By Serene Leong
He has been in and out of prison five times and has spent close to seven years in prison.
And in doing so John Emmanuel, 35, hurt his family, lost his fianceé and his self-respect.
John tells The Pride: “I joined the gang. I did everything for the gang. But they didn’t suffer. My family suffered. That has allowed me to make a choice of not making the same mistake again. I cannot want a good family, a good wife, good kids and want to choose that other path.”
John did not come from a broken family and no one expected him to join a gang, but it was peer pressure that drew him in. It gave him a sense of belonging. And when the gang leaders enticed him into a life of fast cash through petty crime, he quickly became trapped in their system.
“They came for me and knew the right words to say to pull me in,” John says. “They would say hey we’re all in this… if only you could join us.”
Even though over the years he wanted to change for the better, he says the gang was his friends, so each time he came out of prison, he went back to them.
John explains: “The thing is when people come out of prison, they forget. They forget what they went through. When you have forgotten something, you go back to the same thing again. The same group of people and friends.”
His turning point came in 2014, on the day he entered prison again, when he was detained for being an unlawful member of a secret society.
John says: “I was punching the wall. A lot of thoughts came into my mind, ‘Why am I here?’ I thought of all the people I’ve hurt in the past, all the people that have been affected by me… and I couldn’t stop crying. That was when I asked God for forgiveness, one by one, for every thought that came into my mind. That’s when the conviction happened in my heart.”
He adds: “Everything started to change, my relationship with people, and the way I spoke to them.”
He spent the rest of his time in prison finishing school and working, staying out of trouble. In that same year, he completed his A levels in prison.
Then, one day, the warden told John that he was going to be released.
“I couldn’t sleep for a few nights because of the excitement and nervousness,” John says. “Thoughts like ‘What am I going to do outside?’ ‘How will society see me?’ were running through my head.”
After his release, he also had to keep turning his “brothers” away, which was a constant battle for him.
John says: “When I came out of prison, many people came to see me, even my ex-gang members. Some were waiting for my response to whether I would still be part of the gang.”
Three of his gang friends saw the change in John’s life and were inspired to turn over a new leaf.
Does John have any regrets?
“Definitely,” he says and pauses for a moment. “But because I went through what I went through, I have a lot of opportunities to reach out to people who are in a place I used to be in.”
Today, he spends his time talking to youth-at-risk who are excited to hear his story of how he has changed. His experiences allows him to engage them in a more personal way and says that the most fulfilling part of his volunteer work is seeing them lead a changed life.
“The best thing we can do is to advise them, walk the journey with them and try to bring them back to the right path.”
John says that while prison is a place for rehabilitation, not everyone manages to do so. Having the right community is important.
He says: “We talk about integrating into society, but if you go to the wrong part of society you will end up doing the wrong thing again.”
John says that because he has been shown mercy and kindness (his employers at the bible school where he works know he has a record), he can live a different life and in turn, pass on that care to others.
He says: “The most important thing is not to see them in their past, but to give them a chance… accept them, support them and let them know they are loved.”