Seeing the Courtroom from the Other Side

Alexander Aiken seems destined for success. At 47 years old, he’s a confident, sharply dressed star student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he’s gearing up for a career in law.

But Alexander’s future wasn’t always this bright. Just six years ago, he was living on the streets of New York City, shaking down drug dealers for his next high.  

As a teen, Alexander dreamed of leveraging his athletic talent into a college football career. But when his grades began to plummet, he turned to alcohol to cope with the disappointment. “Before long, I dropped out of school and left the sport I loved behind,” he said. “I felt worthless; like a failure. So I drank even more. When booze wasn’t enough, I turned to hard drugs.”

Alexander’s addiction made him unrecognizable: He plummeted in a downward spiral. He lost his job, his home, and his family. He used his size and athleticism to intimidate people on the streets — stealing money to buy drugs. Even as his teeth rotted and his clothes turned to rags, feeding his addiction became the only thing that mattered.

Before long, Alexander started having run-ins with the criminal justice system. He went to jail: seven months here, eight months there. He became caught in a vicious cycle that went on for years: Live on the street. Use drugs to cope. Commit a crime. Go to prison. Repeat.

Alexander’s turning point came during his last sentence in 2012. Alone in his cell, as he reflected on what his life had become, he wept. “I felt so ashamed of who I had become,” he said. “I realized I wanted something other than alcohol or drugs… I wanted to start over.”

Alexander had heard about Ready, Willing & Able from others in prison, and had even seen the Men in Blue as they cleaned the streets where he slept. He realized that they had what he needed most — a job and a purpose. That realization led him straight to Ready, Willing & Able.

At The Doe Fund, Alexander found a community of support. He became sober and started earning a paycheck for the first time in decades. Soon, he felt his old confidence returning. Before long, he was excelling: coaching other trainees in the computer lab and assisting with relapse prevention classes.

Facility Director Nazerine (“Naz”) Griffin took note of Alexander’s talent and determination. “Naz saw things in me I couldn’t yet see in myself. He pushed me — told me I needed to finish what I had started 25 years ago and go back to school,” he said. “He reminded me that the only person that was going to stop me was myself.”

After graduating Ready, Willing & Able, Alexander was accepted into college, leaning on Naz and other staff at The Doe Fund whenever he began to doubt his ability. “That first year in college was rough,” he said. “I was the oldest guy in the class, and I was way behind. But every time my confidence wavered, I had Naz and the entire Doe Fund family rooting for me.”

By his second semester, Alexander hit his stride. He was making straight A’s and had found his passion: law. He wanted to go back to the courtroom to help men, like himself, find a better way. This summer, Alexander made a huge step towards that goal: He was accepted to Hofstra University’s School of Law.

“I’ll say it plain as day: Ready, Willing & Able saved my life,” said Alexander. “The program helped me get clean, off the streets, earning a paycheck, and out of jail. And the people there, like Naz, guided and supported me until I had no choice but to reach my full potential.”

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About Author: Shannon Moriarty