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Thursday, April 12, 2018 12:28 am

From pot to prison to politics

Parolee aims high

Accepted by the University of Illinois and waiting to hear from Harvard, Jason Spyres doesn’t figure on making pizzas for much longer.
Photo by Bruce Rushton

 

The last felon-turned-angel story I wrote did not end well.

It concerned a meth cook returned to prison after nearly two years of freedom and gainful employment, on the grounds that he hadn’t been eligible for early release. A parole officer had written a letter praising him as a model for others. After the story ran, he got out and shot a Mattoon bartender in the head before dying in a shootout with police.

Jason Spyres swears he’s not that guy. “There’s so much I want to accomplish in my life right now,” he says. He’s been busy.

If you read letters-to-the-editor sections, Spyres’ name might sound familiar. For years, he wrote to newspapers across the state from his cell, pointing out the silliness of marijuana laws that, in his case, resulted in a 30-year sentence for selling pot. His mother was the connection who shipped him 38 pounds. He was suspected of methamphetamine offenses but never charged. A jury acquitted him of possessing a pipe bomb. A 2010 clemency bid didn’t pan – a retired guard testified on his behalf, the prosecutor who sent him to prison said keep him locked up – and Spyres was put on work release in 2016 after 14 years of being locked up.


These days, Spyres mixes easily with customers at Goldie’s Pizza and Slots in Peoria, calling regulars by name and asking how their luck’s been on video gaming terminals. The place was full on a recent Friday afternoon, and it wasn’t an anomaly. Gambling revenue alone has grown fivefold since 2016, and Sean Kenny, the owner, credits Spyres, the manager.

“That dude is one of the most exceptional people I’ve ever come across in my life,” Kenny says. “All the customers love him. He’s the face of that business – it’s not me, it’s him. He really gives a damn about the place, and that’s what made it successful. It was teetering on the edge when he came around.”

Kenny found Spyres at Peoria work release center. He’d hired felons before, with some working out, some not and most bailing once they got off work release. Spyres, now on parole, stuck and worked his way up. Customers still rib him about the bicycle he rode to work before he could afford a car. It was a 10-mile trip each way. “The last mile is a giant hill that nobody would ride up on a bicycle,” Kenny says. “Every day he would pedal that thing, even in the snow, just to get to work.”

When he wasn’t working, Spyres was studying. “He’s doing all these equations, advanced geometry and calculus and stuff – he’s like the Good Will Hunting of prison,” says Kenny, recalling occasional glances at Spyres’ notebooks. For two years, Spyres has maintained a 4.0 GPA at Illinois Central College, tackling such subjects as physics and organic chemistry. He’s been accepted by the University of Illinois, where he plans to study engineering if he doesn’t get into Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia or Stanford, where he has pending applications. He likes his chances. “I like to think I’ve got that overcoming-things ‘wow’ factor,” he says.

Macon County is going after Spyres for more than $268,000 in fines and late payment penalties, but his smile is looking up, thanks to John Schuler, a Peoria orthodontist who has provided braces at no charge. “He had a pretty compelling story,” recalls Schuler of the day Spyres, referred by a colleague, walked into his office. “Every so often, you find a stray cat and you go, ‘That’s a nice cat, and I’m going to keep it.’ He definitely needed dental care – if you had prison dental care for as long as he did, it’s just patch and pull.” Schuler pegs the sticker price at $5,800. Spyres was shocked when he found out his teeth would be fixed for free. “I was sobbing and couldn’t get a word out straight,” he remembers.

While in prison, Spyres developed an interest in the Libertarian Party. He’s now director of field operations for Grayson “Kash” Jackson, the party’s nominee for governor. On the surface, it’s a mixed marriage, with Jackson, a Navy veteran, putting faith in a felon who spent 14 years not being able to vote. Spyres says that Jackson wasn’t his first choice to be the party’s standard bearer, but he nonetheless congratulated the nominee at the close of the party convention. Jackson called shortly afterward, he says, asking for his help.

“He’s very smart, he’s very passionate,” Jackson says. “He has a relentless desire to change things. I admire that tremendously.”

Spyres hasn’t needed instructions. He didn’t alert the candidate before arranging an appearance on “Capitol Connection,” a weekly program on state government that airs on WCIA television. The segment lasted 14 minutes, a coup for any third-party candidate with little money or name recognition.

“Some people might get upset – the communications director should have handled that or something,” Jackson allows. “Here’s what I’ve learned about people: When you kind of take the reins off people and see how they can do, you’d be surprised at what people might be capable of.”

Kenny sees inspiration. “There’s a lot to learn from Jason, who’s been through so much,” he says. “He got arrested when he was 19, and I might have been doing some of the same stupid stuff he was doing.” Though he’d lose the best felon he ever hired, he’s hoping that Spyres soon moves on to college.

“I’ve never seen anyone work so hard,” he says.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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