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Old 05-17-2005, 10:21 PM
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Default Article:Inmates tell students ‘It’s all about choices’

BY CLARE MARIE CELANO
Staff Writer

Growing up is all about making choices. The good ones help you to move forward safely and the bad ones can send you to prison. Just ask Jen, Morris, Jesse or Shekirah. They are just four among thousands of young adults who are serving hard time in state prisons.

In a presentation that included a hard dose of realism, the four inmates shared their stories and their lives, the good parts and the bad, with Freehold High School students on April 12. The visit was part of a New Jersey Department of Corrections program called Project PRIDE (Promoting Responsibility in Drug Education) under the direction of Commissioner of Corrections Devon Brown.


The four young offenders came to warn the students that poor judgment really can get you “10 to 20” in the state penitentiary.

The program was coordinated by Student Assistance Counselor Kevin Flynn and is one he believes in and has had experience with. Flynn deals with anti-drug and anti-alcohol programs for his students regularly and believes in the program’s ability to have a significant impact on the teenagers.

“Alcohol and drugs are a part of our culture,” Flynn said. “Unfortunately, many parents think it’s OK, and this sends a bad message. By the time they’re 20, what have we taught them?”


JEFF GRANIT staff Young adults who are serving time in New Jersey state prisons shared the stories of their mistakes with students at Freehold High School during a presentation of Project PRIDE.

Flynn said anti-drug and anti-alcohol programs help students stand on their own and say no and realize that they won’t be alone in their decision.

Project PRIDE coordinator Michael Ritter said the program is a major initiative of the state Department of Corrections. Administrators believe that staff members and offenders who participate in Project PRIDE make a significant impact on the substance abuse prevention activities being conducted in New Jersey schools. The program was implemented in 1998 and has been very successful, according to Ritter, who said that Project PRIDE has reached more than 230,000 students from 700 schools throughout the state.

The four offenders arrived at the high school accompanied by two senior New Jersey corrections officers. Freehold Borough patrolmen William Bismarck and Ronnie Steppat were also on hand.

“We are not here to beat you down,” Ritter told the high school students, “but [they are here] to share their experiences for your benefit. They never thought they would end up in a state prison.”

Ritter said 80 percent of the 27,000 people who are locked up every year in New Jersey are in jail for crimes related to drugs or alcohol.

“All four of these inmates are part of that 80 percent,” he said.

The four inmates told the students they do not do much of anything alone anymore. Instead, they must deal with the consequences of the poor decisions they made. Instead of living out their childhood dreams, they are living out the prison sentences they were given after making bad choices.

The purpose of the program is for young people to hear the results that alcohol and drug abuse can have on a person’s life and to consider those consequences when they are faced with making personal choices. The 90-minute presentation was an education right from the source. Reading books and watching movies can help young people learn what the real world is about — but only from a distance.

Seeing these four young inmates dressed in identical loose-fitting tan pants and oversized tan shirts with regulation tan boots, standing in the presence of two armed guards was not learning from a distance. It was up close and very personal.

And that was the goal — to see the world as these young adults now see it, to feel what they feel, if only for a short time — and to realize that, in essence, the decisions they made along the way brought them to this place.

The inmates told the students they were stripped of their own identities the minute they entered prison. When they arrived they were stripped naked and all of their clothes were sent home. They were told that they could only wear prison-issued clothing.

One by one the young adults told their stories.

Morris, 29, said he never thought he would wind up in this position. He began gambling for fun at 15 and eventually found himself in “serious debt.” He said he ended up selling cocaine to pay his gambling debts.

“It just kept getting worse and worse,” he said, adding that he made it a habit of “conning” people out of their money to help support his gambling habit.

Eventually Morris did get caught but only received probation, which he referred to as a “slap on the wrist.”

“I was then sent to Israel to stay with my relatives. My family thought this would keep me out of trouble,” he said.

It didn’t. Morris said he got high and gambled in Israel, too. He was never treated for his gambling addiction and he said that “without treatment there can be no change.”

Eventually Morris came back to the United States, ran out of money again to pay his gambling debts and was arrested for entering a home at 2 a.m. in an attempt to get money for those debts. He has served nine years and four months of his 11-year sentence.

Morris spoke of the lack of privacy and how important it is to young people.

“There is no privacy in prison. You get to see your family once a week. Every letter you send or get, every phone call you make, is monitored,” he said. “I have paid a horrible price for the life I was living.”

Shekirah, 26, said the worst thing a person can do is to establish a criminal record.

“You must avoid it all costs,” she told the students.

She spoke of destructive choices she made as a seventh-grader — choices she said led her down the wrong path.

“I was a good kid until then,” she said. “My mom and I were best friends. Then I began to think that it was fun to do the wrong thing. I began playing around, drinking beer and having sex, and fighting. I also started to lie to my mom. I did it all. You can only maintain that for so long. My mom eventually noticed.”

Shekirah said she became a “functioning addict.”

“The deeds you do as a juvenile will follow you into your adulthood. Even money cannot erase them,” she said, explaining that she was eventually arrested and charged with car theft and robbery with a weapon.

“Don’t say it ain’t gonna happen to you,” she said with conviction. “If you do what I did, you will get the same results.”

She paused momentarily and looked out at the students sitting in the audience.

“It is amazing. You know, all I want now is to hear my mother’s voice nagging at me. I wish I could be sitting out there with you thinking about what we’re saying up here,” the young woman said.

Shekirah also talked about working in prison and told the group that the work was hard.

“You clean toilets and showers and you cut grass and pick up trash,” she said. “The pay is $1.40 a day.”

Jesse, 23, received a 15-year sentence for an armed robbery he committed. His story involved drugs, at least 14 different foster homes and a bunch of bad breaks. Getting high on a variety of drugs and selling drugs was the path he chose.

“At 16 I moved out of my house and everything fell apart. The drugs took over my life,” he said.

Jesse told the students not to think that because they were under the age of 18 that they would not be punished as adults — because he was.

“Violent crimes hurt people. You do an adult crime, you get adult punishment,” Jesse said.

Jen, 22, made a decision at the age of 18 that she said “changed my life forever.” The decision she made got her 10 years in prison for carjacking.

“I came from a good family and a decent town,” she said.

Jen experimented with marijuana at 13, dropped out of school in the 10th grade and overdosed on heroin at 16.

“If my dad hadn’t found me I would be dead,” she said. She said her father threw her out of the house after that incident. She ended up roaming the streets, homeless.

“It was a really bad situation. I missed out on so much. I never got to graduate or go to the prom. I should be graduating college right now, but instead, I’m in prison. I can’t ever get that time back. I will never get back all those years I missed,” Jen said. “We gave our choices away. All of us regret the choices we gave up. This should be the best time in your life. Remember, the choices you make today will impact the rest of your life. And remember, those choices are yours to make.”

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Old 05-21-2005, 07:56 AM
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Thank you for sharing this information. I have a teenager, my daughter Kay is 15 yrs old. She has to go through a lot of pressure with her peers at school, for various reasons. We still, continue to have a open and good relationship, and she knows that she can come to me about anything!
Still, I worry about her, and about how influencing, the other teens can be. She (Kay) seems to have her head on straight, but I dare not turn my head, because I am constatnly on guard, when it comes to my child.
I think that this program is an excellent idea, and should be allowed to attend more schools. It really upsets me to see just how many teenagers, are using drugs and alcohol to get high! I always wonder, where are their parents, and what are they saying about this problem? It is our responsibility as a parent to give guidance, discipline, and love to our children, whether they be infants, toddlers, as well as teens.
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