From Prison to Business: One Man’s Resurrection Story

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After a low point, a resolve to change

Antoine Tucker in his clothing and tattoo shop on Utica Avenue in Crown Heights (Hanley Maverick/The Brooklyn Ink)

 

In his bed in Pike County Jail in Pennsylvania, Antoine Tucker woke up after three days. He had attempted suicide, he says, by taking epilepsy medication his cellmate had provided him. Prosecutors were attempting to give him a sentence of life in prison.

A court document—a 2006 memorandum from a federal judge in Pennsylvania related to Tucker’s efforts to fight the charges filed against him—reveals the series of events that lead to his arrest, with him being accused of attempting to sell up to $50,000 worth of crack cocaine. Federal agents had sent an informant to the apartment where drug sales took place, fitted with a recording device.

But from his perspective, federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania were unfairly attempting to charge him for being an organizer of a criminal enterprise, thus increasing his punishment for drug dealing.  The 2004 suicide attempt was serious, he says: “When you see everyone around you getting life in jail, it makes you a believer that you will be in jail for the rest of yourself.” He definitely didn’t want to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Tucker describes the suicide attempt as low point of a life filled with poverty, violence, drug dealing, abuse—and survival.

But it would also be a turning point in his life, he says, and for the better. Tucker would end up copping to a plea bargain. In 2009, he would be released because of change in laws that lowered the punishment for selling crack as opposed to powder cocaine, which resulted in longer sentences.

Tucker would be briefly released but the government would appeal the process and bring Tucker back to prison in 2009 for another year. He bounced around several correctional facilities throughout the six years, from Pike county to Lackawanna jails, and then settling in to Fort Dix, New Jersey and Otisville, New York. He was released in 2010.

In prison, Tucker began to prepare for the rest of his life. He earned a GED, a move that criminal justice experts tend to applaud. According to a Rand Corporation study, inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 43% lower chance of returning to prison after release. He would also attain a doctorate in Divinity from the Universal Church Monastery.

Upon release Tucker says he felt as though he had lost a lot of time, and focused on staying out of trouble. These days he is a 35-year-old business owner in Crown Heights, running a tattoo and clothing shop, Top Shelf Ink on Utica Avenue, and working on music on the side. He is of average height, and looks young for his age. Always open to talk about anything, he often passionately veers off into topics that he finds interesting. His opinions are not conventional by any means, including unusual takes on politics. His shop contains custom-made clothing, books, and a tattoo station in the back. He says he wants people to feel comfortable to talk about anything in that space.

Tucker grew up in Brownsville, and says he had a very rough home life. Living on his own since the age of 12, Tucker says his mindset was just to survive. Living in an abandoned house for months after leaving his home, he says he relied on selling marijuana to survive. “At the time I was poor,” he said. “I didn’t have any clothes, period.” He says he would borrow clothes from his neighbor, a girl. He said he had to pick on others to avoid being picked on. “I hated myself,” he says. “I hated everybody. I didn’t have any love for anything.”

In those days, Tucker says, he participated in something called “the pit,” which involved dog fighting and even gladiator-style fights between young men. The kids would pad themselves with telephone books and use weapons, which were often sharp. “The way I masked my pain, was definitely by hurting others,” he says. “I was a borderline sociopath.” In the pit, he says, dogs would often fight until death. But he stopped dog fighting, he says, when he sensed the sadness of his prize dog, who would win every fight for him. Sleeping an abandoned building for months, Tucker says he learned that his dogs were his family.

He has a brother who lives in Brooklyn that he calls his other half. If he could go back in time, Tucker says, he would stay in school. But for now, he wants to challenge the stereotype of ex-felons, he says, by giving something back to society by being the best that he can be. He would also like to see ex-felons be rewarded for good behavior by retaining their voting and other rights after a set amount of time without committing crime.

Because it is hard for felons to get jobs, he became and entrepreneur. “Black people are preconditioned to be entrepreneurs,” he says, adding that he feels rejuvenated by social media and its ability to help small businesses. He believes the drop in crime in Crown Heights, for example, is due to a shift from illegal ways of making money, to legal ones. Like his shop.

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