He was wild.
That’s how Alex Scantlebury describes himself before prison.
Scantlebury, 27, is an ex-convict. He’s also a father, a husband, a student, a writer, and an aspiring public relations professional.
He was charged with two counts of conspiracy to sell narcotics after an Ottawa drug ring bust netted him and 11 others. After a two-and-a-half year process, he was sentenced to serve 6 months in prison intermittently, on weekends.
Since then, Scantlebury has completed his General Education Development equivalency, graduated from the professional writing program at Algonquin, and is currently enrolled in the public relations program. He also is heavily involved in the John Howard Society, which works to help facilitate the rehabilitation of criminals, providing the support that many ex-cons lack.
The Algonquin Times sat down with Scantlebury to hear his story.
Why professional writing?
Professional writing was an avenue. I’ve always loved to read. I feel like you can get lost in someone’s words. It’s much easier than being in your own reality. And once I realized that a criminal record was going to hinder any advancement I was going to make in any other field, writing was an area that would let me work more behind the scenes where my record meant diddly squat as long as I have skills.
You mentioned adult high school? What happened to regular high school?
I was expelled from normal high school for flipping the vice-principal’s desk. They were asking me to snitch or be suspended and miss my final exams, my June exams. So I chose to take the road less travelled.
They expelled you right before your final exams?
June 6. It was either snitch on the graffiti artist and take my exams or get suspended and miss them. I knew I wasn’t going to pass anyway because I wasn’t going to snitch, so I earned my expulsion, so to speak.
Did this start a chain or anything?
The chain had already been started. I was an NCAA Division I football prospect, then I tore the ligaments in my right ankle the summer between grade 11 and 12 and that was the snowball that started rolling downhill.
What happened from there?
I started smoking weed. I started selling weed. Tried ecstasy and cocaine. Started selling those.
This all happened in a year?
Well within a couple years I was a full-blown drug dealer. With a reputation.
It was the neighbourhood. I knew when I got home from the hospital, and the doctors said I’d never play football again, well at least not at a competitive level—it just wasn’t feasible anymore. I knew that the corner house on my street in the neighbourhood I grew up with had drugs.
I made friends. They had drugs. I started selling them, I needed something to do with my time. It seemed cool at the time. I’m not going to lie, it was cool. I had all this weed and all this money.
So as this went on, you got further involved with harder drugs and violence?
You become desensitized to it. At first it was scary. Then you get used to it. You lose all empathy about what you’re doing. I found I was good at it (the violence).
Do any specific instances stick out?
The one where I made my reputation was a house party. I stood up for one of my new friends. I pretty much destroyed the house and the people who started the argument. From there my reputation built. And then a whole legend built around it. And half of it wasn’t even true, but at that point you can denounce it and have people take that for weakness or you can accept what it is and go on from there.
Did you feel you had to live up to the legend?
Were there any situations that happened because of this need to live up to your image?
I still would have made the decisions. I can’t go back and think if this happened or if that happened. It created who I am now. It sort of became commonplace. I was 17, and six foot four and over 220 pounds. I’m not going to use the term enforcer, but I had a certain aura around me.
You have a lot of tattoos. Do you have a favourite one?
My back piece. It’s a grim reaper holding my tombstone.
It says Alex Scantlebury, AKA Detroit. March 25th, 1987. That’s my birth date. It doesn’t have a death date on it.
Oh it’s just that I didn’t expect to make it very far, or to a high age. I didn’t think I would make it to 25.
I figured I’d either OD on drugs or be killed in some kind of drug violence.
That didn’t make you want to stop?
I admitted to myself that it was a possibility and it was either going to happen or it wasn’t. I just kind of resigned myself to that fate so to speak. In that life, you gain a different mentality. It grows on you. It just grows and grows and that’s all you think.
Could you tell me about the day that you got arrested?
I was living in the Caldwell area. I had gotten up in the morning, I was attending adult high school. Well “attending”, showing up. I had actually gotten up to go to school that morning. I had slept at my girlfriend’s place, she lived right around the corner.
I get a phone call at 8:15 in the morning from my buddy who was picking me up to go to school. He’s like “The SWAT team just kicked your front door in, and they’re circling the building you’re in.” I said, “okay,” put my clothes and I walked out the door and sure enough here were several officers with guns drawn asking who I was and if I was who I was, I said yes, and they arrested me.
So what changed?
What changed was my arrest. When I finally saw the inside of a maximum security wing, I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to go back there. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time there.
It was one of the most depressing, dirty and dangerous places I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s no humanity in there. Whatever humanity you had is stripped from you by the system. You’re no longer an individual, you’re a person in orange. You’re a number.
It’s sensory deprivation almost. There’s no natural light, you rarely see outside, you barely get off your range, which is just a small hallway with tables and cells.
Psychologically, it’s very damaging.
What was it like with the other inmates?
You know, it wasn’t bad. There was a respect issue. If you respected everyone else, they respected you. I don’t want to say there was a calm, but as long as you didn’t owe someone money and you didn’t stick your nose where it didn’t belong you’d be okay.
Your court case lasted two-and-a-half years. Was the long drawn out process actually was favourable to you?
I used it in my favor. If it had gone much shorter, I probably would have gotten a longer term. But after two and a half years, when she actually sentenced me, I had accumulated so much support from the community I was involved in, so much support from my school, so much educational experience.
I had met a woman and gotten married. I had two children with her, to add to the one I had previously.
It was too much for me to lose to send me away for the long term. She made the decision that I needed to serve something but she needed to allow me to continue on the path I was on because it could be detrimental to continued rehabilitation if I was sent away.
So is family is important to you?
It never used to be. But it grew on me. It grew on me to be a father, it grew on me to be a husband, to be a student, to be productive.
Would you have ever expected this when you had that “die by 25” mentality?
No I didn’t want kids. I didn’t want a relationship. Family ties are liabilities in that life.
Was it very live fast, die young?
I’ve buried five of my friends through various incidents of drugs and violence.
Longer was killed in 2005 or 6. He was murdered at a party. He was sleeping on a couch and someone crushed his head in with a bat. The guy was convicted.
Scott was stabbed to death at a St. Patrick’s Day party in 2011. Jessica was stabbed to death with a box cutter eight days later on March 26, 2011.
Eli died in a car crash. We’re not sure what the circumstance was but he was going the wrong way on the highway at 2 a.m. in 2011.
Another friend died in a motorcycle accident in 2012.
When this started happening, what were you thinking?
How am I still alive?
By all rights, I should be dead by now. You know how many times I’ve been close to an overdose on various cocktails of drugs, or how many times I was in a situation that could’ve killed me, easily?
Could you tell me about some of those close calls?
I was jumped and smashed with police batons. I’ve been shot at. I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been in numerous fights where bottles or knives were used as weapons.
My 22 birthday I had went out with a bunch of my friends, and the girl I had been dating at the time and we got supremely intoxicated. One thing led to another and my buddy…we found him beaten in front of the club. We chased down the people who did it down a back alleyway and they outnumbered us significantly.
Somehow we all came out reasonably whole. But it was a dark alley in a fight with an unknown number of people, who had unknown connections, unknown weapons.
Did they have weapons?
Not that I saw. Not in the scenario I was involved in.
But they could’ve had anything.
I could’ve turned the corner and been shot.
Looking back, what would you tell yourself?
Looking back is always a double-edged sword. Without my younger self, I wouldn’t have grown to be who I am now. I don’t know where I’d be. I’d probably tell myself to be careful. Make smarter choices. Maybe not different choices, but be smarter about them. Don’t go running off half-cocked, thinking you’re invincible.
So no regrets?
No regrets. I’m ashamed of what my family had to go through because of my actions, but there’s no regrets. You can’t regret what you’ve done. You have to use it as a tool.
I can say I wish I didn’t do it, but I don’t even know if I mean that. I mean, it’s led me to this point.
Regarding John Howard
You have to understand, one of the biggest things to rehabilitation is a support system. A few people can do it on their own, but a lot of these men and women going through the justice system have no one to help them, no one to be a shoulder for them to lean on. John Howard offers that. They’re the support structure that allows individuals to build a life for themselves outside who they used to be.
They know how to deal with us. They know what we’re going through. Maybe not personally, but there’s a reason why they work for John Howard. They’re not there for the money.
You mentioned your mom. Can you tell me about your family?
My mom lives in town, my sister lives in town in time. My old man is in Windsor with his wife, and my stepbrother, although he doesn’t live at home anymore.
My mom had to put a $40,000 bond. My mom is a waitress. If I screwed up or didn’t show up, she’d have to pay that bond.
So now that you’re at Algonquin, was there a support system in place for you here? How was coming to college as an ex-con?
It was different. At first I didn’t know how to relate to people. I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. I knew I was coming here to do something and that was goal: get here and finish what I started.
But eventually I got comfortable with the people around me. It was a whole new world.
Did they know you were an ex-con?
Well they didn’t know at first but it didn’t take long for me to say it.
There’s no shame there.
You wear it like armour. Tyrion Lannister said, “Wear it like armour and no one can use it against you.” So I do wear it like armour. And it can be a detriment to me too, because I’ve started to associate myself only as an ex-convict.
I don’t want to limit myself. So I’m trying to incorporate also father, husband, student, writer—I run my own writing firm—aspiring PR professional. I’m trying to reiterate that normality into my life.
You don’t shy away from the ex-con label though.
No, I won’t ever shy away from it. You are what you are.
What keeps you straight now?
My wife and children. I had a daughter who was one and a half when I was arrested, but I wasn’t a great father. I’ll fully admit to that. I wasn’t a deadbeat who says “that’s not my kid.” I’d have her over and play with her and spend time with her, but I should’ve been making better choices on her behalf.
Everyone has a choice. That’s what it comes down to. You can choose to change. But you have to make that decision and you can’t shy away from it. There’s no playing both sides. You either change or you don’t.