Chris Calhoun is a deeply religious man now and is able to keep his faith in God, despite tough conditions in federal prison. Even with his faith, there have been low points while serving a nearly 28-year sentence for crack cocaine.
“I’m human,” he said. “I don’t know if a guy would ever want to experience sitting across from your mother in a visitation room and she’s saying ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be living when you’re coming home.’ I don’t know if you can even fathom the pain.”
It’s God, family and friends that keep Calhoun going on a daily basis.
“It’s people like that that keep you going,” he said. “It’s the positives I look at. I don’t worry about the negatives in life. I don’t try to plant those kinds of seeds in my head because I know in any given situation there’s always a positive in it.”
More than halfway through his time as a ward of the federal government, Calhoun has found a positive from his time in custody. He has turned to charity work to help better himself, better serve God and serve those on the outside. The Vigor High School graduate and Mobile native has raised thousands of dollars for organizations nationwide through a charity made up of those behind bars.
Incarcerated Angels has donated to the Ronald McDonald House Charities, Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Bright Beginnings Academy in Mobile and others through small, individual donations of at least $5 each from funds prisoners make working at a federal prison in Jesup, Georgia.
“You’ve got to take this into consideration: A lot of guys’ checks are only $5,” he said. “So for them to donate that, it’s real big. We just ask for $5 minimum, but a lot of us donate more than $5.”
Calhoun has enlisted a high school friend, Matthew Morris, to act as a liaison for the charity. He and Morris attended McGill-Toolen Catholic High School together before Calhoun transferred several times.
Morris understands the sacrifice the inmates are making to help make the world a better place.
“It’s a big deal for them to send $5,” he said. “He gets like 100 people to send $5. I mean, that’s a lot.”
As a liaison for the charity, Morris has received letters from organizations thanking Incarcerated Angels for the donations. For instance, a letter from the Ronald McDonald House Charities, postmarked August of last year, thanked the Incarcerated Angels program for $265 in donations.
In a letter from June 8, 2018, Breast Cancer Research Foundation President and CEO Myra Biblowit thanked Incarcerated Angels for a $325 donation.
For those who donate to Incarcerated Angels, it’s about making lives better “from the inside out,” Calhoun said.
“The guys here, we all figured out that we don’t use God, God uses us,” he said. “That’s our motto. That’s Incarcerated Angels’ motto.”
The charity will decide where the funds will go and each inmate will write a letter to the receiving organization with the small donation, Morris said.
“He’ll just tell everybody ‘here’s the address, send them money,’” Morris said. “He’ll say ‘send it here’ and they’ll just do it.”
In the last year, Incarcerated Angels has donated to organizations in 10 different states, Calhoun said. The group wants to spread funds around because while Calhoun is from Mobile, the men he is serving time with are from all over the country.
“We choose different states and I try not to be biased,” he said.
Each individual donor will send money to the organization, along with a letter, he said. Currently, there are as many as 67 donors participating.
“Our purpose is to put love into the world regardless of our situation,” he said. “A lot of guys could be selfish and say ‘man, you know, I’m locked up and ain’t nobody doing nothing for me,’ but that’s not our way of thinking.
“That’s not our way of life,” Calboun added. “We feel that, you know, God is going to bless us. We’re going to do His work and let God bless us. We’re not going to worry about who pays, or who does this, or that.”
Incarcerated Angels is a judgement-free zone, Calhoun said. It doesn’t matter why someone is locked up; any inmate can participate in the program.
“We don’t worry about what he’s locked up for, or what he’s done, or what he’s got going on,” he said. “If he’s got it in his heart to give and bless others, that’s what we do. That’s our concern.”
As for the reaction from other inmates to Incarcerated Angels, Calhoun said “everybody loves it.”
“For a lot of guys it’s like paying tithes,” he said. “It’s like giving back to whatever church, or whatever community they were a part of before they came. It gives you a sense of peace and a sense of normalcy.”
Morris, who interacts on Calhoun’s behalf with several of the causes Incarcerated Angels donates to, described himself as a “middle man” for the charity. He described a younger Calhoun as someone who was always looking to help others.
“He was just so giving,” he said. “He’s just got one of the bigger hearts you’ll ever come across. He’s just a giving person.”
Another high school friend, Jarret Wingfield, described Calhoun in a similar way. Wingfiled, who keeps pictures of Calhoun along with a collage of others in the office of Saucy-Q Bar-B-Que restaurant in Midtown, said the kid he knew “always had a good heart.”
“He comes from a really good family,” WIngfield said, “His grandmother was great. He’s got some really deep roots.”
Growing up in Mobile
Calhoun grew up in “The Bottom” area of Mobile. He started as a freshman at McGill-Toolen and made the varsity football team as a quarterback the same year. He would transfer to Murphy High School after that.
“Once I left McGill I was more into the streets than anything,” he said. “I was already, you know, from the hood. The lifestyle was right there at your front door.”
He stopped doing work and was forced to leave Murphy because of his grades. He went to Vigor High School in Prichard after that.
“Once I got to Vigor I buckled back down,” he said. “I went on to be one of the only guys in my neighborhood who graduated during our time.”
Calhoun was raised by his grandmother, which he said was a “blessing.” He said he remains inspired by her faith.
“It’s a blessing to be raised by a person like that, who has so much faith, wisdom and knowledge when it comes to God, because years later I’m still learning from some of the things she used to tell me when I was younger,” he said. “When you’re younger you don’t grasp a lot of wisdom that comes down from people, especially if you’re not spiritually in tune. As you get older, it’s like the saying, ‘There’s nothing worse than an old fool.’ That means the older you get, the wiser you’re supposed to get.”
Even while attending school, Calhoun said he sold drugs while “trying to make a way” for himself and his family.
“I was trying to make life out of something that I thought had value, but didn’t have any value,” he said. “I was trying to make ends meet, trying to be a big help to my family.
He admits to selling crack cocaine as a 14-year-old and eventually went to prison for it in 2000.
“I started young,” Calhoun said. “I don’t know if it was ’95 … it could’ve been earlier than that.”
He served a five-year prison stint and was released in 2005.
Unfortunately though, Calhoun would come back to his previous life not too long after his release.
“I think it was a lack of spirituality that led me back,” he said. “Eventually, you know, I came right back to prison because of the lifestyle. It’s not a legit lifestyle, man. It’s a fantasy.”
When Calhoun was arrested on drug charges the second time, he was carrying a firearm, which added five years to his sentence.
“It was just carrying the gun,” he said. “It wasn’t used.”
Calhoun called that time in his life a “bad dream,” but he doesn’t regret it because it has allowed him to focus on being a better person now.
“You can see life different now, you know,” he said. “I regret the decisions I made, but I don’t regret the trials and tribulations that made me who I am today because If I didn’t go through those things I wouldn’t be here … the things you go through in life is what makes you.”
For instance, if he was a free man, Calhoun is sure he wouldn’t have started the charity and wouldn’t be doing this type of work.
“So, God has his perfect timing,” he said. “He knows, He foresees before it even happens. He knew He needed to sit me down because the way I was going it wasn’t the way of life.”
Possible early release
Calhoun joins a number of federal inmates who are seeking early release thanks to the work of two presidents and lawmakers. In 2010, a federal law was passed that made mandatory sentences for crack cocaine equal to sentences mandatory for powder cocaine. In addition, the administration of President Donald J. Trump helped push through a law called the First Step Act that in addition to other things, piggybacked on the previous law, but made the new sentencing guidelines retroactive to 2010. That’s good news for prisoners like Calhoun. Acting as his own attorney, Calhoun, who has earned a paralegal certificate while in prison, has petitioned the courts to release him using the new guidelines. Calhoun has roughly 14 years left on his sentence. Using the new guidelines, he and Morris believe he could be released much earlier.
While he admits the system doesn’t make people sell drugs, any reform to the sentencing guidelines is a good thing.
“It was a blessing,” Calhoun said of the law’s passing. “Even though you can’t blame the system for everything. We made decisions to do what we did. The problem is the penalties are too harsh.”
Elaborating, Calhoun said mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine could mean handing out a life sentence for nothing more than carrying the equivalent of a “sandwich bag full of nickels.”
“That’s wrong, you know,” he said. “To see the system changing is a beautiful thing.”
When Calhoun gets out, he wants to continue his charity work in his hometown. Through a program called Bottoms Up, Calhoun plans to find ways to keep teens off the streets and from following in his youthful footsteps.
“Bottoms Up is going to be like a resource center for kids,” he said.
Calhoun wants to give local children a place to go after school to do homework, or participate in activities related to technology or a trade.
“It would give them something different to do instead of focusing on basketball, or football or drugs. You know, to actually teach them about life.”
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