Curtis McDonald smiles all the time. He enjoys making people laugh, and he loves to tell stories. His likes dogs, prefers life in a big city, and orders his steak well-done. An especially happy memory that Curtis treasures: when he was able to buy his mother, Fern McDonald, her own house. Curtis did that.
Born into a family of eleven children, Curtis grew up in the Dixie Holmes and Oak Manor Housing Projects in Tennessee. When he was 16 years old, Curtis suffered a bout of meningitis which left him disabled. Despite this early setback to his health, as well as being diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, Curtis worked at International Harvester for over a decade, and later at Amoco Gas.
Curtis has three adult children, Jermaine, Vashti, and Ryan, who he dearly loves and supports as much as he can, he says. The most difficult part of incarceration, according to Curtis, is being separated from his family.
In 1997, Curtis was sentenced to life without parole for his role in a nonviolent drug conspiracy. It was his first ever conviction, felony or otherwise.
Curtis has now been incarcerated for nearly 22 years. He is 67 years old. He says that every day, he’s had to find a way to deal with the devastating reality that he may die in prison. This is a man has no history of violence, and zero disciplinary infractions of any kind during his incarceration.
Curtis has completed a number of rehabilitation programs over the two decades he’s been in prison such as Business Management, Re-Entry Preparation, Finance, Health and Wellness, and Coaching Sports. He says he gives a great shoe shine, but more importantly, Curtis shares his stories and experiences with younger men as a facilitator in the Mentors for Life program. He says he wants to give back, to make sure no man is left hanging and alone.
Though he has had to endure the loss of several family members without being able to pay his respects since his incarceration, Curtis still has a great number of family and community relationships, including his wife and children, siblings, and nieces. His brother is the pastor at First Baptist Bartlett Church in Memphis. The constant support Curtis receives from his family and community keeps him going. They are optimistic about Curtis’s release, especially his niece Melody, who made a promise to her grandmother (Curtis’s mother, who has since passed) to never stop fighting for her uncle to come home.
As a mentor-facilitator, Curtis is committed to making sure men younger than him, with less experience, have the skills and confidence they need to thrive after incarceration. It’s now his time, and his turn, to reunite with his family and friends.