Watch CBS News

He escaped the odds and now wants to help those incarcerated at Cook County Jail

Man who served time and 'escaped the odds' seeks to give inmates tools for a turnaround
Man who served time and 'escaped the odds' seeks to give inmates tools for a turnaround 05:37

CHICAGO (CBS) – On any given day, there are approximately 5,000 people detained at the Cook County Department of Corrections. Each of them has a story to tell.

One man is giving inmates a platform to share those stories, while giving them the tools to re-write the next chapter of their lives. CBS 2's Jermont Terry introduced us to the man who "escaped the odds" and is helping others do the same.

No one wants to get locked up at 26th and California.

Terry: "Tim, how old are you, man?"

Tim Canada: "24."

Terry: "How long have you been here in county jail?"

Canada: "Since November, last year."

And since coming to the Cook County Jail for possession of an automatic weapon, so much has changed in Canada's life.

Terry: "You have not been there for good times and bad times your family has been through, all because of decisions potentially you've made?"

Canada: "For sure. My brothers and sisters, they're going through it right now. We just lost my mama."

Terry: "You couldn't be there?"

Canada: "I ain't there."

Instead, Canada and dozens of inmates find themselves in jail chapel, listening to Aaron Smith. Back in 2006, at age 25, Smith found himself indicted for distributing heroin in Chicago.

"At the height of my quote, unquote 'career,' I was probably making $10,000 to $15,000 a day," Smith said. "I had no incentive to get a job -- despite going to college. I got a bachelor's degree from Columbia College."

Smith described how he decided to celebrate on the night of his college graduation.

"After the family went out, guess where I was at," he said. "By 8 o'clock at night, I was back in the projects running a heroin operation."

Smith ran a huge heroin operation at 26th and State streets at the Dearborn Homes. He grew up with his family in the public housing units.

Terry: "You had the means. You had the love in the house. What happened, brother?"

Smith: "When you have access to the streets, it's one thing, right? And a household can be one way. But once you step outside them doors, you got the peer influence. You got your environmental influences, and so that's what it was for me."

Smith added, "I thought I could do one foot in and one foot out. I thought I could beat the system."

Yet, the feds eventually zeroed in. Smith found both hands cuffed with nowhere to run. When the judge handed down the 12-year sentence, he told himself, "I'm going to come out a better man than what I am."

For nearly a decade, Smith worked on his own business plan behind bars. He now runs a successful trucking company and more. CBS 2 caught up with Smith when he was back behind the barbed wire and locks by choice.

"I'm here today in Cook County because I escaped the odds," he said.

Smith is working to make sure the next inmate escapes the odds, which is the name of his media and education platform that started out as a podcast.

"Telling the stories of those formally-incarcerated who are now successful entrepreneurs and now we're expanding like the workshop in Cook County," Smith said.

Smith tries to engage those locked up to "switch the hustle." He walks them through the steps they can take now to make a viable business plan for whenever they get out, and that entails tools to reset their way of thinking and not just being an educated criminal.

"But to actually leave them with something tangible where they can actually see themselves and say, 'You know what? I can do some of these things,'" he said.

To Keyaunna Muhammad, the director of behavioral health programs and services at the Cook County Jail, it makes all the difference.

Terry: "What does it say when speakers like Mr. Smith coming into Cook County Jail saying, 'You have to do more than just repeat the cycle'?"

Muhammad: "I think for them, it might even tug on something internally that they knew. See, this population is very smart. They just don't always use their intelligence to do good things. So someone like Aaron pointing out that fact that you're educated, maybe they've never even heard that before, and you can pivot and you can do something different."

Muhammad invited Smith to speak under the "Sheriff Ani-Violence Effort" program or SAVE. The program started in 2016 to decrease re-offending.

"That hope is instilled when you see someone who looks like you and who's had a similar experience to the one that you had and actually come out on the other side," she said.

Smith believes his story resonated with most inmates and beyond.

"It's a comeback story. People love to hear about someone who escaped the odds, who overcame their situation," he said.

Terry: "To that person who says this appears to be about Aaron making money and profiting from these young men, what do you tell that person?"

Smith: "Well, I'm here in Cook County, and I haven't gotten a dime."

But what Smith is doing is giving back.

"I've been trying to get tips on entrepreneurship for a while in here," Canada said.

And he's getting through to at least one inmate wearing a DOC jumpsuit.

"He inspired me because he's an example of someone who did it, someone who's doing it, who got out the federal penitentiary and wrote out a plan and did what he said he was going to do," Canada said.

Terry: "Do you ever think you'll be back in this facility?"

Canada: "Nope."

Terry: "Why is that now? Why do you believe that?" 

Canada: "I have more discipline and plans, so a lot of things that could lead me back here, I probably won't even be partaking in."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.