A pulsing energy seemed follow Victor Woods as he walked the halls of the Hamilton County Jail.
The 48-year-old former Gangster Disciple entered a small, pale-blue room where 15 inmates in orange and red jail garb sat. He sat down with them.
Then he pleaded with them to change their lives.
"Wake up, because it's time," he said Friday to the men, more than half of whom are fathers. "Your children are the next generation to come here."
Except for one inmate, the men watched Woods intently. Local Gangster Disciple member Devante Stoudemire, who faces a first-degree murder charge in the killing of a man reportedly during a drug robbery this month, nodded in agreement with Woods throughout the hourlong talk.
Woods, a Chicago native who turned away from a life of crime and violence, visited Chattanooga last week at the invitation of the city's anti-gang initiative team, Fred Houser and Boyd Patterson. Woods spoke with city leaders, community members and those at their lowest points -- inmates facing possible prison sentences.
"Those are the most important people to reach -- in that cage," he said, noting that at some point they will re-enter the community.
To the jail inmates, children at recreation centers and city leaders he spent time with last week, Woods is proof that people can change and succeed even after making poor decisions.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said he allowed Woods to speak to the inmates in support of the countywide effort to combat gang violence.
"Anything we think may slow down the rate of young people being drawn into gangs or having to face a life of incarceration because of wrong choices, I'm for it," Hammond said.
"rise above this"
Wood reached out to the inmates, many young and born into impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods.
"We're not this bad," he said. "Circumstances are this bad, but you can rise above this, like I did. The greatest people come out of adversity."
Woods is an author and motivational speaker who travels across the country addressing audiences ranging from college students to prison inmates. But when he was young, he led armed robberies using police scanners and walkie-talkies. He was the mastermind behind a $40 million credit card scheme for which he did two stints in a maximum security federal prison.
He still remembers what it was like to be cuffed and shackled, and to watch days pass by in a prison cell.
"I know what it smells like, feels like. It destroys you psychologically," he said.
Woods said he plans to return to Chattanooga this fall to speak to students at area schools.
He spoke of 14-year-old Keoshia Ford, who remains in a vegetative state after she was shot in the head during a gang shootout earlier this year.
"That's not how real gangsters handle their business," he said.
"you have to be better"
During his jail talk, Woods told the inmates to focus on themselves. He said they would have to work twice as hard after they are released.
"The white kids getting out of college -- they can't get hired. You can't be just as good. You have to be better," he said.
It took Woods about 10 years to get a book deal with Simon & Schuster publishing company in New York. His life story is being reviewed by management teams for Kelsey Grammer and hip-hop artist T.I. as possible material for a movie, he said.
He told the inmates to read books. He told them to take pride in their appearance despite their surroundings. He told them to forget about the girlfriends and focus on themselves.
Woods said in a separate interview that there will have to be changes to the community, as well, so young men can have jobs, which might keep them out of gangs.
"I don't have all the answers. I know some people reached out and helped me and gave me opportunities.
"I took advantage of things people gave me, but it's hard. It's going to be hard for these kids. I said, 'You better call Mr. [Boyd] Patterson because at least there's someone here in the mayor's office attempting to help and do some things that could be constructive,'" Woods said. "There's a place to plug into. At least there's someone here who cares."
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