turning leaf

Marty Hamilton is greeted by one of his teachers, Amy Barch, director of Turning Leaf, in North Charleston on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Hamilton has been a success in the Turning Leaf program and has been trying to convince his friends to turn their lives around. Hamilton, 47, has been in and out of jail for over 30 years. Michael Pronzato/Staff

Marty Hamilton has spent 30 years behind bars, and he's only 47.

The North Charleston native has been in prison seven times, and twice spent a year in the county jail. During the brief periods in between, he was a stone-cold criminal.

Hamilton terrorized the streets of North Charleston during its most violent years, selling dope and robbing other drug dealers. He survived gun fights, home invasions and drive-by shootings. He’s been stabbed once, shot twice.

“At 15, I started toting guns and shooting people,” Hamilton says. “I became an all-out outlaw. I didn’t think anything about it because I thought I was invincible and unstoppable.”

But now he has stopped.

Six months ago, Hamilton enrolled in the Turning Leaf Project — a rehabilitation and reentry program for violent repeat offenders. He says it has changed his life.

Hamilton is the very definition of a recidivist, and the odds of a person with his record going straight are as statistically improbable as surviving on the streets for all these years.

The National Institute of Justice in 2014 released the most thorough study of recidivism ever attempted. Researchers spent five years tracking more than 400,000 inmates released from prisons in 30 states. Within three years, 67 percent of them were rearrested. After five years, the number rose to 75 percent.

More than half of them were back in jail within a year.

Hamilton knows the odds are against him, but he’s determined and confident.

He’s given up the life.

A different man

Hamilton is so friendly and soft-spoken it's hard to believe he has spent most of his life in jail. But when he was released from prison last winter after serving four years for assault, Hamilton swore that was it. He had done enough time, once narrowly avoiding a life sentence.

“A guy beat up my nephew and I went and did a home invasion on him, busted through the door and shot him in the head,” Hamilton says. “He didn’t die, or I’d still be in there.”

Hamilton’s probation officer steered him to Turning Leaf. In three-hour classes five days a week, Turning Leaf clients learn empathy, personal responsibility and how to face the consequences of their actions. If they attend regularly, they are paid about $135 a week — which is both an incentive and financial help for lost work time.

Amy Barch, who developed the Turning Leaf program, doesn’t provide job training — she finds her students jobs. It is a subtle, but important, difference.

Most felons have a hard time finding work with multiple convictions on their records. After they are turned down so many times, many return to the only vocation they know: crime. It is a self-perpetuating cycle.

Hamilton had never had a normal job before this year; now he has two. He works nights as a parking attendant and days with the county maintenance department.

“This is the life we should have had 20 years ago,” says Pamela Scott, Hamilton’s wife. Marty, she says, is a different man.

But then, he never fit the mold of career criminal.

Breaking stereotype

Ask most people to describe a repeat offender, and they’ll paint a similar picture: Poor, raised in a single-parent home, usually by a mother who neglected him because she was busy working or dealing with her own struggles.

Hamilton defies that stereotype. He comes from a solidly middle-class background. His mother is a nurse, his father recently retired from the railroad. They have been married his entire life.

When Hamilton was a teen, his parents tried to keep him out of trouble. But he was infatuated with the life before he got out of Brentwood Middle School.

“They were always upset, and always tried to get me to change my life,” Hamilton says. “But I stopped listening to my parents. I wanted to live the street life.”

And he did, for decades. Around North Charleston, Hamilton is considered the gangsters’ grandfather — he’s old-school, a legend in some circles. While most Turning Leaf clients avoid their former connections and the temptations they bring, Hamilton sees old friends regularly.

These days he encourages young men, particularly those who grew up learning from his exploits, to leave the life. He hands out Turning Leaf business cards and has recruited a couple of his cousins to the program.

“You will save your life and help others save their lives, too,” he says.

That message hasn't sunk in with most politicians yet, but Hamilton has become a walking advertisement for Turning Leaf among North Charleston police. Narcotics agents who once rousted him on sight now drive by and wave.

If Turning Leaf can keep Hamilton out of prison, they say, it can work for anyone.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.