For Melvin Haywood, the wheel of fortune has turned a number of times in his 59 years. Arrested in 1974 for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he doesn’t deny the gang-affiliated friendships of his youth but insists his murder conviction was a gross injustice. Then, there was the 1979 reversal by a federal judge, which would have vindicated and released him but, for political reasons, never came to pass. And finally, there was the chance overhearing of an inmate’s discussion of information relevant to his own case. With this new foothold on justice, he worked relentlessly toward his release. In 2004—after some 25 appearances before the parole board in 30 years—Haywood went home to renew his destiny.
With a story so full of ups and downs, one marvels at Haywood’s optimism. His secret? The steadfast hub of that unforgiving wheel is his wife of 36 years, Deborah. The two met in high school during the 1960s, and in 1972 Haywood married his childhood sweetheart. With four daughters of his own and a large extended family devoted to him, Haywood survived his prison desolation through frequent visits. “I wouldn’t change my family for the world,” he insists, “I’ve seen the streets from every angle, every level and it’s nothing…it don’t last forever.” The unshakable bonds of family do.
Haywood, the product of his father and grandfather’s insistence on education, also relied on knowledge to persevere inside. From yoga and meditation to welding and printing press operation, he explored every opportunity available. With Pell Grants offered to prisoners until the early 1990s, Haywood accumulated over 190 credit hours and later earned a BGS in Sociology. But the experiences he most enjoyed always revolved around commerce. “I have an instinct for business,” he acknowledges proudly, “and I like people.” As VP of Sales for the JCs organization, the budding entrepreneur gained skills vital to his current life.
“You know, my passion is prevention,” he states. Combine that with a natural gift for marketing, and his chosen career is a perfect match. Shortly after meeting Rap-A-Lot Records CEO James Prince through a mutual friend, he began a collaborative business venture called Strapped Condoms, which makes HIV/AIDS prevention its primary goal. With endorsements by some of the entertainment industry’s brightest stars, the company is poised to hit big. Settling into his business traveler status, Haywood makes numerous trips to the company’s Houston headquarters, explores new markets throughout the country, and has flown to Malaysia to inspect manufacturing facilities there. At every stop, he continues to make time for his anti-violence message.
His involvement in community advocacy has been substantial in both Chicago and Houston, where the aptly named “Don’t Let This Happen To You” program, founded by Michael Prince, brings the reality of life behind bars to those most at risk on the streets. “Had someone told me everyone I loved would be dead when I got out, I might have listened,” he says ruefully, “because to stop the violence, it’s got to come from people coming from the streets, from the inside—not the academics.” Haywood is gratified in knowing he has impacted the lives of many youths through his public appearances. The success he is manifesting now is only made meaningful by giving back as much as he can.
Despite this latest stroke of luck, life after prison has not been without challenges. He credits Goodwill and Safer Foundation for making his own transition from prisoner to productive citizen a relatively smooth one. “A lot of guys think they can perform miracles when they get out,” he explains, “and that just isn’t the case.” No one makes it alone. With the help of staunch supporters, his seamless employment history has evolved from counselor at New Beginnings and Safer Foundation to up-and-coming entrepreneur. As Haywood’s wheel takes its long-deserved journey to the top, there will be many beloved and loyal companions along to enjoy the ride.