We Founded a Youth Mentoring Program While in Prison, and It’s Saving Lives

Jun 08, 2023
A Change Comes From Within session.

The youth mentoring program Change Comes From Within (CCFW) was just a thought that three incarcerated men had 10 years ago. Today, it is a reality.

But the three of us co-founders have more in common than prison sentences. We were all high school dropouts, we all exhibited a lack of respect for authority figures, we all became teenage fathers, and we all became involved with criminal activities to make money. We were also all convicted of murder.

Upon entering the system, we began to address “three strikes” that can lead to trouble: a lack of respect for authority, a disregard for education, and involvement with crime. We took steps to educate ourselves by first obtaining our GEDs. We have also completed various vocational trade courses, parenting classes, and therapeutic programs to address anger issues. We are involved with programs such as hospice care, which has shown us how to appreciate the value of life—not only our own but others’ as well. We have given ourselves options other than returning to a life of crime. A proud moment has been witnessing the impact of our commitment to change on our children. We wanted to extend this same influence on youth who are at risk.

With a combined 63 years spent in prison, we have made the best of our situation by mentoring at-risk youth. Before founding CCFW, we were members of the Youth Assistance Program (YAP) while housed at Attica Correctional Facility. There was a time when we would host two YAP sessions a week. The program was very impactful and while the youth dreaded to part ways, it was too restrictive. Some schools and programs could only attend one session a year and we knew the youth needed more constancy. They needed mentors in their lives on a consistent basis and at their disposal regularly. They wanted to communicate with us after they left, but the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision would not allow it. It felt like we were abandoning them. That's when the idea of building a similar program within our communities formed. But we didn't know where to begin.

Ten years later and with the assistance of family, friends, and the formerly incarcerated, CCFW has held two anti-gun violence events in Buffalo, New York. The topic of gun violence was chosen for various reasons. We all live on a path of atonement and will forever owe a debt to society, so we decided to deliver our message and solutions through anti-gun violence events. As individuals who contributed to it, we understand the “why.” We can see why our youth are involved with such negative behavior. We also felt a sense of urgency to do something about it. We would watch the news every day as cities addressed their concerns with the increase of gun violence. In 2022, Rochester declared a gun violence state of emergency and requested program proposals. At that point, we sent them ours.

The events were a success, and the support was unbelievable. People recognize our passion and commitment to save lives, and to addressing the antisocial behaviors exhibited by our youth. People see our program proposal as a viable solution to counter gun violence because we are peeling back the layers and getting to the root cause. We are credible messengers because we were once these youth and part of the problem. The youth can relate to our stories—growing up in poverty, in single-parent households, in drug-infested communities—and eventually giving in to peer pressure. These youth also know who cares about them. We care because we understand their struggles and pain. We lived it and those scars remain within us and serve as a constant reminder to help these young men and women. They may not know how to communicate their needs, but their actions are crying out for our assistance.

At our events, each team member can share on the challenging topics that are introduced, including crime, selling or using drugs, lack of respect for education, lack of respect for authority, gun violence and domestic violence, suicide, prison reality, and family and peer pressure. Throughout the session, team members offer positive alternatives for each topic. Team members also usually offer inspirational words during the closing. We are joined and supported by the formerly incarcerated, most of whom are friends that we served time with. These men and women are evidence that people can continue to do good within our communities, rather than being left to rot away in prison. Youth are encouraged to ask questions at any time during the group. "Use Us" is our slogan.

This year, on February 11, CCFW held its second anti-gun violence event and orchestrated a YAP session with around 30 youth. Formerly incarcerated men and women took the lead and used themselves as examples to drive home the point that there is a better way of living. They highlighted the consequences of negative behavior and, more importantly, that change is possible.

Many in attendance were amazed and stated that the YAP session was the icing on the cake. We are now calling the session I Am Youth because we once walked in their shoes. We were also able to collaborate with Tina Sander, founder and CEO of No More Tears, who has dedicated 23 years of her career to families and youth dealing with the trauma associated with gun violence. She has witnessed firsthand the impact we have had on youth, frequently attending YAP sessions when we were housed at Attica. Also in attendance were State Senator Tim Kennedy, Erie County Legislator Howard Johnson, HALT Solitary Confinement's Jerome Wright, Release Aging People in Prison Organizer Donna Robinson, Dr. Takesha Leonard, Buffalo firefighter Jakina Grimes, and newly appointed Commissioner and President of the State Civil Service Commission Timothy Hogues.

Currently, all CCFW’s mentors have been convicted of murder, with the exception of Latisha Abrams. Latisha served time at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and is now a registered nurse. She joined CCFW to focus on mentoring young girls. Additionally, Cory Epps is a director for CCFW and coordinates the I Am sessions. Cory explained his story of being exonerated for a murder he spent almost 20 years in prison for. Now a successful business owner, he told the youth how his reputation in the streets contributed to a wrongful conviction. He encouraged the youth to choose their peers wisely and remain in school, attributing his success to education. John Hall, another mentor convicted of murder, highlighted the pain he inflicted upon the victim’s family and the personal consequences of his actions. During a prison reality discussion, he described how he was viciously stabbed in prison. He then transitioned to the topic of street life reality and the pitfalls of bad decisions. Now a college graduate, successful author, and mentor, John leads by example and encourages youth to avoid becoming a product of their environment or allowing their circumstances to define who they are, and ultimately, who they will become. John Smith, another mentor, also worked with Shaquille O'Neal on a project that brought negative narratives into the spotlight. Our mentors are men and women who have risen above negative influences and are now success stories. They give our youth something to really think about.

What's next for CCFW? We co-founders are committed to hosting anti-gun violence events all over New York State in order to curb gun violence. Many people are beginning to wonder why men and women who have transformed their lives and are inspiring others from behind prison walls aren’t being utilized to assist our youth. Society is being fed a negative narrative about the incarcerated and this is preventing real conversations on what we need to do to solve a real problem. CCFW will be holding yet another gun violence event in Rochester on June 10, 2023 from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Greater Worker Deliverance Center, 1089 Joseph Ave. Rochester, NY 14621. The city is currently still under a state of emergency as gun violence continues to rise. Lives are at stake and New York has tried everything else, even enacting some of the toughest gun laws in our country. Why not work with us instead?

Walter Ball is an advocate for prison reform, co-founder of Change Comes from Within—Use Us, and a youth mentor and minister. He can be reached on JPay at Walter Ball, 01b1412, NYS DOCCS Inmate Services.

Brandon Dennis is a 38-year-old father of four and husband. At the age of 24, he was sentenced to illegal consecutive sentences of 50 years to life. Since entering NYDOCCS in 2009, he has taken advantage of numerous programs and classes, and earned certification as a plumber and electrician helper. He currently serves as a deacon within Life Changing Ministry, and works as a transportation worker. He can be reached on JPay at Brandon Dennis 09b1616, NYS DOCCS Inmate Services.

David Sell is a husband, grandfather, writer, hospice volunteer, and advocate for prison reform . In an attempt to bring about awareness and create change, he writes for the millions of families and people who have been impacted by mass incarceration. He can be reached on JPay at David Sell, 97b2642, NYS DOCCS Inmate Services.

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