Formerly incarcerated man dedicates life to anti-violence work

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Jobie Taylor

Jobie Taylor (left) and Patricia Avery (right).

At the age of 17, Jobie Taylor was just about to graduate high school when he was convicted of first degree murder in the south side of Chicago.

He had a plan. He was going to graduate from Chicago Vocational School and then head to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb with his girlfriend at the time. But then he was given a sentence of 40 years, of which he served 20, for a crime he claims he didn’t commit.

Now 44 years old and out of prison for about seven years, Taylor has dedicated his life to changing the exact culture he grew up in. He works with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Education Justice Project, a program that provides higher education at Danville Correctional Center. He also worked with an organization called TRUCE, an antiviolence group that helps kids from ages 10 to 24 in the Champaign-Urbana community. He’s now a case manager at the Housing Authority in Champaign, where he works with at-risk youth to get their GEDs and find jobs.

But while doing this work, Taylor is still fighting his conviction. He admits to participating in gang culture growing up, but still claims his innocence over the death of a young boy in the south side of Chicago.

Growing up in Chicago

When Taylor was three years old, his mother passed away from heart failure. He was later adopted by his late paternal aunt and lived in a house with his late paternal grandmother, his now deceased older brother Ted, his half-sister of the same father but different mother and his now deceased cousin (his aunt’s son).

He also has twin sisters, five half siblings of the same mother and another half sibling of the same father. After his mother passed away, Taylor’s other siblings were sent to live with his mom’s side of the family on the west side of Chicago. 

Taylor said he was rarely allowed to see the other side of the family while growing up, for reasons he’s unsure of. But even so, Ted would often run away to see them and would sometimes bring Taylor.

“I was always so happy to see that I had twin sisters, so I was always so happy to see them every time,” Taylor said.

Taylor referred to his father as a “holiday dad” because he only saw him on special occasions. He said his father had a bad drinking problem, and eventually passed away from heart failure while Taylor was incarcerated.

Ever since he was young, Taylor loved school and education. One of his favorite teachers was his fifth grade teacher, who he said paid special attention to him and helped him succeed. She eventually even recommended him to the gifted class for sixth and seventh grade.

“There was a lot of jealousy because out of her class, only three of us went to the gifted class out of 20-25 kids … My peers in school used to think that I [thought I was better than everyone] … My hunger was more. I was more enthused of learning than most kids were. Not to say that I was better than anyone.” 

Taylor said he loved anything that involved reading, especially his social studies classes. 

“The reason why I liked to read is because you get opportunities to read out loud … I used to read so effectively, they used to be like ‘Slow down. You’re reading too fast,’” Taylor said.

Taylor continued his education at Chicago Vocational School. He had several choices for high school, but chose this one because he had the most friends there and felt that it would give him the best education. However, many of his friends eventually dropped out, but encouraged Taylor to stay in school.

But in his junior year of high school, Taylor took a set-back. While he had been involved in a gang, the Black Stones, since he was about 13, he became much more involved that year. At that point, he was selling drugs and skipping a lot of class. 

He soon discovered that if he didn’t make up those classes, he was going to have to complete another year of school. So his senior year, he started going to class again. He was still involved with the gang, but found a balance between the two. In addition to that, he had to attend summer school at community college to make up for the classes he missed.

Taylor had two options for college: he could stay in the city and go to community college or he could go to Northern Illinois University. He chose the latter. At that point, after seeing a lot of his friends getting locked up and killed, he wanted to get out of the city.

“I was making my transition. It was focus time,” Taylor said. “I was excited because I was going to be the only person at that time that was going to college in my family, so I was excited about this … When we went to the school and we looked at the school, I told my momma then, I’m like ‘I want to go here.’”

His girlfriend at the time was also planning on going to NIU. They had started dating when Taylor was in seventh grade and she was in sixth. They had a plan of going off to school together and starting a life together.

“That was our plan, to go to school together,” he said. “I was a year ahead of her. I was to graduate in ‘93, she was to graduate in ‘94.”

But then things changed when Taylor got his conviction right before finishing high school. He was sent to prison, and his girlfriend continued to NIU on her own.

“I just felt like, why? Why did this happen to me?” Taylor said. “Years later, I figured it was God’s plan.”

A conviction that changed his life

Taylor said the Black Stones gave their members two options: either they could sell drugs, or they could be “gang bangers,” the people who participated in gun violence. At the time, they didn’t allow for both, he said, because they didn’t want dealers to draw attention to themselves.

“You can’t sell drugs while the police are constantly riding up and down the streets,” he said.

Taylor chose the drug dealing route. He said he never owned a gun and never shot anyone.

He first started getting involved in the gang when he was about thirteen. His older brother and his cousin were already part of it and introduced Taylor to the gang culture. He started off by stealing cars, which he learned to drive when he was about 12 years old. He later got his permit when he was 15, but despite not having his license, he said he was typically the driver when they stole cars.

When he was about 15, he said he started selling drugs as a way to make money.

“Even though my mom worked and my grandma worked, we still didn’t have a lot of money,” he said. “We still were on welfare. We still used to get public assistance … So selling drugs was the means of getting money and getting clothes and staying fresh.”

Even though Taylor sold drugs, he said he stayed away from doing them himself.

“My brothers got high, so I didn’t take no interest in getting high,” he said. “I saw the effect it had on them, where they were doing a lot of conniving and stealing, and I didn’t want to be following those footsteps.”

Oftentimes, the people that he sold to were his friends’ parents.

“The people that we would sell the drugs to … looking back on it now, it was so foolish, but you see your friends’ parents strung out on drugs. You selling drugs to your friends’ parents, it was just, it was crazy,” Taylor said. “The crack epidemic destroyed the black community a lot. And we were just products of it.”

On July 15, 1993, when Taylor was 17, a drive-by shooting happened. It was reported that a car drove up to the scene and three and four black males fired guns at 5 members of the “Folks” gang. Four of them were injured and one was killed.

Taylor claims that he was at home that night with his family and had nothing to do with the shooting.

“We had a picnic earlier that day because I remember my mom brought a flyer to court and everything … We got dropped off at home and I stayed in the house. I was in the house all that night. I remember waking up that next morning to hearing about, ‘Hey man, you know, some people got shot across the tracks last night,’” Taylor said.

Three people ended up being charged for the crime: Taylor and his co-defendants Oliver Sheegog and Gilbert Spiller. 

According to Sheegog’s arrest report, Chicago police officer Fred Waller testified that he had been gathering “street information” on unsolved cases and spoke to two women, Dianatha Brooks and Danielle Jordan about the July 15 shooting. The arrest report states that these two women said they were witnesses to the shooting and that the owner of the car was Sheegog.

Sheegog was then arrested on October 12, 1993, for the crime. His arrest report stated that he was a member of the “Vice Lords” and that he was hanging out with friends in the Vice Lords and the Black Stones. The report said they were mad that the Folks had shot one of their friends and that Sheegog picked up Spiller, Taylor and another unknown man referred to as “Snoop” in a gray and maroon Chevy Caprice. The report then states that Sheegog fired his gun six times and waited for others to finish shooting before driving off.

Taylor was arrested as well. He said that the police physically coerced him to sign a statement that placed him at the scene of the crime.

“They were beating on me, punching on me, slapping me. They physically coerced me,” he said. “They had me sign a statement that basically placed me at the scene of the crime and that was what they used to convict me.”

There was no physical evidence, such as gunshot residue or DNA, that tied him to the scene. He was eventually convicted of first degree murder and on July 19, 1996, was sentenced to 40 years of prison, of which he had to serve 20.

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However, after being out of prison for seven years, Taylor has submitted an application with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to have his conviction reviewed by the Conviction Integrity Unit. This application includes two affidavits from two witnesses, stating that they were coerced by the police.

One of the affidavits is from Dianatha Brooks, who the officer on the crime stated he talked to about the shooting when gathering street information. But her affidavit states that she and her friend were pulled over for the possession of a stolen car and that they were asked about the shooting. It further states that they said they heard about the shooting but didn’t know who was involved. She then goes on to explain that the detectives told them that if they cooperated, they would let them go, and then told them the details of the shooting and who was involved. They then made statements implicating Sheegog, Spiller and Taylor.

The other affidavit is from a witness at the scene of the crime, Demetrius Farr, who said he saw the crime happen, but did not see who was in the car. He also states in the affidavit that the police threatened to put him in jail if he didn’t come to the station. At the station, he said they had coerced him to say that he had seen Sheegog shoot, even though he didn’t.

Nancy Adduci, the executive director of the Conviction Integrity Unit, said she has not been able to look at Taylor’s application yet. But she did say affidavits can be very powerful, under a few conditions.

“Let’s assume that they’ve never said this before, they never testified to this at trial and if no one’s ever talked to them before, that’s something that gets slated for full investigation, just that fact alone,” she said.

But since it’s a pending application and Adduci hasn’t had the chance to look at it yet, she’s not able to make any comments on Taylor’s case specifically.

A way to pass the sentence

Taylor had a primary focus while he was incarcerated: to get out as soon as he could.

“I used to see people come back (and) forth,” he said. “I’d see people come in six, seven times in the course of me doing 20 years and I used to always say, ‘Just give me one chance, you know, I will never come back.’”

Taylor spent the first three years of his sentence at the Cook County Jail trying to fight his case. But when he received his conviction in 1996, he was sent to Menard Correctional Center in Chester, a maximum security prison.

For the most part, Taylor said he stayed out of trouble while he was in prison. But in Menard, he was still involved in the gang culture. At one point, he was associated with the beating of another inmate, for which he and a few others received six months of segregation. On top of that time in segregation, he said he was going to have to do an extra six months at the end of his 20 years. 

This was later overturned, but he credits this moment to helping him stay out of trouble going forward.

“That experience of knowing that they can take that time like that [made me] very cautious about getting into any trouble,” Taylor said. “I was conscious about the individuals that I associated with.”

In 1999, Taylor transferred to Illinois River Correctional Center, a medium security prison in Canton. He considers this a big transition for him because he was finally able to turn to the thing he always loved: school. Since Taylor never received his high school diploma, he started with his GED. He then went on to get an associate’s degree in general studies and a few vocational degrees.

“I used my time to educate myself,” Taylor said. “Because I knew, once I completed that, I was another year closer to going home. It kept me busy … I’m always asked, ‘How did you do 20 years?’ And I say, I went to school.”

Taylor also practiced religion. While he grew up Christian, he decided to convert to Islam when he was at Illinois River. He was already familiar with a lot of Islamic prayers from the Black Stones, which required its members to memorize and recite prayers. However, he didn’t really know what the prayers meant until he started practicing the religion in prison, where he learned Arabic and read the Quran.

He said he chose Islam because of it’s discipline. The religion requires praying five times a day and helped him stay away from the distractions in prison.

“Prison is very distracting,” Taylor said. “You can do one of two things … there’s a culture within prison or you can do what you got to do to get yourself out of there. Now I’ve watched guys come in that had 10 year sentences where they had to do five years, but got in trouble and ended up doing that whole 10-year-sentence because they got caught up.”

However, in 2004, he discovered that his brother Ted, who was in prison with Taylor for a period of time and had since been released, had been killed in a gambling dispute. He said his brother’s death made him appreciate the friends and family he had. 

“I wasn’t bitter, I wasn’t mad,” he said. “I just knew that I had to do the things I needed to do to eventually come home one day. So that’s why education kept me while I was there.”

By 2004, Taylor had completed all the education offered at Illinois River and transferred to Dixon Correctional Center, a medium security prison. He said that out of all the prisons he did time in, this was his favorite.

“That was the best institution because it was built like a college campus,” he said. “It wasn’t cell houses, it was like dorms … It was so free, it was like being in college.”

At Dixon, he was able to reconnect with a lot of people he had met earlier on in his sentence. He also said that he could hang out with friends in their cell houses or in the streets of the prison.

Taylor received his second associate’s degree, this time in applied science, and several more vocational degrees. He also got a job working in the infirmary for a period of time.

But in 2010, Taylor again completed all his possible education at Dixon and put in another transfer, this time to Danville Correctional Center, a medium security prison. Taylor said that Danville wasn’t as free as Dixon was, but he made that sacrifice for further education.

It was here that he discovered the Education Justice Project (EJP), a University of Illinois program that allows inmates to receive college credit while incarcerated. Inmates are not able to receive a bachelor’s degree in the program, but they can use those credits towards a degree once they are released.

Because Taylor already had his GED and two associate’s degrees, he was eligible for EJP. But these courses were different from his previous courses in prison. These classes were more discussion-based, something that was a challenge for Taylor at first.

“It was challenging because I was sociable with my peers, but I wasn’t sociable in a classroom setting like that,” he said. “That was new, to be able to engage and then be able to discuss and stay on topic.”

Rebecca Ginsburg, a professor at UIUC and the founder of EJP, said that Taylor started off a bit more reserved in the program.

“He was shyer… I don’t know why he was more quiet, but he gradually came out of his shell and it was really lovely to see that,” Ginsburg said.

One of Ginsburg’s favorite memories of Taylor was his starring role in a Shakespeare play put on by EJP.

“The whole audience lit up because it was kind of so spectacularly out there and happy and he was running around and on the floor and doing a great job and with a great big smile on his face … That really marks a spot for me, when I realized, hey Jobie is not Shy Jobie anymore. Jobie is out there in front of the world,” Ginsburg said.

‘I was them once before’

The first place Taylor went to when he was released from prison in 2013 was a Walmart parking lot.

“Breathing the air was different on the outside than actually being in,” he said.

The technology took him some time to get used to as well. He wasn’t used to touchscreen telephones. He was also taken aback by self check-outs at stores and the changes at gas stations.

A selfie of Jobie Taylor.

He said his family members and friends are the people who really helped him when he was released.

“I had a good support system when I came home,” he said. “People made sure that I made it and they helped me reintegrate back into society.”

While he was incarcerated, Taylor became close with a woman he met through a mutual friend in prison. She lived in Champaign-Urbana, and Taylor ended up setting his parole there. Soon after that, they were married.

“She helped me get back here into society,” Taylor said. “She was there for me.”

Taylor said that she helped him get his first real job with her dad, who worked with a fencing company in Champaign.

The two were together about three years until they separated in 2016. Taylor said they mutually agreed to separate and that they officially divorced in March of 2019.

“We were okay,” Taylor said. “We mutually decided that we weren’t compatible.”

Taylor has had several different jobs since being released, including construction and delivery driving. But while doing these jobs, he continued his connection with EJP. He often gives speeches and participates in events for the organization.

Ginsburg said one program that Taylor is involved in is the Ripple Effect, where people write letters to loved ones who are incarcerated. She said Taylor has spoken at these events several times.

“It was lovely to have someone like Jobie who could address people, who were there and could tell them something about current conditions in prison and what it’s like to get a letter when you’re incarcerated,” Ginsburg said.

She said one of his best assets is his storytelling ability. She mentioned a particular story he shared during a Ripple Effect event about one of his cell mates who never received letters while he was in prison. 

“Jobie would share his letters with the cell mate, who didn’t get any letters, because it made a difference to get some kind of word from the outside world, even if that word wasn’t directed specifically to you,” Ginsburg said.

She also said Taylor is currently working with EJP as a researcher and outreach worker for an initiative that helps train formerly incarcerated people and get them involved in the green energy sector. The program, however, has since been stalled due to COVID-19.

Ginsburg said Taylor has been very valuable to EJP, especially because he stayed in the Champaign-Urbana community, while other alumni mostly live in Chicago.

“He’s human,” she said. “And he knows how to weave a story in ways that holds people’s attention and makes a point at the same time.”

Taylor said his work with EJP allowed him to get other connections in the community, and most notably led to his work with an anti-violence program in Champaign called TRUCE. 

Taylor was accepting an award on the behalf of Ginsburg in 2014 when he met the woman who started the organization, Patricia Avery. He was soon hired as an outreach manager for the program.

In this position, Taylor visited schools, the juvenile detention center and places like the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA. He was also on-call for potentially violent situations that would require mediation.

“We were trying to get on the front end of violence, trying to prevent it from happening,” Taylor said. “But in the sense of if it did happen … we would work real close with the families, we would try to stop a lot of retaliation.”

Taylor worked with fellow Outreach Worker Josh Payne while he was at the organization. Payne said Taylor was really able to connect with the kids they worked with because of his past experience.

“There’s not a damn thing in the world that can move [these kids] when you look them in the eye and then here comes this funny, laughy, bubbly guy named Jobie, who tells them that he just got out of prison for doing 20 years for murder,” Payne said. “And you can see the fear, you can see the awestruckness, and you can see how surprised and shocked these kids are and they listen. And he’s able to reach down to them.”

Payne mentioned a particular story of when he and Taylor went to talk with a group of kids at the juvenile detention center. Payne said there was a moment when one of the kids was about to pick a fight with another kid in the group. He said it was getting to the point where one of the correctional officers was going to have to step in. But then Taylor pulled the kid aside and talked to him about his mother, who was sick at the time.

“Jobie had heard this young man talk about his mother at another time, like a week or two prior when we came and visited,” Payne said. “And he put that in his memory bank, he put that in his treasure box, and he waited to pull it out at the right time … He did it so gently, when this kid was just on fire, hot, like ready to fight, and it changed the whole atmosphere in the room and set it right back into a professional setting.”

Like Taylor, Payne himself has been in trouble with the law before. He went to juvenile prison as a kid, and served an 18-month-sentence in prison. Like these kids, he said he’s also learned from Taylor’s experience.

“When you meet somebody who really, has done that amount of time, it really puts things in perspective for you on how serious this all really is and how quickly life can turn upside down on you,” Payne said.

TRUCE has recently disbanded, but Taylor said that he still does some of the work on his own. Since February, he’s also been working in a new job with the Champaign Housing Authority’s program called YouthBuild, an alternative education program for at-risk youth from ages 16 to 24. 

In this program, the youth gain construction skills by building houses for low-income families in their own neighborhood, according to the Housing Authority website. They also split their time between the construction and school, where they can get their GED or high school diploma. 

Taylor said that what allows him to connect with the youth in the community is his personal story and his experience in the gang culture.

“I just try to tell them my story. And they relate because I was them once before,” Taylor said. “We were in the same shoes, just a different generation.”

He said the first thing he does when he’s working with these kids is he builds their trust by learning about their interests. 

“I go into their world and then once I get them to trust me … I bring them into my world,” he said. “Then I start telling my story about the same behavior that they’re doing now, I did that already. And look where I landed.”

Taylor said some of his best friends now are the people he fought with in opposing gangs while growing up. But he didn’t become friends with them until he was incarcerated with them.

“I always tell them, you don’t want to be high 80 years old in prison … You and this guy were on different sides of the fence getting into it with each other. Now y’all up in there talking about how y’all could have done things better. It’s too late now. Both of y’all got 80 years,” he said.

While he hopes for his conviction to be overturned, he said he holds no resentment. Instead, he spent his life rehabilitating himself through education and trying to save other kids from going down the same path.

“Even though I didn’t commit the crime that I was incarcerated for, I was still part of that problem that was going on,” he said. “My thing was, as I was once part of that problem, I want to be part of that solution.”

2 thoughts on “Formerly incarcerated man dedicates life to anti-violence work

  1. This is a wonderful story, I was Jobie neighbor. I watched him grow up, and knew his family. I knew he was sent to prison, but didnt know why.. this story explains everything… I’m so sorry you where wrongly convicted.. I truly hope you get justice… keep on striving.. God bless

  2. Hi Jobie, glad you are assisting with the youth in our communities, i am a familiar person to EJP and know Rebecca Ginsburg personally, i had a guy that i dated that was there with them in Danville (Reginald Smith), so i appreciate you doing whatever you can with our youth and continue to reach them, if you only reach one you have done something good, i’m sorry for you being wrongly convicted it happens a lot in our communities, but as you said you were part of the problem, so now as you are doing being part of the solution, i appreciate you and keep up the work.

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