How incarcerated people are helping at-risk youth avoid prison

By sharing our lived experiences, I have seen how incarcerated people can stop the pipeline funneling troubled teens to prison.

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

In many inner cities and suburbs across America our youth are losing their way, as they drop out of school and start hanging in the streets with the wrong crowd. These teens are drawn to negative influences and lose interest in their academics. They become bored with the idea of learning and obtaining an education and more inclined with chasing an illusion that’s bound to lead them down a dark and destructive path — one that is too often a dead-end-road to prison.

So, how can everyone collectively help break the cycle impacting at-risk youth? I’ve witnessed a solution: Help youth set themselves on a better path by learning from incarcerated people. After all, who knows the trials of a troubled teen better than someone who has actually experienced firsthand the ramifications of a system designed to ensnare them?

I first saw how effective this solution could be with the Youth Deterrent Program at the Ryan Correctional Facility in Detroit, which I co-founded with 11 other lifers in 2008. After our proposal was accepted by Michigan’s then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, we accepted teens from around the state who were at-risk, in some instances facing serious charges and hard time in prison.

We taught the teens about the consequences of the choices they make and shared our own lived experiences. I wrote dilemma tales (short stories with a dilemma at the end), where we asked each youth to tell us what they would do if placed in the same position as those in the story. That would get the teens engaged and comfortable enough to talk about how factors including neglect, abuse, untreated traumatic experiences and bad influences contributed to them getting into trouble.

Many of the youth shared how they experienced years of physical and sexual abuse and lived with drug-addicted parents who seemed not to care about their wellbeing. These conversations were heavy, peeling back layers of hidden pain and hurt.

At the beginning of a session, most of the youth were disinterested in what we were offering. They tried to act all hard, demonstrating arrogance and cockiness, and simply did not take the program seriously. But through conversation and exercises, we were able to get the youth fully engaged and open to the idea of making a change in their lives. When it was time for the youth to leave, staff would have to nearly drag them out of the visiting room. Some of them would be crying at the end of our five-hour, monthly sessions. That’s how powerful of a connection we built with almost every single youth we encountered.

Over the next 11 years, the Youth Deterrent Program spoke to thousands of at-risk teens about the cost of going down negative and destructive paths. “I thought this would be garbage,” said one 17-year-old, who had sold drugs but vowed to stop after the program. “I tuned them out at first, but when I saw that they were serious, I started to pay attention. I’m not interested in dying or going to prison.” In part because of the program, youth were able to enroll into different schools, receive scholarships for college and go to Job Corps.

The program ended at the Ryan Correctional Facility in early 2020 when the facility closed. However, two versions of the program are still running, at the Saginaw Correctional Facility and the Brooks Correctional Facility. Both are still seeing success. I’m also pushing for its expansion at Chippewa Correctional Facility. I’ve advocated for it in writing to Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and Warden James Corrigan is scheduled to visit the program firsthand at the Saginaw facility.

After the program ended at the Ryan Correctional Facility, I worked with two other incarcerated individuals in Michigan’s prison system, LeRoy Washington and Quentin Jones, to propose a program called: Thinking * Attitude * Behavior – Modification Initiative, or TAB-MI. The idea was born from a piece I wrote on the topic for a website for troubled at-risk teens. With the TAB-MI proposal, we were able to come up with some viable solutions that could help curb youth from making bad choices. It can help with solutions first by recognizing that youth crime and violence is rising, with school shootings at an all-time high.

The Youth Deterrent Program focused on storytelling, but TAB-MI will go beyond stories to focus more directly on changing the individual’s thinking and re-shaping their behavior. TAB-MI seeks to be a transformative early intervention solution: a dynamic partnering between members of the community, including formerly incarcerated individuals and local leaders who work with at-risk youth, like Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield. The goal will be to teach the concepts of self-worth, loving others, personal responsibility, humility, discipline, commitment and compassion — all before dysfunctional and counterproductive behaviors are learned.

At its most basic level, TAB-MI will allow participants to reconsider their own thinking, attitudes and behaviors through deep conversations. The program would encourage participants to place their own life experiences in a broader framework, to help them recognize how to change society by actively changing themselves first. But in my experience, I’ve also seen how these exchanges offer far more understanding. In group discussions, countless life lessons and realizations can surface about how we, as human beings, function.

It is the power and reciprocity of this exchange that will make the TAB-MI experience unique. The contact would occur in the groups, the depth of the discussions involved, the collaborative nature of problem-solving and engagement, and together we will create a dynamic that has the ability to change lives. By understanding the self, others, the issues and the world, participants will undergo a conscious transformation and begin to see their potential as agents of change.

With the growing problems that at-risk youth are facing, TAB-MI needs to be supported, funded and allowed within the Michigan Department of Corrections, so that we can put in the real work to break this cycle. Our efforts were largely stalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but when I am released on parole later this year, I plan to focus on TAB-MI both by reaching back inside to work with my original team of lifers and by partnering with Detroit City Council members who work with at-risk youth.

Contrary to the overarching negative views society holds towards the incarcerated, there are men serving time behind bars who are moral assets to society. Refusing to be defined by our past indiscretions, bad choices and mistakes, we have bettered ourselves under the most adverse conditions. We know quite well what it takes to change distorted thinking, bad attitudes and risky behaviors. We have lived the lifestyles, dealt with the consequences of our actions and felt the pain associated with decades of incarceration in the belly of the beast, and we are well-suited to help others avoid the same mistakes.

The same concept is applied in the drug counseling industry, where former addicts are used as recovery coaches and counselors to help current addicts understand the journey of maintaining sobriety and getting their lives back on track. Thus, through programs like TAB-MI, we will get a chance to impart guidance, knowledge, life and behavioral skills to young people to help them get and stay on the right path.

This is how we begin to make a meaningful difference and help change the current state of our young people who are falling into the traps of the streets and the consequences thereafter. By using our lived experiences and ability to relate to the dark paths and bad choices of a troubled at-risk youth, incarcerated facilitators can help steer thousands of at-risk teens to stay out of trouble and strive to remain on a pathway that can yield positive and successful outcomes.

Most, if not all of us, are serving life sentences as a result of not having fathers, mentors, positive male figures or a program like Youth Deterrent and TAB-MI at our disposal. If we had such programs readily available, we could have found our way to a different outcome. I personally know I would’ve greatly benefited.

I know that this can work because I’ve been able to work with others to create, found and actively participate in these life-altering programs. Incarcerated individuals who have been about that life, indulged in all sorts of criminal activities, been given death-by-incarceration life sentences and served decades behind bars, now wish to make significant contributions in the lives of someone who we can see ourselves in. We know better than most what it takes to help break the cycle which is ensnaring and impacting so many of our young people.

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