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Rapper and actor T.I.'s past encounters with the law are no secret - they're part of his story. That story took on a powerful new chapter Thursday, when he made a holiday visit to the halfway house where he was once in custody.
Dismas Charities is a transitional housing facility in southwest Atlanta where about 200 men and women transitioning from federal institutions spend the last portions of their sentences, ranging from 30 months to a year.
"I myself spent a Christmas here, fresh out of prison," he said. "I know what it feels like to not be able to spend Christmas with your kids."
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His "message to those transitioning back to their communities: "Continue to take it a day at a time. Don't get frustrated for not being able to do too much, too fast. Make sure your tomorrow is better than your yesterday."
T.I. and Dismas director Stephen Ricks greeted each other warmly.
"T.I. was here twice," Ricks said. "He’s walked this building. He’s slept in these dorms. It’s meaningful for someone of his stature to come back."
It was in 2010 that a federal judge - declaring that T.I. "has had about the limit of second chances" - sent T.I. back into custody for violating his probation. U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell Jr. had sentenced Harris to a year and a day in prison on weapons charges resulting from an October 2007 incident when T.I. was arrested for sending a bodyguard to purchase machine guns and silencers.
The unprecedented sentencing deal shaved almost four years off a potential sentence, provided Harris perform 1,000 hours of community service. The service included visits with schoolchildren to speak out against violence, gangs and drugs.
T.I. was still on probation when he was arrested Sept. 1, 2010, in Los Angeles. He and his wife, Tameka "Tiny" Cottle, were taken into custody during a traffic stop in West Hollywood in which deputies said they smelled a strong odor of marijuana from inside the car. They were soon released on bond.
U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said she supported the initial deal and believed T.I. had reached large numbers of youth.
But Yates told Pannell the rapper already had submitted two diluted urine samples before his arrest and initially lied to a probation officer about the five pills of Ecstasy found in his pocket when he was arrested. After his arrest, Harris tested positive for opiates, Yates said. She asked the judge to sentence Harris to two years.
"I screwed up, " T.I. told the court at the time. "I screwed up big time, and I'm sorry. I'm truly and sincerely sorry. I don't want and I don't need to use drugs anymore. I want them out of my life."
Ricks said T.I., or Clifford Harris Jr. as he's properly known, was a low-maintenance inmate who often bought meals for his fellow inmates.
"He was very generous when he was here," Ricks said. "He benefited from being around your everyday average person. It keeps him grounded."
Inmates may come and go under strict guidelines while they're finishing their sentences at Dismas. Each arrangement is different. For example, an inmate may leave the facility to work, but must provide documentation he or she has been on the job site, and are subject to monitoring, spot checks and other measures of accountability.
T.I.'s job site was a recording studio, but he operated under the same ordinances as any other inmate would, Ricks said.
"He was required to follow rules and regulations," he said. "We had no issues with him. He was a very humble resident, very low maintenance. We’ve had state senators, athletes, law enoforcement. They come in feeling very entitled. He was the exact opposite."
T.I.'s day on Thursday was a busy one. Prior to his visit to Dismas he brought gifts to young patients at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Afterward he was scheduled to deliver gifts and assistance to single moms and their kids who live in a nearby community.
"I'm ecstatic to be in a position to give back," he said. "It was awesome to see so many smiles on so many children's faces."
And what will Santa bring him this Christmas?
"Another day," he said with a chuckle. "My health and strength. I'm Santa Claus! Santa Claus don't get nothin' from Santa Claus!"