In 2021, Anthony Jones was granted clemency by Gov. J.B. Pritzker from a life sentence. He’d been in prison for 29 years.
Many people granted clemency would understandably would want nothing but to leave their prison experience very far in the rear-view, much less stay connected to any part of it, including the people. Not Anthony Jones. Before leaving prison, he promised the men he would be leaving behind bars that he would attend their parole and clemency hearings.
Less than a month after his release, Anthony bought a suit and attended his first clemency hearing for one of those men. The gentleman’s family had no idea what to do or say, so they asked Anthony to speak on behalf of their loved one. For Anthony, it was an honor.
“To transition from being inside prison, with no help and feeling helpless, to actually being out here making a difference feels amazing,” Anthony says. “It started as a passion for me. When I first began, I didn’t even have transportation to get to the courts, and at one point I had to borrow money just to attend these hearings. To be able to attend these hearings now feels surreal.” Now, he’s supporting the men he left behind and his community in an official capacity, as a community navigator for the Illinois Prison Project.
Anthony’s journey from darkness to light began all the way back in childhood. When he was 6 years old, his stepfather shot and killed his uncle right in front of him. His stepfather was also physically abusive to his mother. Seeking camaraderie, Anthony’s childhood unraveled into very rough teen years, culminating in a tragic night when he was 20, in 1992. After a night of drinking and taking Valium, he got into a heated fight, lost control of his pocket knife, and stabbed a man. He was sentenced to natural life without parole for first-degree murder.
When he first got to prison, Anthony felt despair and profound remorse for his crime. “This entire incident never should have happened,” he now says. “I was a young, insecure, stupid person who made a series of horrible decisions that I deeply regret.”
He resolved to find redemption wherever he could, going deep inside to heal and change. “I changed my name to Anaviel as I became more spiritual. I’d been a gang-banger, but the person I used to be died in prison. ‘Anaviel’ stands for mercy and humility.”
Two years into freedom, with a steady, deeply gratifying job and a full and healthy social life, Anthony never forgets gratitude.
Part of that journey, involved his yearning to help others. He served as a paralegal for more than 16 years inside, filing several clemency petitions for several men. Eventually, he filed his own petition and, after serving 28-plus years and proving to the governor that he was sufficiently rehabilitated, received clemency.
Early on, it was tough. “I remember going into Food-For-Less, a local grocery store, and struggling to use the self-checkout. It was so complicated, but I didn’t want anyone to know that I couldn’t do it. The clerk eventually walked over and asked if I needed help. I yelled, ‘I just got out of prison’ at the top of my lungs. He then said, ‘Welcome home,’ and all I could do was cry.”
Two years into freedom, with a steady, deeply gratifying job and a full and healthy social life, Anthony never forgets gratitude. “I’m just so happy to be able to love life all over again. Even the simple things that people take for granted, like walking outside your house or eating when you want to eat.”
His hard-won second chance continues to spur him to advocacy, fighting to make our criminal justice system more just. That means appearing in court on behalf of people still locked up, telling his story to lawmakers and the media, and getting involved with several reform groups. His life and his work is strongly geared toward proving that second chances can work – they make families stronger and communities safer.
For Anthony, working to make the world a better place is a calling. “My mother passed away while I was incarcerated, and now I strive to live a life that would make her proud,” he says. He honors his mother’s memory by keeping her favorite plant, the poinsettia, in his newly owned home and often watching her favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Because of his second chance, life for Anthony Jones is indeed wonderful.
Author’s note: My name is Alexia Pitter, and I work at FAMM as a Family Outreach and Storytelling Associate. This story is very personal to me. Anthony Jones, now known as Anaviel, served time with my best friend, whom I refer to as my dad. Every time I am around Anthony, he reminds me of my father. Their relationship began at the Statesville Correctional Center. Most of their time together was spent listening to Reggae music, discussing spirituality, and my dad, Gasi Pitter, going on and on about how proud he was of me. As time went on, they became more than friends; they became like brothers. Anthony says: “Your dad was working in the barbershop. I would go there, he would cut my hair, and we’d have deep conversations about life. Your dad has become one of the elders. If the guys needed someone to talk to, he would be there for them. If they needed something to eat, he would prepare a meal with them. I can’t wait until my brother comes home.”
Have you gotten a second chance like Anthony did and are you out advocating for change? If so, we’d love to hear about it. Send us your story.