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Southfield — James Hill grew up on the streets of Detroit, living a lifestyle of crime and racking up felony convictions for drugs and weapons. 

It landed Hill, a fourth-felony habitual offender, behind bars for life for possession of a loaded firearm in 1988.

He said he entered prison with the same mindset. But a bout of thyroid disease left him hospitalized for weeks and sparked what he calls a "deathbed epiphany."

"For the first time in my life, I realized my life amounted to zero," he said. "Had I died right then, it would be as if I never lived. I thought, 'man, I can't go like this.'"

While incarcerated, Hill said he began working with like-minded inmates on an effort to provide ex-offenders reentering society with tools to keep them from coming back. He spent about two years sharing the proposal but said it didn't get much traction until he found two others — Tom Adams and Jessica Taylor — a duo hoping to launch a broad program to reform inmate behavior inside prison walls.

►Read our entire special report: Second chance granted

From there, the Chance for Life program was born. The nonprofit has operated for 27 years, providing leadership, critical thinking and mediation skills to inmates behind bars as well as support services upon release. It's offered to inmates in nine of the state's prisons.

"We on the outside as do-gooders, we tend never to ask people 'what do you need for us to do for you?' What we tend to do is run around and try to help people and do a whole bunch of things that make us feel good, but it's not necessarily what they need," said Adams, Chance for Life president. "You have to know what makes a guy tick."

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Tom Adams, president and CEO of Chance for Life, talks about the program he started to provide support for ex-offenders. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Adams said there are 200 to 250 inmates per class, and the organization consistently maintains a 300-person waitlist in each prison where it's offered.

Hill was among 61 offenders granted a pardon or commutation in December by then-Gov. Rick Snyder. He left prison on March 26 and said he's certain he won't be going back.

"Once you become aware of how you've been, it's difficult for you to go back acting foolish," he said. "The human life by its very nature has to be dedicated to something. I was just dedicated to foolishness. I didn't know the mechanics on how to extract myself from what I was mired in."

Hill is one of the original "core members" of Chance for Life, a program that in recent years has primarily been funded by the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, which has supplied $250,000 for the effort over the last four years.

"This organization has given many people a second chance at life through treatment and recovery programs ..." authority President and CEO Willie Brooks said in a provided statement. "We will continue to partner alongside them to help people find hope through treatment, prevention and recovery." 

Adams, who has never been in prison himself, said his religious beliefs compelled him to pursue it. 

"(God) gave me the ability to relate to individuals who walk this particular path," Adams said. "If you don't teach a person how to think differently, then when they are confronted with the same types of situations they are going to do the same thing."

More than 90% of the inmates who have gone through the program and have been released stay out of prison, he said.

The nonprofit offers resources for its member parolees, including housing and job placement services, mental health and substance abuse counseling. 

Today, Hill is residing with family, spending time with his mother and four biological and four step-children, nieces and nephews. His life sentence was handed down just nine days before his youngest son's first birthday. 

Hill credits Chance for Life for his commutation and the lessons it has taught him.

"I believed that I was a gangster. It's the self-image, not the situation, that's really dictating your behavior," he said. "Once you can change that self-image, then the rest of it is going to be relatively easy."

Holly Kramer, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, said there are currently 1,408 prisoners involved in Chance for Life at nine facilities.

"Its focus on teaching prisoners to establish a more positive mindset through conflict-resolution and critical thinking, especially when paired with other behavioral programming, has the ability to improve outcomes for prisoners and reduce negative incidents," she said.

Under the program, Adams and Taylor set up a core group of inmates to be trained in critical thinking, leadership, diversity skills and mediation. That group then acts as instructors, training the rest of the institution.

Classes, Adams said, run from six to nine months, and core members undergo a two-year minimum training process. 

There's no eligibility criteria to take part. It's offered on a first-come, first-served basis, Adams said. He and Taylor visit prison locations where the program is running five to six nights per week. 

"We don't discriminate," he said. "The intensity of the program is going to weed out people who are not serious."

Donald Harris, 62, joins Hill on a list of prison lifers freed this year after being granted clemency, most are also participants of the program. Harris was among a dozen inmates with a first-degree murder conviction to receive a commutation. 

Harris had been convicted as a teenager of fatally shooting a Detroit shop owner in an attempted robbery in 1975.

Prison wasn't easy for Harris, who entered the system feeling as if he had to prove himself. He engaged in fights and used drugs for years. 

"At a young age, being told I was going to prison for life and I was never getting out, I believed that," he said. "The choices that I made was everyday living, doing what I wanted to do. Not caring about authority and no one else."

But in 1988, Harris got a GED and saw it as a turning point. Years later, he was introduced to Chance for Life and moved around to various prisons to teach other inmates the skills.

Once inmates achieve parole, they are offered mentors and resources through Chance for Life to address mental health or substance abuse, aid in family reintegration and providing business wear for job searches and housing help.

“We have a referral process that we walk them through so they get what they need,” said Taylor, Chance for Life's executive director. “We make sure that they walk through that process so they don’t get stopped. Because once they get there, anything can happen, and they are gone and you lose them.”

For Hill, the program has changed his outlook and that of others he's served time with. 

"I found that this is my calling," he said. "It was a new me."

cferretti@detroitnews.com 

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