Programs Created or Run by the Men in Prison to Benefit the Outside Community
Many men in OSP have a strong desire to give back to the larger community that they may have harmed. They often feel particular affinity for disadvantaged, at-risk, or troubled youth and they have created a number of programs to offer advice and/or material goods to vulnerable youth in the community.
Youth Empowerment Programs and Speaking Panels
Three of the prisoner-led clubs sponsor speaking panels that bring youth into the prison to share conversations and receive advice from the men inside. Club leaders reach out to community organizations including schools, churches, after-school programs, and parents who are looking for advice and help, and they invite them to bring youth to their monthly speaking panels. Two of the panels focus on culturally specific issues and youth; one group focuses on Native American youth, and another reaches out to Latino youth. The Lifers’ Unlimited Club sponsors The RISE UP! youth empowerment program, and both Trevor and James are members and leaders of that group. James explains the potential of such groups and the youth speaking panels they host:
The youth empowerment programs in this prison, though few in number, reach a significant number of youth in the surrounding communities. A message of hope is always the main theme when talking to youth during our small group sessions. No matter the struggles they’re currently going through, no matter the troubles they’ve already started to accumulate, we relay to them that there’s always the chance to stop and start over with wise decision making. It’s possible, and we talk with them about attainable goal setting so that they can see the clear fruit of their efforts. It’s always amazing to start with a group of shy, quiet, and reserved youth and then be able to see them open up and talk openly about the pains they’re holding inside in a matter of an hour or two. I think they realize that the prisoners involved in these programs truly care about their futures and that they find comfort in knowing they can be honest without fear of being judged. That’s huge.
The small number of men who take part in the RISE UP! program do so knowing the only payback they’ll get is the satisfaction that comes from knowing they may have helped change a youth’s life for the better. The wisdom that we share with these youth is different than what parents, teachers, counselors, or others in the community can offer, in large part because they seem to respect us for the sheer fact that we’ve been there and done it. They listen to us attentively, they ask questions in our small group sessions, and when we turn the questioning around and get them to understand that poor choices can land anyone in prison, they can’t argue against that because they’re sitting with men who’ve done decades in prison. Men who received life sentences as juveniles and were younger than a lot of them are now. When their eyes get big after hearing how long some of us have been incarcerated, when we describe with honesty the shame and remorse we feel, or when their eyes well up with tears as their own realities become clear, progress can begin to be made with these youth. The most important thing to remember, and a line that I really enjoy hearing Trevor, our Lifers’ club president, say is that we should never give up on someone because no matter how far gone or how disruptive they may seem, at the end of the day who are we to say when that person will become something of value?
Trevor offers his perspective on the youth empowerment programs, the motivation for men in prison to participate, and the potential impact of this volunteer service:
If you look at almost all of the Youth Speaking Panels, the majority of those involved are serving long prison sentences. Most participants are Lifers, just looking for another way to give back, to have an impact, to contribute. We share a deep-seated desire to prevent others from making some of the same poor decisions that we made, ultimately leading us to prison. However, it isn’t necessarily the prison experience that so drives us to make these efforts,
I think there is a strong desire to do these things because we know how devastating the effects are to everyone involved. We come to realize that our victims encompass not just those the criminal system labels as such, but every single person we engage with as a result of our crime. Judges, lawyers, police, detectives, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, neighbors, family members, communities, correctional officers, pen pals, cellies (cell-mates), the list goes on and on! As we realize these things we are forced to recognize our duty to make amends to whatever degree possible, unsuccessful as they may be at complete restoration, maybe it’s even at times less than partial restoration, regardless we have to make that attempt. The old adage, “once you know, you owe” drives me at least daily!
Finally, James gives a first-hand account of what he is thinking and hoping for each night he participates in a youth speaking panel:
During the nights we speak to youth I always go out there hoping to make a difference in the life of a youth who is maybe going through some of the same struggles, feeling some of the same insecurities, and who’s maybe making some of the same poor choices I was making at that age. I want to encourage them. If I can be the person to sit with them and talk about life, the choices we make on an everyday basis, and about the importance of school and the benefits that come with seeking higher education, I feel I’m providing that voice of reason that I could have used myself when I was a youngster. It’s my way of giving back after so many people rallied around me during my 19 years of incarceration.
I’m not the greatest speaker in the world, and I’m definitely not one of the best in our group, but I think I speak in a way that youth can relate to because I’m willing to be completely transparent and show vulnerability. I believe it’s important to show that side of myself because more often than not it seems like youth, males in particular, seem to be heavily influenced by the culture of “machoism.” Seeing another male spill tears over mistakes can let them see that it’s okay to let it out, it’s okay to hurt inside, and it’s okay to seek the support of others whenever hardships arise. They need to know that it’s okay. I just try to be real with them and explain why I was doing some of the things I was doing at that age, what need I was trying to meet by way of those behaviors, and how hindsight can be a very heavy thing to carry when you look back later in life and contemplate the poor choices made and the people affected by them.
I’m encouraged, and I’m just really thankful for the opportunity to be in a position that can potentially help change the lives of youth for the better. Doing time this way is much more fulfilling than just sitting on my bunk twiddling my thumbs. That’s for sure.