David Coit, 24, makes his way to the offices of the Center for Male Engagement at the Community College of Philadelphia.

As he sat in the offices of the Center for Male Engagement at the Community College of Philadelphia on a recent weekday afternoon, David Coit vowed that he would not be going back to jail anytime soon.

“Being in jail, that shit sucks, bro,” Coit said. “That’s like the closest thing to hell. I’m not saying that to be funny, I’m being serious.”

The Center for Male Engagement at CCP was created to assist African American males in their studies and ultimately to see them through to graduation day. Started in 2009, it provides academic support, leadership development and life skills training. There are currently 298 students in the program.

All students involved in the CME are assigned a support coach, who is essentially their lifeline on campus. The support coaches help students from the moment they are enrolled into the college until they graduate, and sometimes beyond.

When Coit was released from prison in January, he said he didn’t know where to go, needing to re-acclimate to school and to being around others. He decided to enroll in CCP this past summer and joined the CME soonafter.

“Recidivism, I’m not going to relapse back into that because I’ve been in and out of jail already.”

‘When you’re so accustomed to seeing it, how is it wrong?’

Coit was raised in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia where on every corner, he said, people sold drugs.

“It’s what I grew up seeing,” Coit said. “You know that you’re not suppose to be standing on the corner selling drugs, you know you’re not supposed to be running around with a pistol on your hip. You know right from wrong, but when you’re so accustomed to seeing it, how is it wrong?”

[pullquote content=”Being in jail … is the closest thing to hell.” align=”right” /]

Everyone in Coit’s family sold drugs and everyone that he knew had guns. In order to fit in and to be somebody, Coit felt like this was what he had to do.

Coit started selling drugs before entering his teens, which landed him in and out of jail. At the height, Coit said he didn’t really care how his dealing impacted his family.

“People say you shouldn’t sell drugs, well the proof is here that I should be. The proof is telling me that if I sell drugs, I’m going to make money and take care of my family,” Coit said. “Regardless of what society is telling me, I’m going to go with what my society shows me.”

Armed robbery and a prison sentence

Coit was arrested at 18 for armed robbery, around the time he had his first child. He was originally given 20 to 40 years in prison in 2012, but worked for three years to reduce that, and ultimately served five years.

For most of his time in prison, especially when he expected to be there for for years, Coit said he acted tough in order to let everyone know that he was not going to be broken.

Within himself, however, he was a broken man.

“This wasn’t helping me at all,” Coit said. “Missing my son, missing my mom. I’m a momma’s boy. I haven’t seen my mom until I came home this year. It does something to you. If anyone tells you that they went to jail and it didn’t affect [them], they’re full of shit. It fucks with you psychologically.”

[pullquote content=”Eventually, you have to make a change within yourself before you can make one outwardly.” align=”right” /]

Coit said there were times when he wanted to kill himself. There were times when he just felt he could not handle it anymore. Each day, having someone telling him what to do and when to do it. Each day, following the same routine.

People tend to mind their own business in jail, Coit added. He stayed to himself most of the time, after learning at an early age that getting into other people’s business could usually result in trouble.

“It’s relatively similar to the streets because you have people who hang with certain groups of people. It’s segregated the way it is out here,” Coit said. “The way I am out here is the way I was in jail, like I don’t do people. I was never really into people.”

Coit spent a good portion of his sentence in the restricted housing unit — more commonly known as the hole — often as a result of arguments with corrections officers.

It wasn’t consecutive, Coil said, but in total he spent 255 days in a single cell.

“The last 63 days, I wasn’t really stressing because the end was right there,” he said. “I wasn’t really worrying, but the lower the number you got, the further away it seems. The anticipation made it seem that much longer.”

‘I came out here with a goal’

David Coit at the Center for Male Engagement offices at CCP Credit: Peak Johnson / Billy Penn

Coit finished the remainder of his time in the hole and was released from jail after five years. He was “scruffy” looking and resembled a “wild man,” but that didn’t stop him from signing the necessary paperwork and walking outside the gate. Coit said that he met people in prison who seemed comfortable with being there — people who didn’t want to leave and were afraid to go home. Mostly because they’ve been in the system for so long and are not familiar with anything else.

“When I came out here, I came out here with a goal,” Coit said. “Eventually, you have to make a change within yourself before you can make one outwardly. It stopped being about me seven years ago when I had my son, and I didn’t realize it then.”

That realization is what led him to CCP.

Attending classes after so many years in jail and being around people who are younger is definitely a learning experience, Coit said.

“I just woke up one day and brought myself down,” he said. “I have a daughter on the way, I can’t afford to go back to jail. I’ve missed five years of my son’s life, I can’t do that twice. I can’t do that with my daughter.”

Coit doesn’t plan on stopping after he graduates CCP. He would like to keep going further, perhaps attending Drexel University or the University of Pennsylvania if he decides to stay in Philadelphia.

Coit has a passion for music and is hoping to establish himself as an artist, but he also wants to pave a path for others who might be in a similar situation.

“I want to let people know, just because you came from wherever you came from, that doesn’t have to define where you’re going,” he said. “I came from a lot of the similar situations that everyone else came from — single-parent homes, drugs and guns on every corner. I didn’t grow up no different than a lot of people, but it’s all about perception.”