Javier Reyes was three years into a 25-year robbery sentence when when Leroy Staley – a supervisor of recreation at a federal prison in Yazoo, Mississippi – asked him a question that would haunt him for days: “Mr. Reyes, have you done the best you can in life?”
Javier couldn’t answer. He couldn’t face himself in the mirror over the following week: “Have I ever been the best son, the best father, the best brother, the best cousin, the best anything, the best community member? No.”
He went back to the supervisor and told him.
Leroy Staley said back, “Then I challenge you. I challenge you to change.”
Javier directed his focus into creating an educational program with some other inmates. They created a curriculum and began to teach it. It was so popular that Javier taught it at five different institutions. Its name? Challenge to Change.
After a tough childhood, Javier stayed out of trouble as an adult — until he was 34. He was working at a credit union, and one day, he told some friends that it would be easy to rob the credit union. While Javier was away on vacation, those friends did just that. For his role, Javier was charged with conspiracy to commit bank robbery, bank robbery, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, despite not being present and the fact that his co-defendants testifying that he did not share in the proceeds. After a trial, Javier was sentenced to 25 years.
In 2020, after serving about 16 years of his sentence, Javier was granted compassionate release under the First Step Act. Now, as founder and CEO, he is bringing Challenge to Change to life on the outside, as an organization to help people transition away from prison. For those being released, the group helps with getting I.D.s, housing, and training: catch-ups on technology, resumé-writing, job-readiness. Javier has partnered up with the Department of Labor to certify individuals into trades and with some universities to help those wanting to go into higher education. In Javier’s words, they are trying to “really give folks a meaningful chance to become a part of society, to be a staple in their society, to give them meaning of why it’s important.”
Javier also sits on the board of the Fully Free Campaign, organizing and lobbying to change laws that affect those with felonies. As he puts it: “I’m not fully free. I can’t be Fully Free until I’m not a felon anymore. All my rights have not been restored.” He points to the nearly 1,000 laws that apply to those with felonies, which range from the foolish (you can’t own a falcon) to the harmful. “I can name five or six campuses here in Illinois that do not allow felons on their campus,” Javier says.
And he is involved with other campaigns and groups: Illinois Alliance for Re-Entry and Justice, the G.O.D. Foundation, and Defy Ventures.
Javier has accomplished a lot in the two years since his release, but he feels his biggest achievement is making his mother happy: “Making my mom see me with the eyes that she did when I was a kid. When a mom walks into a jail, and leaves without being able to take their son, it hurts, and folks don’t understand that.”
And he wants to keep building on Leroy Staley’s challenge: “I want to be the best grandpa, and I want to be the best dad. I want to be the best son, and I want to be the best friend. I want to leave a positive footprint.”
Javier Reyes is far from alone in making his community a better, safer place now that he’s free. Do you think more people should get a second chance, like he did? If so, please go here.
Watch Javier talk about how important second chances and criminal justice reform are to communities: