From a young age Reco Williams was a star basketball player.
He made the all-city team in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1989 as a 13-year-old. Two years later, his junior high school team, the McIntyre Hornets, posted a perfect season. Despite the de facto segregation in the local school districts, a majority-white school outside the city badly wanted him to transfer and play for them.
Had his coach not canceled practice one October day in 1992, Reco would have been there, not at the scene of a murder. “I had everything,” he said. “And in a second, your whole life gets turned around.”
For his part in the events that led up to the murder, however small, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison at 17 years old. Reco has been denied parole four times since. Each denial came despite his dedication to staying out of trouble.
He has so few disciplinary write-ups, he said, that it “must be some kind of record.” He has completed a long list of education and trade programs. Still, Alabama’s Parole Board has reset his new parole consideration date four or five years in the future each time it has declined to release him. Five years is the greatest reset time allowed. “I’ve been locked up so long that the only memories I have are as a teenager,” said Reco, now 45.
Many of those memories were made with Tywanna, his childhood friend who would become his girlfriend and eventually his wife. The two married in 2009 while Reco was at Ventress Correctional Facility. As Reco has worked to maintain a stellar record inside prison, Tywanna has worked on the outside. Before the coronavirus pandemic made parole hearings remote, she spoke before the board for her husband when they placed him on the docket.
Reco said he wants to be free in part to show Tywanna gratitude for it all. “I tell her, I want to buy you a house, I want to take care of you. I want to do what a husband is supposed to do for their wife,” he said.
His next chance will be in 2025 at the earliest.
“I’m still being punished like I’m the one who pulled the trigger. And I ain’t did that to nobody. I just was there,” Reco said of the crime. “I got 50 years and it looks like they’re trying to make me do all that time.”
‘You cannot forget about him’
Basketball and other sports dominated Reco’s early life. “I stayed at the Y the majority of the time when I was little,” he said.
But several factors led him to “dallying in street life” in Montgomery. Out-of-state gangs recruited young people in the city in the early 1990s, according to Reco. People in the housing complex where he lived with his mother, Cleveland Court, identified with one gang in particular. Some developed what he described as a “sense of duty” to fight opposing gangs.
At first, Reco didn’t understand it.
“I remember one day when I was in the seventh grade, my momma bought me a red Adidas shirt,” he said. “And I came back in the house with the shirt torn off me. And my momma was like, ‘What happened to your shirt?’ And I was like, ‘You bought me a red shirt. These folks jumped on me because I had a red shirt. They said I was disrespecting them.’
“I was young. I didn’t know about gang stuff at the time. I was just a basketball player.”
Around the time Reco made the junior high all-city team, his mother began using drugs. She would disappear from their home for extended periods. Reco went out looking for her. On those trips he made connections with older teenagers who identified with a gang. “When I got to hanging with them, I started seeing it, and I knew why they jumped on me because I had that shirt on,” he said.
Still, Reco stayed in school and kept playing basketball. Eventually, he went to live with his aunt in a neighborhood called Sunshine Acres. Tywanna lived nearby. The two became inseparable.
On the day of the murder in 1992, Reco and Tywanna had planned to do homework together after his practice. But with practice cancelled, Reco went back to Cleveland Court. He told Tywanna he was headed to the basketball courts near there, she recalled.
After he arrived, he found himself in the middle of a violent rivalry between two other teenagers. On one side was Reco’s friend; on the other side was 16-year-old Juwan Provitt. Threats spread around Cleveland Court and reached a crescendo on a sidewalk in front of a small neighborhood grocery store. That’s where Reco and his friend came face to face with Provitt. Reco stood silently behind his friend in the grocery’s doorway. Suddenly, another teenager approached Provitt from behind and shot him. It was Johnny Williams (no relation to Reco), who had arrived at the scene in the same car with Reco and his friend.
Reco saw the murder by peeking out from the grocery’s doorway into the street, according to court records.
Later that night, Reco arrived at Tywanna’s house shaken. “He was just almost blue in the face,” she recalled.
“And I said, ‘What is wrong?’ He just sat at the table and said, ‘I believe Johnny killed Juwan.’”
Tywanna and her family supported Reco. He was detained and questioned by police. A grand jury indicted him for murder in December 1992. After the trial in October 1993, a jury found him guilty. Reco’s friend had already been found guilty of arranging the killing, and Johnny pleaded guilty to firing the shots that killed Provitt.
Reco went to prison. Tywanna continued supporting him, sending him $20 or $30 per week as she was able.
In 1995, the Montgomery Advertiser published a special edition about gang violence called “A Violent Age: Children in Crisis.” It featured Reco’s story. The newspaper deemed him and his friend “CRIPS in known Bloods territory” on the day of Provitt’s murder. On the same page, a quote from the Montgomery County sheriff at the time reads: “Some of these kids are raised on the streets. They’re not taught any values. They’re taught survival.”
To Tywanna, some of the paper’s coverage about gangs rang true. But she knew differently about Reco and his values. So did her parents. Around the time of the newspaper report, Tywanna spoke with her father about her relationship.
“I remember my dad telling me, ‘I don’t know what to do, I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t tell you to stop your life, but I can tell you this. You cannot forget about him, because this is wrong. Justice was not served. … Whatever you decide to do, whether you want to marry somebody else, don’t forget about him,’” she recalled.
Denied four times
Reco went into Alabama’s prison system as a child. He said he felt he was expected to get in fights, or otherwise face sexual assault. “This ain’t no place for no child. This ain’t no place for no grown man,” he said.
He turned again to basketball to stay out of trouble. Everyone seemed to want the 6-foot-4 star on their teams; Reco would play until he was wiped out in the late afternoon, then turn in to bed early after reading a book. He fought to protect himself only when he had to.
“At 17, I had to go through some stuff in prison, being that young, he said. “I had to make a decision. If I’m going to be a child or I’m going to be a man ... and I made up my mind.”
Tywanna visited often, even when she was too young to come see him on her own and she had to have her mother with her.
“I always said I’ll be with him forever,” Tywanna said. “I love him. I just do.”
The two had always planned to marry each other. But when the parole board denied Reco parole in 2004, they decided it should happen sooner rather than later. “In ’04, she was like, ‘We need to go on and get married. I want to marry you. I don’t need nobody else. I just want to be your wife,’” Reco said.
In January 2009, almost a year before the parole board would consider Reco for a third time, they married.
The parole board denied Reco parole again in 2009, 2015 and 2020. This last time, both Reco and Tywanna said, the board’s flat denial was devastating. The SPLC requested the board’s minutes from the hearing in order to shed light on their reasoning. Board members wrote no comments about why they denied him, but marked boxes indicating they believed “the severity of the present offense is high” and that they received “negative input from stakeholders.” Contrary to Reco’s understanding of his own record, the board members also all indicated they believed he has a “negative institutional conduct record.”
“It feels like somebody knocked you out,” Reco said of being denied again. “It took all the air out of me. It took all the fight out of me because it just like, I can’t ever get a second chance. My second chance ain’t never going to come unless I’m an old man.”
Today, Reco’s ties to his wife and their family remain strong. Unlike other incarcerated people who see their ties to the outside world fray and weaken over time, Reco’s relationships to people outside the prison have strengthened, an important accomplishment for someone who went into prison as a teenager and may not leave until he’s almost 70. Even so, time has taken its toll: Reco’s mother died in June 2020.
He feels there is little more he can do to show the parole board he is ready to be released.
“That kid that I was when I first came to prison, that ain’t none of me. And the record reflects that,” he said. “I ain’t the person that’s on that paper that’s charged with murder. That is not me. That ain’t none of me.
“It just seems like they ain’t going to let me out of prison. And I just feel like my whole life’s been lost.”
Read more about the Freedom Denied series here.
Illustration by Ryan Simpson