Thousands of people experience youth violence every day. Poverty, peer pressure, family environment and social media all contribute to the crisis. In many communities, law enforcement and politicians are at a loss as to what to do.
But in South Florida, officials go to prison for help.
An ex-death row prisoner at the Everglades Correctional Institution (ECI) founded the Positive Peer Leadership program in 2016, and retired gang members developed the program trying to rescue others from the violent and often deadly lifestyle.
In time, the program evolved to include anyone who wanted to learn about mentorship inside prison. With the help of an outside sponsor, it eventually expanded to help at-risk youth in local neighborhoods.
“Incarcerated residents can relate to the teens we’re trying to help,” said program sponsor Wayne Rawlins, the Anti-Violence Initiative project manager for Miami Dade County. “Men in prison have a unique perspective on community violence because many of them were drivers of it in the past.”
Rawlins started by bringing different topics into the prison that the participants could brainstorm and provide solutions for, for instance, how to help bridge the gap between teens and law enforcement when there is no mutual trust in communities between them.
But the road to redemption was not always easy. Positive Peer Leadership president Dexter Dukes, 52, used to get in a lot of trouble until his mother asked him to find a purpose while in prison.
“I got involved in programs and used my influence to try and lower gang violence at the Everglades,” Dukes said. “Now I lead my peers by being a positive example.”
What started as a bi-weekly meeting between prisoners has become a think tank for new ideas. The anti-violence discussions have been attended by Miami Dade law enforcement, the mayor’s office, former White House special advisor Ja’Ron Smith, and the winner of the 2020 MacArthur Foundation “genius award,” formerly incarcerated activist Desmond Meade.
“Their voice has an impact and is critical to the conversation,” Rawlins said of the program participants. “We are helping the police solve problems of the street.”
A New Approach to an Old Problem
Carlos Martinez, head of public policy for the Miami Dade County Public Defender’s Office, said he learns a lot by attending the ground-breaking gang prevention summits hosted by Positive Peer Leadership at ECI. In Miami, authorities are constantly searching for solutions to the ever-growing drug trade and violent confrontations on the streets.
“We need incarcerated men and women,” Martinez said. “Their experience can inform what we as elected officials can do to help our communities.”
Professors, detectives, attorneys, activists and prisoners filled the room to capacity at this year’s annual summit, all working towards a common goal — preventing violence and creating dialogue. They focused the discussion on how to reach at-risk kids, best practices, and the importance of listening.
The mayor sent representatives from the Office of Neighborhood Safety to get advice on how to communicate with wayward youths, knowing that it takes mentors from all walks of life to step up.
Robert Brown, a Florida A&M University alum and program participant, felt inspired to serve others by using his life experiences to put things in perspective for those on the wrong path.
“Everyone walks away with something when we dialogue,” Brown said. “The old can influence the young. Those in prison can enlighten the authorities.”
ECI is unique in that its administration not only allows but encourages the incarcerated population to interact with volunteers from the street to discuss problems.
“The dialogue must come before the action,” Assistant Warden of Operations Kevin McHenry said. “These people from the community come here and listen closely to the inmates because it’s important.”
“When we started the program in 2016, ECI was violent and the gangs were ruthless,” Rawlins said. “But then we started to see people transform into civil, positive men who helped curb gang violence. Once the participants saw their ideas being implemented at the prison, they became invested.”
Mentoring a person behind walls is just as important to the program as mentoring a teen on the streets. ‘We haven’t lost our roots,” Dukes told me. “Every day, we make a deposit into our own prison community, and people are changing.”
Rudo Griffin, 49, is serving a life sentence and likes to mentor the younger prisoners who are still gang-affiliated. “I stay on them consistently and show them I care. Some turn to a better way of living, and that’s a victory in the fight against violence.”
There is anecdotal evidence that this form of intervention works inside and outside the prison, like peace talks between PPL leaders, Rawlins, and rival prison gangs, or ceasefire agreements with Miami neighborhoods. For example, Rawlins has helped Miami teens go from criminals to model citizens who work and attend school after getting an “honorable exit” from a gang.
In conjunction with the National Network for Safe Communities through the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Rawlins has brought Positive Peer leadership’s mission to schools and politicians — raising awareness with a larger audience.
In addition, the city and local law enforcement have incorporated some solutions that emerged from the gang prevention summits.
“We are getting results,” Dukes said. “Mr. Rawlins brings us questions from juveniles at the detention center about how to change, and our program provides answers that help them. When they get out, many never go back.” Dukes observed “a lack of understanding between kids and adults. But we can relate to these teens because we’ve lived in the same ghetto and sold the same drugs. Some of us were forced into gang life by peer pressure just like them.”
The members of Positive Peer Leadership have accomplished a lot at their institution, but reaching out into the Miami area to help with young violence prevention is still difficult. Without one-on-one contact with the kids they’re trying to help, the message could easily be lost in translation.
Some things simply can’t happen through a third-party advocate: sitting in the same room with a mentor, building trust, seeing tears of regret, smiling at a funny story.
“I haven’t been able to talk to the kids face to face yet,” Dukes said. “But when I get paroled next year, I’ll focus on mentoring at-risk juveniles and giving back what I’ve learned from Mr. Rawlins and the program.”
Creating a mentorship program between a state correctional institution and a juvenile center should be considered a viable option for the future. After all, if incarcerated people are getting through to the kids, why shouldn’t their voice be heard in person?
Ryan M. Moser is a formerly incarcerated journalist from Philadelphia. Nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net 2021, he’s had work published by the Mississippi Quarterly, Upstreet Literary Magazine, Muse Literary Journal, Evening Street Press, Storyteller, Santa Fe Literary Review, Miami Herald, The Covid Collection, University of Iowa Prison Project, Progressive and other publications. Ryan enjoys yoga, martial arts and chess, and has two beautiful boys.