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Where do you go after 31 years in prison? He went to Walmart and brought his subscribers

NBC News logo NBC News 2021-07-22 Patrice Gaines
a man sitting on a couch © Provided by NBC News

Ramon Reid is 51. He spent 31 years of his life in prison. There’s a lot he hasn’t experienced.

“For instance, I had never been to Walmart or on a motorcycle or on a boat. Never been to the ocean,” Reid offered. “When new guys would come in prison they’d say, ‘You’ve never done that? Where have you been all your life, in a cave?’”

When Reid got out of prison in May and returned home to Alliance, Ohio, in the northeastern part of the state, he started documenting his life to show people what it’s like to return to a community after years of being locked up. He shares these small moments with the nearly 7,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, Modern Day Caveman.

Viewers can witness his astonishment on his first visit to Walmart, see the meticulous cornrows he braids into his mother’s hair — a skill he learned in prison — and feel his frustration when he looks into the camera and explains how he learned job applications are now largely submitted online, which doesn’t offer him the chance to explain why he does not have a work history or to influence a potential boss with his personality and sincerity.

Reid’s first trouble with the judicial system was in 1988, shortly after he graduated from high school, where he was a star wrestler. Reid was attacked by a group of men, and he, in turn, shot one of the men in the group. He said he was beaten badly and stunned to wake up in a hospital, handcuffed to a bed and charged with felonious assault.

He and his mother both say the lawyer assured them Reid would be cleared. But on the day of his trial, Reid said, “The lawyer says, ‘Face it, you are a Black man who shot a white man in a white town. … You are not getting a jury of your peers.’”

“I took a plea deal, not knowing it would make me a second-class citizen,” Reid said.

He served 89 days but was left with years of probation and discovered no one would hire him.

Of the years that followed, Reid admitted he made poor decisions and committed crimes. He began selling crack. His probation was revoked after police found a gun in the glove compartment of his car during a stop. He was sent back to prison. When he was released, he was home just a few months before he got into a fight and was sent back to prison again.

The next time he was a free man, he robbed a bank. The sentence: 199 months, or about 16 1/2 years.

Reid said he had a lot of anger — a mixture of regrets, anger at himself, anger at the way he was being treated — as an inmate.

“I was always fighting,” he said. The prison environment bred violence by crowding young, angry men together, he added. “You were predator or prey, and I was not going to be prey.”

But one day, his mother said he called to tell her he had been “saved.”

“I knew who he used to be, so when he told me he was saved I asked, ‘By who and what from?’” Marion Holly said. “He said, ‘By God, the blood of Jesus Christ.’ I heard it in his voice. That’s when I realized he had changed.”

a man standing in front of a building talking on a cell phone: Image: Reid, left, with his mother Marion Holly and her husband Luther in Alliance, Ohio, on July 17, 2021. (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News) © Maddie McGarvey Image: Reid, left, with his mother Marion Holly and her husband Luther in Alliance, Ohio, on July 17, 2021. (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News)

Reid began preparing for a new life, taking on leadership roles and learning new skills in prison.

“I realized guys were leaving and going back to the same neighborhood, dealing with the same people, doing the same thing,” he said. “My plan was to go to a new environment and meet new people and do new things. I armed myself with knowledge.”

This time, he arrived in Alliance with a plan to do something different. In August, he will begin culinary school in Cleveland. He hopes to get a food truck one day and later own a restaurant.

In the meantime, though, he said he started his YouTube channel “to show guys who come out from prison and have to learn how to navigate this world, how I did it.”

His most popular video thus far is his first trip to a Walmart. Just inside the door, he stops to chat with the greeter. “How do I get to the cereal aisle?” he asks.

At the aisle, while his son videotaped him, Reid exclaims, “Dude, look at all this cereal!”

calendar: Image: (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News) © Maddie McGarvey Image: (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News)

He steps up to the aisle, then steps back as if to get a better view of the expanse of shelves. His son begs to buy his first box of cereal, and Reid picks the heart-shaped Honey Nut Cheerios. Then he asks to see the chip aisle.

“I can buy a wallet in here too?” he asks, incredulously, in the video.

What viewers do not see is the panic attack he had in Walmart, overcome by the sheer magnitude of the place and choices and all the bustling activity.

“It was just overwhelming, all the activity. It was just too much,” Reid explained in an interview. “God did not give me a spirit of fear. I got dressed and went to Walmart in the middle of the day and stayed until I felt acclimated.”

a close up of a piece of paper: Image: (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News) © Maddie McGarvey Image: (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News)

Viewers learn about some of the serious challenges faced by a person who’s been kept out of society for years. Reid talks about a guy bumping into him at a Chipotle without saying anything.

“I’m trained to respond in some ways,” he said, referring to how a bump might turn into a violent altercation in prison. “That accident showed me [life outside] is going to be an adjustment,” Reid said, adding that he still harbors some trauma from being attacked in his sleep.

In another video, he sits outside his mother’s house one quiet morning, talking about the peace he feels in that neighborhood.

“A hummingbird flew right by me and hovered,” he says, fluttering his fingers by one ear. “I was afraid to move. I need this peace.”

During this video, Reid somberly shares he is “having issues. In prison, I was very useful. Out here, there are a million of me. I’m trying to adjust. I need a job. I need something to do.”

In another video, he says the last time he was employed was 20 years ago.

“For my previous residence,” he supposes, “do I put ‘prison?’ I’m struggling with this. On paper, I look like a menace. Who wants a violent felon?”

Commenters offer Reid encouragement, urging him not to get discouraged: “At the end of the day,” one viewer wrote, “you can be honest when you’re at the interview and you’ve made a good impression.”

Off the screen, Reid has the support of friends and family cheering him on.

Donnie Gesaman, a tattoo artist who lives outside Charleston, South Carolina, served time with Reid, and they now speak regularly. 

“I knew him at his worst and now we are back in contact, and I see him at his best,” Gesaman said. “I don’t think there’s anything he can’t accomplish.”

Reid’s son, Jordan, gave his father a GoPro for his YouTube channel. The two had only seen each other once in the last 20 years. 

a person taking a selfie in a room: Image: Reid records a video in his work space in Austintown, Ohio, on July 17, 2021. (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News) © Maddie McGarvey Image: Reid records a video in his work space in Austintown, Ohio, on July 17, 2021. (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News)

“When I was little he would write me letters every Sunday. He called it Son-day,” said the younger Reid, 24, who is a DJ and producer in Columbus, Ohio. “I never wrote him back. I hated writing. He kept sending the letters.”

The letters and some hand-drawn cards kept the young Reid connected to his father.

“It was weird,” he said. “I knew I had a dad, but I didn’t grow up with him. … I look at peers in school who don’t know their dad. I know exactly who my dad is, and he did everything in his power to let me know I was thought about, cared for.”

They did not see each other for years, though, until Jordan was 18 and his father had been transferred to an Ohio institution. He said a relative brought him and one of his two half-sisters to visit their father. The elder Reid “cried like a baby” when he saw his children.

“He’s a phenomenal man,” Jordan said. “I’m super proud of him.”

That half-sister, Ashley Bradshaw, is 34 and a home health aide who lives in Alliance and now visits her father regularly.

“He likes to spend time with my daughter,” said Bradshaw, whose daughter is 4. “I let her go play with granddad. I took them to get library cards, and that was a big to-do for both of them.”

a screen shot of an open laptop computer sitting on top of a table: Image: (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News) © Maddie McGarvey Image: (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News)

Bradshaw said she never felt sorry for her father.

“He made bad choices, and they affected everyone around him,” she said. “I’ve talked to him about it multiple times. One thing I learned from him is to never give up.”

Reid’s youngest daughter, Nyiesha Hall, 33, had no memory of her father when she visited him for the first time in prison about three years ago.

“I was looking at him and I said, ‘Oh my God, we look so much alike.’ I couldn’t stop staring at him,” Hall said. “When he came home, it seemed unreal — and still does, to actually be able to touch him.” 

Hall, a mother to her own five children, said her father has “become my best friend. I talk to him about everything.”

Even Reid’s mother is getting to know her son.

“When he left he was in his 20s, just stepping into manhood. Now I’m getting to know him as a grown man,” she said.

Reid said his life is full of experiencing constant “firsts.” He helps his parents around the house, including working in his mother’s garden and taking tasks his father, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is unable to do. He cooked grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner one night, and his mother proclaimed them “perfect.” Reid realized for the first time in his life that he had cooked while talking on the phone.

a couple of people that are standing in the kitchen: Image: Reid and his mother Marion Holly prepare to eat dinner at her home in Alliance, Ohio, on July 17, 2021. (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News) © Maddie McGarvey Image: Reid and his mother Marion Holly prepare to eat dinner at her home in Alliance, Ohio, on July 17, 2021. (Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News)

Reid was eventually hired for a job: a security guard at an addiction recovery center for men. A couple of weeks later, he was offered a suite in the center to live in.

He still tries to post a video most nights. A subscriber sent him a laptop that is much faster than his mother’s computer he once depended on. 

He is also learning how to edit his videos and accumulating tips from his new online friends, whom he calls “family.”

“God,” Reid said, “is blessing me.”

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