Exoneree Diaries: Making the most of second chances, together

Exoneree Diaries: Making the most of second chances, together
Antione Day WBEZ/Andrew Gill
Exoneree Diaries: Making the most of second chances, together
Antione Day WBEZ/Andrew Gill

Exoneree Diaries: Making the most of second chances, together

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“Living in a cage like an animal, you never forget it, so I would never let it wear me down because I shed myself of the burden. Being in prison and thinking of other people of being in that same situation that don’t deserve it — it’s hard for me.”

OFFICE HOURS WERE OVER, and the weekly community meeting was soon to start. Antione sat hunched over at the front desk of the Howard Area Community Center, writing a letter to an inmate. He didn’t know the guy.

Every week, about 10 letters would arrive for Antione from state prisons where he had visited and given talks to soon-to-be parolees. Inside the prisons, Antione would introduce himself and encourage guys to get in touch when they needed help upon release.

“I’m not a letter writer,” Antione said. “No novellas.”

He tried to write back because most of his own letters from prison went unanswered. People wouldn’t respond, and Antione would write them again and again. During his incarceration, the prison would give inmates a few stamps a month.

His former “cellie” – Dennis Mixon, a guy who lived in his four-person dorm at Stateville Correctional Center – also wrote to him. Antione knew his “rappies” (the other guys on his case) from Pontiac Correctional Center, but it wasn’t until he and Dennis bunked in the same room and realized their families knew each other that they became friends. Mixon was a quiet and pensive.

“He know that I’m not going to write no letter,” Antione laughed. “Dennis was a writer. He loved to write. He used to write a lot of stories.”

Antione preferred their phone calls. Sometimes he would call Mixon’s mom for updates and messages. Lately, the messages hadn’t been good.

Mixon had a trouble with his kidneys and no money for a transplant. He had had a stroke and difficulty using one of his feet. When he was at Pontiac, the prison staff couldn’t put shackles on his legs because they were so swollen.

Mixon’s mom, a woman in her seventies, relied on other people to drive her a few times a year to the prison. She never learned highway driving, and she wouldn’t go in bad weather, not after hitting some black ice on the way to Tamms Correctional Center one year. The prison closed in 2013.

“I try not to be angry,” Nedra Mixon said. “Their plan is for him never to come out of there. I know Daniel Taylor because their trials were back to back. I thought they were both coming home. But neither one of them did.”

Except that Daniel eventually did come home in 2013. Daniel, one of the eight accused (Mixon included) in a double murder in 1992, spent more than two decades of a life sentence behind bars. He had confessed to the crimes as a teen, even though it was impossible for him to have committed them. He was in police custody for disorderly conduct at the time of the shooting.

In his own case, Antione never confessed and always maintained his innocence. But he describes the phenomenon of false confessions as something like what happens in a kennel.

“Chihuahuas. Poodles. You’re all in cages, and you hear what’s happening, instilling fear through the kennel,” he said, mimicking the cries with his hands.

Daniel wasn’t the only to confess in his case. The seven others confessed as well. Five were convicted. Eventually all were freed – except Mixon.

In prison, Mixon’s communicated with prosecutors and journalists. His words damned him, placing himself at the crime scene while clearing the other guys. This account corroborated the innocence of the others, while further sealing his own fate.

But Antione, unaware of the particulars of what Mixon had said, took up his cause. He peddled Mixon’s case around Chicago to anyone who would listen. He talked to lawyers, journalists and innocence crusaders. When he attended the Innocence Network conference every year, Antione would bend many ears about his friend.

“They always tell us if we think or know of someone who may be innocent, let’s look into it,” Antione said. “I truly believe that Dennis had nothing to do with this murder. Knowing him, I just don’t see it. I was in prison with a thousand murderers and rapists and killers. You can tell just about who is who.”

What Mixon was guilty of, Antione believes, is having a drug addiction. The kind that would make you “say your mother killed Kennedy just to get out of a situation.”

A FEW MINUTES before 6:30 in the evening, Antione set his letter aside and told everyone in the computer lab to take a seat and power off the screens. Chairs lined the long room and wrapped around the corner. The room was full of parolees, kids and parents from the community for Antione’s weekly “Overcomers” meeting.

The younger folks piled in the Howard Area Community Center to use the computers. No internet at home. The door was open to them. They liked to hang out.

“You smell like a stank cigarette,” Antione told one guy before starting the meeting and turning to the group. “Anybody been watching the news? Nobody been watching the news? Because this news is all about y’all.”

Antione talked about new policies that he thought would hurt people on parole. He rambled on to other topics – finding jobs and taking responsibility for one’s family.

“It’s easy to make a baby, but it’s hard to be a father,” he said.

Antione had his favorite sayings to motivate the group each week – “a closed mouth truly don’t get fed” and “when you settle for less, you always get less that you settle for.”

And he often mentioned drugs and alcohol – life’s vices that did not tempt him – as examples of what holds people back.

“Y’all listening?” he hollered. “This is for the grown folk. Not the little kids. ‘Cuz some of these kids got more responsibility than us grown folk.”

As Antione spoke, some men looked straight down. Others never broke eye contact. Gleefully, the kids joined the grown men in the closing cheer:

Put your hand in my hand, together can make it.
Put your hand in my hand, together can make it.
Put your hand in my hand, together can make it.
Guess what y’all? We made it.

After releasing hands, the men and children formed a line for free haircuts. Antione headed up to the front where a barber who went by Mr. Antonio was already clipping a man’s hair in an office chair.

“How you want the sides?” he asked.

Antione nudged the man getting his hair cut. “How’d you get in the chair first, man?”

The guy shrugged at Antione as clumps of his hair fell on the faded blue carpeting. House music started to fill the room.

Antione grabbed a hair clipper and started in on another man’s head, going quickly in different directions, as the man winced. Antione hated baldies. He didn’t like touching the skin on their heads.

“Hey there, can I get two regular haircuts? What’s that $20?” a lady busted in with her two little boys. She was joking.

“No, it’s 50 cents apiece!” Antione smiled.

“Nah, y’all ain’t worth it!” she laughed.

Mr. Antonio took a soft brush and swept it across the forehead of the man in his chair, who was perfectly still, mouth relaxed, eyes fixed on the ground.

“Do y’all do designs?” one of the little boys asked as soon as his mother left to run errands.

“Does your mom allow you to have designs in your hair?”

Antione worked to finish up the job. Peering through his glasses, he trimmed the man’s nose hair.

He leaned back, eyes closed, as Antione carefully, but quickly cut the errant hairs away.

“The kids gotta go. It’s late,” Antione said to one of his mentees who was sweeping up and sat down ahead of the line for a haircut.

A third barber emerged and started trimming the back of one of the little boys’ heads. The young one leaned forward, his eyes darting up to see the other haircuts in action.

“Hey, call your mom and tell her to bring a bologna sandwich back!” Antione said to the other little boy who was patiently waiting his turn. The kid didn’t seem to get the joke.

Mr. Antonio propped the younger brother on a booster seat atop an office chair. The boy looked down, eyelashes full and bashful as Mr. Antonio clipped the cape around his white t-shirt.

The sky had turned dark when the boys’ mother returned with some shopping bags. Mr. Antonio finished cutting around one of the boys’ ears as the other brother played with coins on a side table.

“25-50-75-100 cents!” he exclaimed, revealing a gap-toothed smile and looking up for his mother’s approval.

“That’s four quarters,” she assured him. “Where’s your jacket?”

She turned to Antione. “I’ll come up next Wednesday, and y’all give me a press ‘n curl!”

“It’s a good thing,” Antione nodded. “You know, not everybody can afford haircuts.”

“Did you say thank you?” she said turning to her little boys. They nodded uh-huh.

Mr. Antonio headed out behind them too.

“I appreciate you coming to volunteer man,” Antione said. “I appreciate it man, I really do.”

There were a few more guys left to go before Antione could close up shop.

In a few weeks, he would have a grill out for the kids and put out some hot dogs. He knew they were hungry. Hungry for food and hungry for leadership.

“I don’t know it all, but being able to come here after what I went through, [it’s] so you don’t have to go through that,” Antione remarked. “Because not everyone get a second chance.”