Former gang members recall gang life, want to steer others away from gangs

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Three former gang members shared their stories with 8News about their lives on the streets and how they hope to convince others to steer clear of gangs.

William Smalls: 

Smalls is at the Richmond Justice Center. But, because of the gang life, he’s served time in some of the country’s most secure prisons.

From isolation at the so-called hole, Smalls looks out over a city he said he used to run.

“I’m a DI, Dealtime Inglewood, Double I,” Smalls said. “We’re independent under the blood nation, we’re independent cell under the blood’s nation.”

Growing up in Church Hill, Smalls said the gang life in central Virginia is widespread.

“30-years-old sitting here talking to y’all, 16 years wasted on ganging and I ain’t got nothing to show for it.”

Smalls said he is now what’s called “on ice” or not active, a role he plans to keep up once he’s released later this year.

Smalls said gangs get money for guns in whatever way they can.

“Anywhere, hustling, dope, coke, weed, back page prostitution, whatever is necessary,” Smalls said. “Whatever is selling at the moment. It was a heroin epidemic, right now it’s pushing over to a crack cocaine epidemic.”

Smalls said the gang changes everything about a person. From the way they dress to the way they talk.

Smalls said he wants to leave the gang life once and for all. He wants to tell parents to watch their children closely, so they don’t end up in his shoes.

“30-years-old sitting here talking to y’all, 16 years wasted on ganging and I ain’t got nothing to show for it,” Smalls said. “No purple heart no nothing. By the time I realized it was a waste of time, I guess it’s too late ain’t it, yeah I’m done.”

Benjamin Potter: 

Potter was convicted on drug and larceny charges and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He said rehabilitation didn’t happen during that time.

“I ended up being housed with someone who was from California that was a blood,” Potter said. “I felt like at that time it kind of chose me, I didn’t chose it.”

That was all it took to become entrenched in gang life for the first time.

Potter said it made people afraid of him in prison.

“I was more attracted to the persona that it put off in prison,” Potter said. “When we would go from area of the yard to another everybody would move out of the way and get quiet, they were afraid. I was a west coast blood, a bounty hunter.”

But gang life behind bars tacked years onto Potter’s sentence.

He said one day a hit was put out for another man who had the same nickname as him. But because of a mistaken identity, violence erupted.

Potter realized he had enough of gang life when his mother and grandmother died while he was still in jail.

“My mother passed away in 2012 a month after my grandmother did,” Potter said. “They wouldn’t let me go to the funeral because they felt that I was too far up in the hierarchy. I kind of like started feeling like everything that I stood for and everything I was doing was counter productive.”

He said if it weren’t for his choices behind bars he would’ve been able to see his loved ones before they passed.

“I had to go home and grieve all over again and I kind of hold a resentment towards myself for that,” Potter said.

Potter was eventually released, but he’s now back in jail on non-gang related charges. He said he’s left the gang life behind.

Al-Ghanee Kamau:

Kamau used to run with two violent east coast street gangs named “Sex Money and Murder,” and “Black Mafia,” in a former life.

Kamau said he thought he was tough then. Today, he’s embarrassed by a photo showing him disrespecting law enforcement during his time in a gang.

“I stopped because I was tired of going to prison,” Kamau said.

Kamau who now lives in Richmond, grew up on the tough streets of Newark, New Jersey. But he didn’t join a gang until age 26, while he was serving time on Riker’s Island in New York for a robbery.

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Once out of prison, Kamau who came from a poor and broken family, said he thought he had finally found the family unit he had been longing for.

“A lot of people say people get into gangs for protection,” Kamau said. “I got into gangs for the love and the camaraderie and because of what was missing in my own family dynamic they replaced it.”

But some of that family started dying in the streets. After his gang activities landed him behind bars three more times, Kamau decided that enough was enough.

During his final incarceration in Georgia he vowed to live an honest life when he got out.

Kamau was homeless for a bit, took whatever jobs he could get, sometimes five at a time.

He now owns his own business and believes life without the gang signs is better.

“Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to stand alone,” Kamau said. “If I got to stand with the bad crowd, I’d rather be by myself.”

Now 7 years out of prison, Kamau mentors those in jail and is a group facilitator for an inmate re-entry program.

Kamau said as a community we have to give kids an alternative. Like sex ed, he would like to see schools include a gang prevention course.

“A lot of young kids they are looking for security,” Kamau said. “They are looking for upbringing, they are looking for people to take a special interest in them and gangs do that.”

In the meantime, Kamau has his own message to anyone thinking about joining a gang.

“Ain’t nothing but death and prison,” Kamau said. “You get your respect, the only difference is it may be your last.”

Want more Gang Life: Virginia at War? Click here for complete coverage. 

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