A Florida man who served two decades in prison for non-violent drug offenses is now working to keep young people in his community from following in his footsteps.
Hassan Hills, 42, of Pensacola, Florida, has begun a nonprofit called Youths Left Behind designed to support young people whose parents have been incarcerated.
"Out of all of the thousands of people in federal prison, I made it out," Hills said, "and I always told myself that if I ever got out, I will come back to the communities that I once destroyed and try to build them from within by working with our young people."
Hills says he knows how to help them because he was once among them.
"I myself was in the juvenile facility growing up, and when I went there, I saw the eyes of the children, the need for some mentorship," Hills said.
Hills' mom served time in a New Jersey prison for crack cocaine. When she was released and moved Hills and his siblings to Pensacola for a fresh start, Hills began selling drugs on his own to help his mother stay afloat.
"I had to do what I had to do in order to put food on the table and provide for me and my family," he said, according to Colin Warren-Hicks of the Pensacola News Journal. "What started off as just something to provide for my family led to a heart of greed, and I got addicted ... What most people don't understand is that it's an addiction. The money, the fame, the adrenaline that you get, it's an addiction."
In late 2001 when he was 20, after two felony convictions as a juvenile, Hills was found guilty of federal drug trafficking charges and sentenced to life in prison. Things looked bleak.
However, Hills was one of 330 prisoners who had their sentences commuted by former President Barack Obama before he left office. Then, when former President Donald Trump signed revisions to the Fair Sentencing Act, Hills qualified and applied for reduced sentencing.
His motion for early release was granted, and Hills was released on Feb. 5, 2021.
Shortly after his release, Hills reached out to the man who once worked hard to put him away: former police officer and current Escambia County Sheriff Chip Simmons. Hills wanted Simmons' help in establishing a mentorship problem for at-risk kids.
"He feels like he owes the community a debt, and he has set out to repay that debt," Simmons said. "I'm glad to be able to help him in any way that I can, and I'm just super proud of him."
Hills now spends much of his time volunteering at places like AMIkids Pensacola – Escambia Boys Base and the Academy of Growth and Development, meeting with mainly teenage boys who need strong guidance.
Together, he and Simmons often speak about the evils of drug trafficking and the importance of making good choices for the future.
"Our objective at Youths Left Behind is to aid and assist youth who've been affected by a parent, guardian or loved one caught up in the system of mass incarceration, drug addiction and to provide comprehensive mentorship," Hills said.
"People really listen whenever he speaks," Simmons said.