The Unusual Redemption Story of the Man Who Gives Voice to Philly’s Waterfront

January 31, 2020

 

Layla A Jones - January 26, 2020

 

Do a search for Darnell Schoolfield and the first page of Google will be filled with reports detailing his high-profile arrest.

 

That was nearly a decade ago. You have to scroll down to find out what he’s up to now.

 

As digital content creator at the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, Schoolfield is the voice, and often the face, behind several of Philly’s most happening outdoor spaces. Enjoy updates from Spruce Street Harbor Park and Cherry Street Pier? Darnell is the one bringing them to life.

 

“My journey is crazy,” Schoolfield said last week, sitting in the United by Blue coffee shop at 2nd and Race. “I can’t even put it into words because it was just, like, so surreal.”

 

With no college degree, the 28-year-old holds a job that might often require one. As someone convicted of a felony, Schoolfield was rejected from a similar position at another company because of his criminal record.

 

At heart, he’s a writer, Schoolfield said.

 

After graduation, the Wynnefield native went to Cheyney University to study communications. He left after a year, overwhelmed by the expense and the 30-mile-each-way commute.

 

“I felt kind of discouraged because not only was I paying out of pocket [for school], I was still working,” Schoolfield said. He’d catch an hour-and-a-half-long bus from Cheyney to 69th Street, where he worked at a cell phone store, then take another bus out to King of Prussia Mall for a second job.

 

His love for music and writing pursuits hummed in the background. At 20, he launched a music blog, where he’d compose opinion pieces about world happenings in hip-hop.

 

Something else simmered in the background, too: Schoolfield’s hot temperament. At age 21, it helped earn him a 3-year prison stint at SCI Camp Hill.

 

Schoolfield stabbed a customer inside the T-Mobile store where he worked on Nov. 13, 2012.

 

The details of the incident are well documented in the unforgiving annals of the internet. While interacting with a customer who came into the 69th Street store to dispute a bill, a conversation turned into an argument, which became a physical altercation that spilled outside the store. During the tussle, Schoolfield stabbed the 59-year-old.

 

“Get into a fight and not only taking it to the level of a fight, but actually, you know, taking it outside the lines,” Schoolfield recalled of the 2012 altercation. “It changed my entire life.”

 

Charged with attempted murder, Schoolfield was locked up on $1 million cash bail and began the trek through Philadelphia’s criminal justice system.

 

He was initially sentenced to one year with time served for pleading guilty to aggravated assault. But the assistant district attorney working the case appealed to have Schoolfield’s sentence reconsidered.

 

Without presenting new evidence, the prosecutor was able to get the judge to agree that the man on trial deserved 3 to 10 years behind bars. He served only three.

 

“I went into it with a thought like, ‘Yo, I’m never coming home,'” Schoolfield remembered of his decade-long sentence. “But I just felt like okay, this is supposed to happen. I had to take on that because I did what I did, and I had no excuse for it. I wasn’t glorifying it, and I know what I did was wrong.”

 

Back then, it was rare for someone to serve the low-end of their sentence, Schoolfield said.

 

In 2012, the city jails’ pervasive overcrowding triggered a lawsuit. They were designed to hold 6,500 people, but at the time, the population was more than 9,400. At the same time, nearly 51,000 people were incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons.

 

Philadelphia officials in 2015 started taking steps to cut the city’s jail population in half, and have received millions in grants through the MacArthur Foundation to fund the efforts. As of November 2019, the population had been slashed to just under 4,800. State prisons have seen less of a drop, with a population of close to 46k at the end of last year.

 

“It’s very difficult to go out in the middle of a sentence,” Schoolfield said of his experience behind bars.

 

But in the midst of an overcrowded prison, his calling still hummed in the background.

 

“During that time, I literally just dedicated myself to learning and reading so much,” Schoolfield said. “I focused on writing. I’ve never stopped writing.”

 

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