hills brings a unique quality to his work as community outreach worker. “This job isn’t a typical 9-5 job,” Mack said. “The community has an outburst of shootings and violence, and they don’t care what time it is. If there’s an issue and David has a direct contact to that issue or to that community, David is the type of person to say, ‘Hey, I’m on my way to give him another solution.’”
Hills said that he strongly believes in preventing violence so that other people won’t have to travel down the path that he took. “The reason why I took the S.N.U.G. job is because I’ve been there, I’ve done it, and I seriously don’t want to see guys go through that,” he said.
Hills’ own education could be an example for the rehabilitative efforts that many are pushing across the country, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Earlier this year, Cuomo said he would like to provide free college education to inmates to reduce recidivism and to spend less on incarcerating its population. Cuomo argued that education leads to more opportunities, and more opportunities mean fewer in prison.
The only place that Hills returned on that Thursday afternoon was to the parking lot of his mother’s restaurant, fashioned from Johnson’s middle name, Simone.
After wrapping up his responsibilities there, he was headed to a S.N.U.G. meeting.
His phone rang several times. They were calls about the pending meeting, and he listened intently, responding with the respect a soldier gives his lieutenant.
Hills believes his journey isn’t over. His next moves include getting back into bodybuilding shape, becoming a real estate mogul and expanding Simone’s.
“I want to succeed and exceed. So, we can’t stop here now. Don’t think that this is where it ends,” he said.
David Hills is best in motion.
— Article and photos by Lateshia Beachum, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications reporting student