“I wanted help, but I didn’t know how to ask for it. So I asked in the wrong way, and I took somebody’s life”
Davon McNeil was sitting at a weekly meeting of the African Heritage Coalition in a Mass state prison when he looked at his comrades and thought: What would happen if I could get them to share their experience as prisoners in a book to educate youth about the real horrors of prison?
That thought eventually gave life to the book, The Streets Lied and We Believed, as well as to the nonprofit Not on My Watch Mentoring. Now, McNeil meets every weekend with 10 young Bostonians to guide and mentor them in the hope that they never spend one day in prison or carry a gun.
As a general mission, McNeil says he has made his life’s purpose to educate kids about how to handle and navigate complex emotions.
“Because of misdirected anger,” he says, “and so much pain in my heart from being young, I selfishly—because of an argument—put on my gun, fired, shot a man, and took his life. Even after that, I did not think about the consequences.”
McNeil had a complicated life from the beginning. He was born premature to a 16-year-old mother who was addicted to drugs and a father who spent most of his adult life in prison. In his household, he says his aunts normalized drugs and criminality.
“My street career and my introduction to street life did not start in the streets,” McNeil recalls. “The very people who were responsible for my love, for my care, for my nurturing, and nourishment were the very people who introduced me to the streets.”
At nine years old, his aunt got him high for the first time. By 12, McNeil was selling drugs. Initially, he says that he took on the illegal job to help his mother pay the bills and medical expenses, but in a short time he says he himself became hooked on the lifestyle that came with dealing. Everything else was secondary, including his daughters.
“When I took on being a drug dealer at 12 years old, I wasn’t outside playing with toys or riding bikes, I was outside selling drugs and carrying guns,” he says. “Most of my friends were doing the same exact thing. There wasn’t really a choice about how to live another lifestyle. This was the only lifestyle I knew how to live.”
On July 19, 2000, McNeil shot and killed Bruce Montrond in Brockton. He was later sentenced to serve a mandatory life sentence with a chance of parole after 15 years. McNeil wound up serving 20 years, after being denied his first shot at conditional release.
“Did I think about going to jail, that I wanted to go to jail?” he asks. “No, but being mature, being grown, I have to admit that my life was so destructive. I wanted help, but I didn’t know how to ask for it. So I asked in the wrong way, and I took somebody’s life.”
During his first seven years of incarceration, McNeil says he had little desire to change, even turning prison into the streets. Many of his friends, from elementary to high school, were serving time with him, and together they gambled, smoked, and made money through different illicit means. It wasn’t until one of his friends was sentenced to more time behind bars, for the possession of drugs and a knife, that McNeil realized he needed to change if he wanted a shot at his freedom. The death of his grandmother also drove him to continue pursuing his goal; during a visit four months before her passing, McNeil promised her that when he left prison, he’d be a different person from the one who entered.
From there, he joined different programs, like AHC and Project Youth, where he discovered the impact that just sharing stories has, and McNeil over time formed a proposal for a nonprofit to keep at-risk youth out of jail.
“I had this burning desire to save all these young Black, Latino, and brown men that come into these prison houses without knowing that they would be spending the rest of their natural life in prison … a very unnatural, hostile, aggressive, miserable environment,” he says.
At first, McNeil says his proposals were rejected by other organizations, but he was prepared to have doors shut in his face. But around 2019, when his parole was approved, he started making headway on the nonprofit as well. In 2021, he officially established Not on My Watch Mentoring to educate young people about violence through workshops and counseling, as well as fun activities like bike riding to keep them away from crime.
McNeil also published From Negative to Positive, which he says is written for people who are suffering. In it, he shares his story in a raw and truthful way, including how he plans to one day expand his nonprofit to include a youth center. Eventually, he hopes to gain the forgiveness of Montrond’s mother.
“She’s the main reason why I do the work with the youth,” he says. “I need her to understand that on that fateful day I wasn’t in my right state of mind, and now I am.”
Coralys is a Puerto Rican journalism graduate student. Currently, she studies at Boston University and interns at DigBoston. In the past, she collaborated with the online newspaper Pulso Estudiantil, the radio program Miss Mundo Contigo, and WIPR.