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'I refuse to be another statistic': From incarcerated young adult to community leader

April 12, 2022

Kani Jones standing in the middle of the HVAC/R workshop

Kani (pronounced Ka-NAI) Jones, 20, is a fall 2021 graduate of the Vocational Training Center at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA) in Baltimore, Maryland. Here, he talks about his childhood, his incarceration and his graduation from the program. Jones is now a certified HVAC/R (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning/Refrigeration) technician who works as a maintenance superintendent at an apartment complex.

NCIA is a partner in FHI 360’s Compass Rose Collaborative (CRC), a project funded by the U.S. Department of Labor to improve the education and employment outcomes for young adults, ages 18 through 24, who are returning to their communities after incarceration or other involvement with the justice system. Every Compass Rose partner follows FHI 360’s program model, which helps youth obtain what they need for success — housing, clothing, food, transportation, education and job-placement services.

Jones is a member of the Compass Rose Collaborative’s Young Adult Leadership Council, in which young adults serve as partners in developing strategies, methods and approaches for the program.

Kani examining meters on an HVAC unit

What inspired you to take a class at the NCIA?

I refuse to be another statistic. Just because I’m labeled as a felon, I don’t want to limit my options and say, “Oh well, selling drugs is my only decision,” because it’s not. There’s more than one way to make a living.

Prison was a horrible place — especially mentally. The way the system is set up is meant to break you. You don’t want to live that life.

NCIA was a blessing to me. I wanted to get into HVAC, but I didn’t know how until [NCIA] came and asked for people.

It’s hard when you don’t have the right tools to get where you want to in life. Certain doors will get opened, but you have to apply yourself. When you apply yourself, people will see your potential. If you try to do great things, great people will come and surround you.

Why did you choose to study HVAC specifically?

HVAC is something I knew I would love doing. I want to solve problems and find the solution. And I would hate sitting behind a desk.

HVAC is a type of job where if I had kids, I would be able to provide for them, give them something I didn’t have growing up.

What was your life like growing up in Baltimore?

I’ve been through poverty. I’ve had my lights and my water cut off. I’ve been through it all. But that never stopped me.

I told myself that I’m destined for greatness. I was born on Christmas; I’m my mother’s first present that she ever got in life. I always had a plan from the jump.

Kani and his teacher Rob kneeling and smiling next to an HVAC unit

Describe your relationship with your NCIA teachers, mentors and case manager.

I never really liked the therapy [in prison]. I hated talking about my problems. But when I came [to NCIA], these people made me feel real comfortable. I was able to get a lot of stuff off my chest. They’re all rooting for you to win.

They teach you that there ain’t nothing wrong with a man who cries. It doesn’t make you less of a man because you cry. Sometimes a lot of people don’t know that holding tears in is poison.

They teach you that sometimes a brother needs a hug. There have been times I’ve had other students pull me up. And then I help them, like, “We’re going to do this together. I want us all to graduate together.”

Did you ever feel discouraged as you went through the NCIA program?

Sometimes I would have to decide if I should stay in class or go back to my old ways. My mother always pushed me to keep moving forward. “Stay in the class. That’s what you need.”

I still have a long way to go, and I know I’ll be judged by certain people. But I won’t let that stop me from my road to success.

Kani and Rob examining an HVAC unit

What do you say to those people who might judge you?

I would say “Don’t judge me for my mistakes; judge me for my actions now.” Everybody makes mistakes. Nobody’s perfect on this earth.

You know, I did my time to the state. I came home. Y’all still want to hold it against me? For y’all to do that at this point feels like I’m getting double jeopardy. I lost time that I can never get back. And now you deny me a job because you feel like, “Oh, he did that? He might do it again,” when you ain’t even given me a chance.

You’ve joined Compass Rose Collaborative’s Young Adult Leadership Council. What makes you a community leader?

I’m a community leader because I’ve been in their shoes before, but I always had the mindset that I’m not going to settle for less. I always accepted all my consequences. You can’t be out here doing wrong and be mad when something bad happens.

Hard work does pay off. But at the same time, you’ve got to be knowledgeable. If you’re sitting around playing video games or on Instagram all day, how do you think you’re going to get anywhere? Knowledge is the key. How you conduct yourself plays a big role, too.

What do you see for yourself in the future?

I see greatness. I see greatness.

Kani smiling in the classroom

Credit for all photos: Kyle Pompey for FHI 360. The Compass Rose Collaborative is 100% funded by the Department of Labor in the amount of $4.5 million. No other sources of funding support this program.