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Cijie Potts sits on a sofa in the small home she rents on Fort Avenue and tells me, no, she never thinks about using meth.
Instead, she thinks about her 9-month-old grandson Xavier.
The bond between Potts and her three children was broken in January 2015 when she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking. The children eventually were placed with the Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services.
From Day One in prison, Potts had one goal: to reconnect with them.
She served almost seven years and was released in November. In May, she started a new career in construction.
Potts, 36, looks to the promising road ahead rather than the torturous one behind.
She gets to see that baby daily. Her daughter Kelsey lives nearby.
She is allowed to have her 16-year-old Isaiah live with her. He recently moved in.
Her daughter Ashlyn, 14, was adopted while Potts was in prison. “At first I was devastated because that is my baby,” she says.
But the girl is doing well in high school, Potts says. She is a cheerleader and athlete and Potts says they are building a relationship with the support of the single woman who adopted the girl.
“Things are going great,” she tells me. “I have a car. I have a house. I have a job.”
COLUMN CONTINUES BELOW:
She makes close to $24 an hour working construction. She is a member of Heavy Construction Laborers Local 663.
She found the job through the five-week Missouri Apprentice Ready program, overseen by the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor unions in the United States.
Austin Fox, who runs the program in Springfield, said the objective is to find jobs in construction for minorities, women and veterans.
“She is knocking it out of the park,” says Derick Barnes, business agent for Local 663.
Her motivation and focus are off the charts, he says.
“When she came through the Laborers, the first time I ever saw her I said, ‘We could have hired her on Day 1.”
But first there was that five-week program. As expected, Potts completed it. She went to her first job site two days later.
Yes, Barnes says, it’s physical work. It involves digging trenches, unloading building materials, preparing job sites, tearing down dry wall, demolishing buildings.
Potts is 5-foot-4 and 145 pounds.
“I would not fight Cijie,” says Barnes, who likens her biceps to those of Rosie the Riveter.
Barnes took a photo of Potts flexing her right bicep as she stands in front of the Rosie mural on West College Street.
A felony conviction should not bar a second-chance career, he says.
“If it wasn’t for felons, we wouldn’t have a good number of the people in our work force,” he says.
A high-school dropout with a baby at 17
Potts tells me her mom chose the name “Cijie” because it was the name of a character on “Knots Landing,” a prime-time TV soap opera that aired from 1979 to 1993.
She says it was not difficult to agree to tell me her story publicly.
“I have been trying to get my story out. So many women come out of prison and there are so many roadblocks being a felon.
“I want other women to know that if I can get out and do it, they can, too.”
Cijie Harvill dropped out of Pierce City High at 17. She was pregnant with Kelsey and ran away from home. She went to Branson with her boyfriend, whom she later married. He is the father of their three children.
They divorced and she no longer communicates with him. He also has spent time in prison.
She was with him during the pulse-pounding event that led to her conviction and prison term.
They were using meth in a car he was driving, she says, but she did not know the car was stolen.
When police tried to pull the car over, he fled, leading to a high-speed chase on Interstate 44, she says. He attempted to exit at Mt. Vernon but lost control and the car went off pavement and into grass, stopping near a culvert.
“He ran, so I ran. Monkey-see, monkey-do. I tripped and fell.”
They were caught. Enough meth was in the car to warrant a drug-trafficking charge.
She entered a negotiated plea and was sentenced to 10 years.
Within her first year at the Chillicothe Correctional Center, she earned the equivalent of a high school diploma.
Drugs were available in prison, she says, but she did not use.
She had dental work done while an inmate; she had lost teeth due to meth use.
“I was high all the time,” she says. “When I think about it, it is disgusting.”
She quickly noticed something about prison life.
“You see people leave every day and they are back in six months to a year. And the reason they are back is because they can’t stay away from the drugs.
“I did not get in any trouble. I did all of my programs. I did what I was supposed to do while I was in prison.”
As a result, she qualified for work-release. She went out on crews with other prisoners to work for the city of Chillicothe, the parks department, the Missouri Department of Transportation.
She helped, for example, put up the city’s Christmas lights.
“I learned how to work a chainsaw,” she says.
In addition, she worked on state-owned vehicles, rotating tires and changing oil.
She helped trained dogs from the local animal shelter to improve their chances of adoption.
She started weight lifting, not because she feared attack but because it gave her something to do.
“You are away from your kids. You are away from your family. The count (of inmates) is so annoying. You share a room with three other people. It was horrible. But I made the best out of it.”
‘That first day, I was dead. I was so tired’
Potts leads a Spartan life focused on what she feared she might have lost forever: her children.
She typically is up at 4 a.m. lifting weights in her bedroom. She’s out the door by 5 a.m. and back home by about 4:30 p.m. and in bed at 8 p.m.
She has worked consistently since May for construction contractor DeWitt & Associates, based in Springfield.
“That first day, I was dead. I was so tired.”
Thus far, she says, she has been the only female Laborer where she’s worked, although she has seen a female electrician and a female dry-waller.
One-by-one, she has checked off each goal for her new life.
The job. A car. A place of her own.
And most importantly, reconnecting with her children.
“I have missed so much time with them already.”
This is Pokin Around column No. 52.