Monday, September 15, 2008

Listen Up: Inmates at Racine Youthful Correctional Facility share their stories to help others

(Left to right) Marco Lopez, Derek Friday and Jeremy Elliott share their stories about the gang life that led to them the Racine Youth Correctional Facility. Photo/Kenneth Lumpkin

Derek Friday graduated high school with a 3.25 GPA, which is impressive because he rarely went to class.

From 14 on, Friday worked the Milwaukee streets for the money he needed to maintain a high stakes life. “Growing up it was all about me,” he said. “If I wanted something, I’d get the money any way I had to.”

That life can only go so far. After one robbery too many, Friday was arrested and sentenced to time at the Racine Youthful Offenders Correctional Facility. Now 20 years old, he’s looking at another couple of years before he can get out – and get one with his life.

But he’s not wasting his time in prison. Friday’s taking classes and studying on his own to pursue his dreams of legitimate success on the outside. He’s also working to help kids avoid the same mistakes he made.

Friday is one of 10 inmates at the youthful offenders facility participating in the “Listen Up” program, which gives kids on the outside a chance to hear the stories of young men on the inside. Social Workers Rebecca Love and Vera Burns, along with Case Manager Alonzo Payne and Security Director Gary Mitchell, started the program in January.

Once a month, Friday and the others meet in the visitors room with teenagers referred by parents or schools. The teenagers are there voluntarily, but most are making decisions that could lead them to prison – or worse.

Jeremy Elliott, of Milwaukee, considers himself lucky to be serving a nine-year prison sentence for shooting one person and robbing another.

After getting his 20-year-old girlfriend pregnant when he was 15, Elliott joined a gang to make money. He shot guns at people, sold drugs and did anything the gang asked him. He was a moment away from violent death.

“Where I was, I had no type of future,” said Elliott, another member of the Listen Up program.

Now, he may have a future – Elliott finished his high school degree and is learning a trade – but he’s stuck watching his son grow up in the prison’s visitors room. Like the other inmates, he also can’t choose what he wants to wear, listen to the music he likes or eat the food he wants. About the only luxury inmates get are snacks from the vending machine and, if they can afford it, a small TV in their cell.

“It’s a slow, boring day,” said Marco Lopez, a 22-year-old Milwaukee man serving time for gang activity. “It’s the same thing every day.”

Lopez and Elliott actually belonged to rival gangs in Milwaukee. Now they sit together as part of the Listen Up program and realize their stories are remarkably similar. Neither of them liked school and chose the streets over education. Both have harrowing stories of lives out of control, and both are now locked up on relatively short sentences with a chance, someday, of a better life. Before being the arrested, they may have shot each other on sight.

Participants in Listen Up try to reach the teenager who come to hear their stories. The programs isn’t “scared straight,” the old program that tried to scare young adults into good behavior. It’s designed to be authentic and honest. While the social workers help the inmates write their stories, they don’t censor them.

Friday, Elliott and Lopez all offered straight-forward accounts of their crimes and honest assessments of where they were headed. Their stories aren’t judgmental, probably because they know they wouldn’t have listened to someone else telling them what to do.

At one point, Lopez pulled out newspaper clips about a pregnant woman murdered in Milwaukee. He’d been friends with the murderers.

“Everyone I knew is dead or in prison for life,” he said. “It’s all because of the gang. It could have been me.”
Prison has given all three of the inmates a safe place to stabilize their lives. Their hope is other young adults don’t need incarceration to find hope for their future. Some of the kids who come to Listen Up pay attention, ask questions and connect, the inmates said. Others tune out, and it’s clear where they’re headed.

“The feedback we get is excellent,” Friday said. “They’ll get up and talk to us one on one. They’ll hear part of our story and say, ‘’I was thinking of trying that.’’

Lopez added that Listen Up gives kids a chance to see people who did some really bad things turn their lives around for the better.

“We tell them they don’t have to go through what we go through to get there,” Elliott said. “They don’t have to come here to get it right.”

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