The Wind-Up Effect
Kali Williams

“If I could be in five places at one time, I would like to do that,” says Kali.
And it’s true. At one point post-release, Kali was holding down three part time
jobs at once, volunteering as a trainer for Alternatives to Violence (AVP),
attending job skill trainings, and courting his soon-to-be wife.
“[I was] trying to find a good job and willing to do any job that I could
perform well at,” he explains.
Perhaps it is a way to make up for lost time. Think of a wind-up car: the
longer you twist the spring mechanism, the quicker the toy will shoot from your
fingers once you release. For Kali, his twenty-eight years behind bars became an
opportunity to “wind up” for life on the outside. Once he was released, he bolted
toward every opportunity that presented itself.
Kali met his wife shortly after returning from prison, and they married each
other a few months later. Eventually he transitioned from multiple part time jobs
to a full time food packaging job, which he works six days a week starting at 5:30
in the morning. Working on an assembly line is physically demanding. There is
one pasta product that Kali refers to as “little gremlins” because the pieces come
out so quickly and relentlessly that the line must package 90 bags on the minute.
While Kali’s go-getter attitude has opened many doors for him, saying
‘yes’ to every opportunity can catch up with a person. “Sometimes I gotta, you
know, slow down,” Kali admits. He tries to keep his priorities in perspective – his
faith, for one.
“It’s all about God,” he says. “My biggest challenge has been just staying
faithful to God…just to stay in his word and try to be obedient to that. If anything
is a challenge, that is a challenge.”
Faith was a main motivator in confinement, too. “When I look back on
when I started really trying to tell myself I needed to do better now that I know
better, I always tried to keep my mind on this, that I knew I would get out one
day, or just hoped I would, [and] put myself in the position to have the opportunity
to get out,” Kali explains. “And that was all by the grace of God.”
And that is the start of Kali’s ‘wind-up’: nearly three decades in the
confines of New York State prisons. How did he utilize time, his most ample
When Kali began his sentence, he could not read or write. He came to the
realization that if he wanted to be successful on the outside, he needed
employment within prison, and for that to happen, he needed to get his GED.
“Being around a lot of my friends that, you know, we used to be in class
together, and then you see them going on and getting their GED, and you’re like,
‘Oh, I could get mine. I’m just as smart as them.’” Kali took the test a few times
before passing, but afterward he was able to become a mobility aid for blind
inmates. He helped them set up their cells and lockers in ways that would allow
them to be self-sufficient and easily locate their belongings. Since his job entailed
living on a gallery with people who were deaf, Kali was inspired to learn sign
language. Later on, he collaborated with the Alternatives to Violence Program to
develop a tailored workshop that was accessible to deaf participants.
Along with being a mobility aid, he was also a Hospice aid, porter, and
sign language interpreter. He also volunteered with processing visitor passes and
worked in transition services.
“When you think about it…I was prepared to come out and have three
jobs,” he remarks with a smile. Kali encountered many fellow inmates who had
left prison and returned shortly after their release. He describes his conversations
with returnees with a dose of skepticism. “The first thing they tell you: ‘Oh, I
couldn’t find a job. I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that.’ I’m like, yea? Okay. Now,
with me on this side, I’m like, you serious? How much did you really want to
work?” (Of course, everyone has their own unique experiences with reentry.)
In 2014, Kali was up for parole. He had spent ten years on honor block by
that point. He was one of few inmates managing multiple responsibilities in
special access areas of the prison, and he had spent over 15 years working with
AVP. He hadn’t received a “ticket” (a disciplinary write-up) since 1999. He was
confident that all of these facts would work in his favor. Instead, his faith was put
to the test. The parole board did not allow his release but ordered his transfer to
Shawangunk Correctional, another maximum security facility downstate.
Kali believes that his past had come back to haunt him in his parole
hearing. In the early 90s, he was transferred to a supermax facility (a facility
designed for mass solitary confinement), and a week after his arrival, a riot
occurred on his block. He spent four years in solitary for being present during the
riot. Decades later during Kali’s parole hearing, this event was not forgotten.
Once in Shawangunk, Kali was not offered the same programming, such
as AVP, or work opportunities as he found in his previous facility, Wende
Correctional. If one looks at Wende as the physical and educational test for Kali’s
life on the outside, Shawangunk was the spiritual test.
“I used to worry a lot,” he says. He primarily occupied two places in the
new prison: church and the law library. He arduously prepared for his next parole
hearing, but he was also leaning on his religious faith to carry him through.
“Going through that time, my faith, you know, God was real right there. To me,
He said, ‘I had you. I had you. I got you…All you gotta do now is do what you
said you was going to do: be faithful to me.’”
Two years passed this way, and he finally received the parole decision he
was waiting for.
The wind-up and the release.