Seeing James “Alex” Alexander’s radiant smile makes it difficult to believe he spent 28 painful years in California prisons. “It may be surprising,” he says, “but that is where I found the opportunity to change my life.”
Alex was a promising 20-year-old Marine in 1983, but his military career came to an abrupt halt when he had a deadly confrontation with a drug dealer. At age 21, Alex was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life. “I thought my life was over,” he recalls.
Born in 1962 in the Chicago projects, Alex lived with his single mom, a brother, and two half-siblings. His childhood was marred by poverty, addiction, and violence. His mother struggled with alcohol addiction. Alex was a good student, but had little hope of continuing his education beyond secondary school. He joined the Marines to escape violence and poverty, but three years later the career he envisioned ended.
His first years in prison, some of which were spent in isolation, were all about survival. Alex explains, “When I was in isolation, I shared a recreation yard with death row inmates, including Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams, founder of the notorious Crips gang in Los Angeles. Every day out there, someone was getting stabbed by another inmate or the guards were shooting at us. I realized there had to be a different way to live, without all the violence.” When Alex was allowed to rejoin the prison’s general population in 1987, he took advantage of the opportunity to make more of his life.
In addition to taking part in therapy programs, Alex became a licensed X-ray technician. One day, while working, he encountered Stanley Williams again. Williams had been escorted to X-ray wearing the customary ankle, wrist, and waist chains used to shackle death row inmates. The guard gave Alex the choice of whether or not to remove Williams’ waist chains during the procedure.
“Williams was shocked that the guard gave me the authority to make that decision,” Alex says. “He asked me, ‘How did you go from being with the death row inmates to having the guards ask you permission to take off my chains?’ In that moment, I realized that although I was still in prison, my life had changed.”
A few months later, Alex attended a three-day workshop organized by Kairos, a Christian ministry that teaches the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. The program was led by John Kelly, another of the 2014 Unsung Heroes. “At that workshop, I first realized all human beings have worth,” Alex recalls. “I met individuals who actually cared about inmates as people.” Alex continued to attend Kairos programs and in 1996 joined the Alternatives to Violence Project, through which he learned the skills to solve conflicts nonviolently.
After that, Alex co-founded a program that tutored inmates to take the GED high school equivalency exam. “One man in his 40s couldn’t read past a third-grade level,” he says. “He was extremely embarrassed, but I just requested that he continue to show up. Nine months later, he received his GED and he was not too embarrassed to cry. In fact, I think we all cried tears of joy that day.”
Almost three years out of prison now, Alex’s smile tells the story. He completed his BS in psychology shortly after release, graduating summa cum laude. Now his days are filled with helping people from all walks of life as a drug and alcohol counselor in Napa and Sonoma Counties, a career inspired by his mother, who passed away in 2012. He also serves as a lead facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence Project in Santa Rosa.
Alex never forgets the caring people who supported him in and out of prison. He says, “I have been helped greatly by the kindness of others. I was shown unconditional love and compassion. I want to pass that on to everyone I meet.”