After ten years of working for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, I felt the need to pass on my brutal experiences to those who needed to hear them most- troubled children. In the meantime, the time I spent trying make a difference in their lives helped to cleanse my soul. I’m still not sure who has received more.
Through the Straight Ahead Program, a Christian-based Ministry for children confined to lockup within the Department of Youth Services (or DYS), each month, I pulled into the parking lot and stared at the eerie building. The brick fortress was built in the late 1800’s. It was surrounded by concertina wire and steel fence. Black bars, mesh and grilles covered the filthy windows, while shadows moved behind them. These dark glimpses were the little people who blamed their entire existence on everyone but themselves. There were some tough cases; young boys who’d been abused and neglected in every sense of the words. Products of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, oppressive property, welfare and similar systems that didn’t foster healthy self-esteem, most could blame the world and be justified. Yet, I understood that for the nightmare they were headed to, this attitude wasn’t going to help at all. The only chance they had now was to shoulder their circumstances and start making choices toward changing their own bleak realities.
Each month, I sat in the lot and watched as the boys played a violent game of basketball. Each one cursed and acted tough, doing everything I would have done, had I been thrown into the same hellish environment. It was important to remember that. Most nights, it was the only good reason not to drive away and never look back. They were a pack of tough cases; the whole lot of them. But, they were scared and they needed help.
My lecture always started in prayer and was followed by two hours of harsh reality. I did everything I could to paint an accurate picture of life behind the walls. I detailed rapes and murders, and did all I could to scare them into re-thinking their futures. At the same time, I also did everything I could to show them that they were still loved. When I wrapped up, there was always applause. Yet, month after month, the same faces returned to hear my same spiel. And, month after month, I gave it, hoping that I might offer something that would save them from the hell I knew they faced.
“If I can save only one,” I’d think. At the parking lot, I usually looked back. Most nights, through the grimy, barred windows, I could vaguely make out the shadows of several of the students beating the hell out of each other. “We’ll try again next month,” I always sighed, and drive away.
After two years of volunteering my time, I was seriously starting to question my impact and actually considered calling it quits. But it wasn’t to be! The mailman delivered a package that would change my heart forever.
I opened the thick envelope. Eric Ryan, the night councilor at the Howland Detention Center, D.Y.S., had hosted an essay contest. The assignment: Write one to two pages explaining how Steve Manchester’s presentation on adult incarceration has impacted your life. He sent me copies of the end results. Through surprised, misty eyes, I read one wonderful example after the next:
…My fists were clenched tight of fear from Steve’s horrific real life stories about life in state prison. He told stories about people getting raped, killed, and getting the shit kicked out of them and it made me scared to go to prison. Steve also taught us that we still have time to change our lives around…
…Steve’s stories really made me think of all the stupid things I’ve done in my life. I hate the pain I’ve put on my family and friends. I’d like to thank Steve for inspiring me to change and believe in the power of hope.
There were 26 essays altogether, and each proved another lesson in hope. I finally got to the contest winner’s touching piece. It was written by a loud-mouthed 12 year-old named Raul. There were two ink stamps on the copy. One read: I’m PROUD of YOU! The other: If you can DREAM IT, you can DO IT! It read:
Well I never thought about jail like that until Steve came in. I always thought of jail totally different then what he said. I never thought that they had people with aids and people like Laferty. After that group I started feeling sad just thinking about what my brother must of went through. All the things that I heard from Steve wasn’t so nice. He got to my head so good that it made me think twice about life. It made me think how my future is gonna end. Following my brothers path like I’m doing or get my shit straight. Steve whenever he comes back he will have my full attention again, cause this guy knows what he’s doing. When he first walked in I though that he was just another guy talking about things he knew nothing about. But he proved me wrong. He totaly blew my mind. Every body always told me about jail but I didn’t care. I didn’t think about it like Steve made me think about. I believed every word that came out of his mouth. He’s worked there for a long time. I always told people that I’m not scared to go to jail. After this with Steve it realy had me thinking. I don’t want to go be some place where I’m always watching my back, always worried about who wants to mess with me. I wouldn’t make it in there. Always thinking about something. And if it comes down to a fight, you’ll realy be in trouble cause you could get extra years in there. And me in the hole for two-three months, I’ll go nuts. I don’t wanna have that type of future. I have a loving family who is there for me. I got a little brother to look out for, and right now I’m not setting a good example for him. My older brother didn’t set a good example for me and look what I’m doing. The same thing he was doing. He used to call home and regret that he chilled with his boys instead of listing to my mothers advice. But now its to late for him to chang. To me I think this group is realy helpful. It realy made me think twice about life. I already told my mother that I would not end up like him. I don’t want to call my mother some day in the future when it is to late to turn back. That’s why I have to make a chang in my life now that I’m young. Thanks Steve. The end.
I drew in a couple deep breaths, picked up the telephone and dialed. Eric Ryan answered. “Eric, it’s Steve Manchester. I just wanted to thank you for sending along copies of those essays. I just got done reading them.”
“You’re very welcome, Steve.”
I grinned. “So…what did Raul win for placing first in the contest?”
There was a pause. Eric spoke softly. “From the look of his essay…I’d say his adult freedom.”
I choked back the ball in his throat. “Let’s hope!”
Steven Manchester is a nationally bestselling author and the author of the #1 Kindle bestseller Twelve Months. His next book, Pressed Pennies, will be out in 2014. Visit our website to learn more.