Clemency, Freedom ... and Giving Back

In Sing Sing for 23 years on a wrongful conviction, JJ Velazquez is opening the New York branch of the The Douglass Project for Justice

| 15 Dec 2021 | 01:45

For 23 years he was known as AA2803. Jon-Adrian Velazquez (known to many as JJ) spent 23 years in maximum security at Sing Sing. He was convicted of shooting a police officer in Harlem in 1998. Three witnesses claimed the assailant was black and had braids. JJ — who had an alibi and whose own father had been a cop — is Latino and never had braids. With help from an investigative team from NBC News, which spent a decade proving his innocence, Velazquez received clemency and was released in September. ”I told them to go out there and just try to prove innocence,” he says. “They took me up on my challenge.”

By all accounts, Velazquez was a model prisoner. He earned a college degree behind bars (taking classes five nights a week), and started or enhanced several programs, including one called Voices From Within, an initiative that addresses the epidemic of gun violence through the voices of inmates living with the consequences of their deadly choices

Now, at 45, Velazquez’s life truly begins. He is opening the New York branch of The Douglass Project for Justice. Started in 2019, that organization aims to help us understand that prisoners are people too. (Curious citizens are invited to sign up for visits.)

“I don’t believe doing time is enough,” says Velazquez. “You have to give back. It’s all about making better choices, which is what I talk about to young people, including my own. Better choices, better lives.”

“Jon-Adrian Velazquez embodies all of the humanizing values of the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice,” says its president and founder, Marc M. Howard. “He was a leader on the inside, and he is now continuing to be a leader on the outside. He will help to develop and extend our program in New York and the Northeast region, and he has already become a valued and critical part of our senior leadership team.” The fact that JJ’s name is now connected to Frederick Douglass is not lost on him. “I’m proud to be associated with a man who was a hero and a pioneer,” he says.

“Role Model and Inspiration”

Velazquez may also occasionally be found at Columbia University, speaking to psychology classes on children at risk and learning resilience. He met the professor, Geraldine Downey, when she taught a Justice in Education class at Sing Sing over three semesters. “He was essentially my teaching fellow,” says Downey, “and the role model and inspiration for the prisoners. It’s amazing how he could talk with optimism about the future, always forward thinking. JJ is a great leader, and with this new job at the Douglass Project, he has found a way to continue humanizing those who are incarcerated.”

And he knows of what he speaks. His own youth was less than perfect. He had trouble in public schools, did some drugs, and was arrested once, which “put me in the system.” (As in photos that witnesses could later mistakenly identify.)

A big part of the Douglass Project is helping those, like Velazquez, who earn their freedom but then need to join an often-unwelcoming society. “Housing and employment are the two biggest obstacles,” he says. “We work on resumes, and we will help them find places to work and live.”

In fact, there may be some movement on that subject from unusual places. The billionaire Richard Branson is encouraging companies to recruit past offenders: that doing so “increases the talent pool, lowers the price tag of re-offending, nurtures entrepreneurial spirit and contributes to safer communities.” And on the Broadway stage, Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage sets her play, “Clyde’s,” in a diner where the owner only hires former inmates. She half-jokingly calls them “morons,” but they are a likable, hard-working group who turn sandwich-making into an art.

Velazquez’s other priority is creating the family life that was cut tragically short. When he went into Sing Sing, he left behind two young boys. They are now in their late 20s, one living with a girlfriend and the other with Velazquez’s mother, who never stopped believing in her son’s innocence. “I did not get to take my children to a ballgame, I did not get to go to a graduation,” he laments. “It’s going to take time to be a family again, but if there’s one thing I know about, it is time.”

“You have to give back. It’s all about making better choices, which is what I talk about to young people, including my own. Better choices, better lives.” JJ Velazquez