CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WJZY) – Three family members who were former gang members shared their story of redemption and a second chance with FOX 46. Behind bars, they changed not just their lives, but the lives of many others.

“The neighborhood I grew up in off Beatties Ford Road, all we had was winos and liquor houses and drugs,” said Eric Whitener.

It was the late 80s in the middle of the crack cocaine epidemic.

“You look back and you see how you participated in the destruction of your own community,” said Whitener.

Whitener and his cousins, brothers Cecil and Orrin Jackson, freely admit what they did.

Court records describe the men who were in their late teens and early 20s at the time as “a violent street gang that distributed drugs, shot people, intimidated citizens and tried to bribe a juror.”

“We just got caught up in this culture, selling drugs, committing violent acts because that was the nature of the game,” said Cecil Jackson, Whitener’s cousin.

But it wasn’t a game to the federal government. It was a “war on drugs.”

“I look at the mothers of these young guys who were crack babies whose mothers was addicted. We participated in that. The struggles that they have right now stems back to that era for a lot of these guys,” said Whitener.

The men were convicted on drug and weapons charges and sent to prison, never expecting to get out.

“Our sentences were death sentences because I had life, plus 105 years,” said Whitener.

But from the moment they went in, they knew they had to get out.

“All the different languages and voices we were hearing I asked myself, ‘What in the world have you gotten yourself into?’ So I knew this was not a place that I wanted to live,” said Orrin Jackson.

They set their minds on going home, all three earning their GEDs behind prison walls.

“That started my journey of reading. I became an avid reader in prison,” said Whitener.

And they had lots of time to think.

“That self-accusing spirit kicks in and you start to regret the things that you did in the past, you do want to reach out to people that you hurt, that you harmed and try to atone for that,” said Whitener.

The brothers and cousin went from terrorizing people on the streets to teaching them in prison, mentoring inmates and helping them earn their GEDs.

Orrin Jackson was part of a suicide watch team, convincing fellow prisoners not to take their own lives.

A former Bureau of Prisons employee wrote about Orrin while he was in prison saying, “I believe he is ready for another chance.”

On June 8, after 31 years in prison, all three men were released.

It literally took an act of Congress to make that happen. The men petitioned the court, and a judge gave them a second chance.

“We’re going to show that redemption is real, people can change and go on and do great things,” said Cecil Jackson.

The crack babies they victimized are all grown up now.

“They need someone who understands where they are at right now, who can speak the language they are speaking right now, but at the same time show them a better way,” said Orrin Jackson.

Life doesn’t always mean life. It all depends on what you do with the time you’re given.