by Krista Bordelon
Meeting Ashanti Witherspoon today, one would never guess of his dark past, let alone imagine that he should be sitting in a cell at one of the most violent prisons in America after being sentenced to 75 years with no possibility of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence.
“‘God will become the light that illuminates the dark place.’ My aunt’s words came back to me [as I sat in the prison cell], and I realized that my life had finally turned around… Then I realized, my life had finally turned around and I was supposed to die there.”
Growing up in Chicago, Ashanti had a typical family. His parents divorced when he was young and his dad completely disappeared from his life. He remembers the many promises his father made to come visit, yet never showed up. Specifically, the moment when he sat at the window as his mother told him not to worry, that his dad loved him, that he would show up, but Ashanti knew he wouldn’t. That was the moment that Ashanti said, “started the pain in his heart.” From that moment on, he was filled with hatred, anger, and bitterness.
“I was young, I was intelligent, and I was aggressive, so they had me in martial arts classes. I had the tools to succeed in a legitimate, structured environment, but also the weapons to succeed in the street because I could fight. Little by little my grades stared to go down and I started drifting. I was involved in many community groups, but I didn’t want to do that anymore. Before, I was disciplined with martial arts, but now I just went out and started picking fights. I wanted to fight a lot.”
At 11, Ashanti’s mother finally allowed him to go stay with his cousin in an effort to appease him. He remembers his aunt telling her, “I hope this doesn’t happen, but I believe you will regret this decision for the rest of your life.” Ashanti describes looking out the window that night waiting for his aunt to go to bed and watching the police, the pimps, and the gangsters all active in the streets outside. “It was like watching a movie,” he says. As soon as she went to bed they snuck across the street to 67th and Blackstone where Ashanti was introduced to the friends that would change his life.
His cousin had been bragging about Ashanti’s karate skills to a local gang. That gang happened to be the Blackstone Rangers, which grew to be the largest gang in Chicago (later known as Black P Stone Nation). “That was when my life began to change. When the leader stepped from the back, after I [an 11 year old] had taken down two men, he asked me to join.”
From that moment on Ashanti was heavily involved in the gang, and as it grew into what was known as a “super gang” he rose to become a leader of one of the branches.
“I left Chicago on the run from criminal charges in July of 1971, traveling around the United States to avoid prosecution. In January of 1972, under the influence of LSD, I committed an armed robbery, which turned into a shootout with the police. Two officers were shot, my co-defendant was shot once in the stomach, and I was shot twice with a .357 magnum. The first bullet hit the left side of my hip and traveled through my body and exited on the right. Miraculously, it did not touch a bone or an organ. The second entered the right side of my face, traveled upward into my head, and stopped in my temple.”
“I know it was the prayers that kept me alive. My aunt always said that God had a special destiny for me, and when I left Chicago on the run she told me she was going to pray that I didn’t get killed before I fulfilled that special destiny.”
The day Ashanti went on the run he sat down to talk to his uncle who had been in prison for 25 years in a Tennessee State Penitentiary. “I could tell that he was really sincere, the same way I am when I talk to these young people, but I told him, ‘Uncle, I appreciate what you’re saying, but you’re about 10 years too late, I’m a full-fledged criminal,’ he just stood there and cried after I said that.”
Then his aunt spoke the words that would later return to him as he gave his life to Christ in a cell at Angola Penitentiary. “She said, ‘I want you to remember these words. One day you will find yourself in a deep, dark hole, and when you find yourself in that place it’s going to feel like all the oxygen has been taken out from around you, there’s not going to be a cool breeze anywhere, it will feel like you are totally abandoned, like you are totally lost, that even if you scream out no one will hear you. The day you find yourself in that situation remember you can get on your knees, eliminate your pride, and cry out to Jesus. The Holy Spirit will come into your life and it will change things. And you can walk from there for the rest of your life. God will become the light that illuminates the dark place.”
“I went in determined to do whatever was necessary to survive. I was labeled a militant by the prison system because I was rebellious to authority, and that lifestyle eventually landed me in maximum security.” Ashanti learned law while in maximum security and became a jailhouse lawyer filing litigation against everything he thought was wrong. Those who came in for prison ministry caught his attention. “The more you read the more it renews your mind just like the [Scripture says]. Little by little it started stirring up memories of my childhood, of happy times in my life. The straw that broke the camel’s back was thinking about my daughter, who had been born 3 1/2 months after my incarceration. I still had not even seen my daughter.”
“One night I was thinking about my life, I blamed everybody in the world for all the bad decisions I made. I was convinced there was some constitutional violation they had committed that was going to get me out, but it was never going to happen.
Satan will have you chasing illusions forever. At that moment the Holy Spirit took the blinders off my eyes, and I saw the real world. I really was in the bloodiest prison in America. I really was going to die there if I didn’t change. And it felt exactly like my aunt had once described.”
Ashanti once believed he was on track to take down the whole system “with a piece of paper”, but his thoughts shifted to proving his worth in the system instead. “I became a different person. I realized I had just made a promise to live differently, but I was still in prison. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I asked God to give me the strength to maintain focus.” The past suits he had filed against corrections officers, etc. prevented his newfound faith from being taken seriously.
“I just wanted out of maximum security, so I could get back into population to prove myself.”
A 27-day hunger strike and an officer that decided to take a chance on him finally got Ashanti back into population. It was there he began working his way up to becoming an instructor in the prison education system and involved himself in prison ministries. He became an anger management counselor, substance abuse counselor, and public speaking instructor, sat on the board of many inmate-run organizations, and developed a trade in graphic design and transactional analysis. Finally after 20 years the administration allowed him to travel outside of the prison system to speak as a means to deter young people from lives of crime.
A law change eventually allowed Ashanti to go up for parole, but he was denied over and over. It wasn’t until his story was featured in the Academy Award nominated documentary “The Farm: Life Inside Angola” that his parole was granted, in June of
1999, 27 ½ years after his incarceration. “All I knew was when I got out I wanted real freedom. I could have escaped many times, but that was never what I desired.” So Ashanti, a man once fighting against the system, waited on the system to free him. And free he is.
Today Ashanti is an international speaker heavily involved in prison ministry, re-entry programs, and transition teams. He is involved in organizations including Kairos, AMI kids, C.O.P.E. and B.R.A.V.E. as well as pastoring The New Ruach Christian Church in Baton Rouge and the Right Road Christian Center in Lafayette. He wrote three books while in prison, “Loving God” versions 1, 2, and 3. In addition to his wife being heavily involved in his ministry, he and his daughter are advocates for keeping children in contact with their incarcerated parents. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.