“This year the panel is addressing a series of issues that affects all youth. It is a silent killer that has not only affected our youth, but others as well. Bullying needs to be addressed to these youths, organizations and churches that come through our program. I need all and updated information concerning this subject. I want to thank you in advance for your care and concern.”
Needless to say, I was surprised to hear that an inmate, serving a life sentence was interested in my campaign. I would later learn that he is part of an inmate panel at the Tucker Unit that performs community outreach service. Its roll is to assist interested community based programs and individuals in addressing the problems at-risk youth face in our society today.
So, I contacted “Inmate 508” and learned that a group of young students would be touring the facility. I was intrigued. I wanted to know what could a group of inmates possibly teach these kids about the dangers of bullying, especially from behind bars? I also wanted to know how Mr. Mason learned of my campaign and how I could help him.
This is his story, and the impact his program had on the students who witnessed it first-hand, up close and personal.
It’s Spring Break in the Natural State, a time for kids to take a breather from the books and explore fun, exciting and new things. But on this cloudy February day, a group of young teenagers are getting to go on a field trip they may never forget.
The students arrive at the Greater Center Star Missionary Baptist Church at around noon and enjoy hot dogs and nachos. It’s there that I meet, Pastor Kenneth Traylor. I ask him that of all the field trips he could take these kids on, why take them to a prison? His response, “We’re trying to show them where they can end up at if they make the wrong decision, and make the wrong choice or hang with the wrong people. I hope it will open their eyes to the reality that you can get in trouble. And there is some trouble that your parents can’t get you out of.”
As the students get on the bus for the 45 minute drive to the Tucker Unit they are all smiles and laughs, unaware of the harsh reality that awaits them. One of the students is 17-year-old Larry Ware. I ask him how he feels about spending his Spring Break visiting a prison.
“It’s kind of nervous, like a nervous feeling, but at the same time it’s going to prevent me from going to prison, cause I don’t want to go there,” he tells me.
The drive down seems longer than it really is. We take the back roads and end up making a wrong turn, but eventually we make it. As we head down the main road toward the prison, the bus gets silent. The smiles and laughter fade. The students are fixated on what they see outside the bus window. A dozen or so inmates, dressed all in white, doing yard work. Roaming close by are a number of armed men on horseback. It’s captivating and eye-opening, especially if you’re just a teenager.
The bus pulls up to the only entry point and the students slowly exit and make their way inside. Once they enter the door, a guard greets them and shouts to everyone, “Take off your shoes, belt and jewelry. If you have cigarettes or lighters they need to be removed too.”
The sounds of the correctional officer’s walkie talkies also echo through the hallways. “One to one nineteen, wild bear do you copy?” At that point, the students walk through a metal detector, one at a time and then they’re frisked by hand and then again with a wand. Everyone gets through without any trouble. They sign in and are then escorted through a heavy metal door into a small gated area outside.
Once there, they soon realize they are surrounded by a tall fence, capped with razor wire. The only way to get out of this area is for a guard sitting in a tower high above to buzz the heavy metal gate and the only person qualified to give that command is an armed correctional officer. The students stand in silence, soaking up their surroundings, realizing that their next step will take them directly into the heart of the second oldest prison unit in the state.
Eventually the command was given and the gate was buzzed. From here, the students walked quietly thorough a well-manicured courtyard and into a gym. They were greeted by the warden, Steve Williams. After a small introduction, Warden Williams introduces training officer, Mr. Pettis. He lines the students up and with a loud voice says, “Do not go outside the yellow lines while we are inside the facility. This is a real penitentiary.”
Pettis then leads the students out another door that takes them to rec yard, a large field where inmates are allowed to play sports outdoors, but under close supervision. After a short walk, we are told to shut down our news camera. Recording video while inside the hallways of the prison is strictly forbidden because it could cause problems, serious problems.
As we walk in, the first thing the students notice are the riot gates. Huge metal rod iron gates from the ceiling to the floor. They are there for a reason. If things get ugly, the gates are slammed shut to control the situation. There are more than 950 inmates in the Tucker unit. Most of them charged with murder, rape, drugs and other various charges. The students are shocked when they see the living quarters. Behind thick steel metal doors and windows, they see row after row of bunk beds, literally right next to each other.
There are at least 50 to 75 inmates in each large cell. As the students peer through the large windows, the inmates look right back. It was almost like a stare off. The inmates won easily. They heard from a chaplain, the boot camp director and the director of the drug rehab facility. They saw the isolation cell, the visitation cell and throughout the tour, remained quiet and between those yellow lines, as instructed. When the walking part of the tour was over, the students were escorted to the chapel, sitting quietly and waiting patiently for them were four inmates who were all ready to share their story.
Eugene Pitts has been locked up for the past 35 years. He is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He’s the first to speak and gets right to the point, talking inches away from one of the students. “Why do you think they brought you to a crazy house? You don’t know? I’m gonna tell you why. Cause there is a good chance that if you continue doing what you’re doing today you will be here with us.”
The inmates take turns speaking to the kids, telling them that with every choice they make there is a consequence. They tell them about the nightmare they live every day behind bars and that at any point and time they could end up behind bars with them.
JD Simpson is up next, telling the kids he was sentenced to death by incarceration. He also tells them, he’s an expert on doing time, “I’m told what to do, when to do it and how to do it, 24/7, 365 days for the past 35 years. Consider your visit here today a warning. That if you continue your behavior, you’re coming this way."
Tucker Mason spoke last. He’s also known as inmate 508. He’s the one who wrote me the letter. Like the others on the panel, he is serving a life sentence and has been locked up for the past 31 years. “This is not a joke,” he tells the kids. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy and I certainly wouldn’t wish this on you.”
Mason continues to share his story, but then changes his tone and his message. “What I’m about to share with you is very important to me.” He goes on to say that while he was behind bars he received a letter from his niece who told him she was being bullied at school. He was furious because he was powerless and wanted to help. But how could he? He was behind bars.
“So guess what I did? I go and I start watching TV, and guess who I saw on TV? A man they call Kevin Kelly. And guess what he talking about? Bullying. So guess what I did? Something on the inside said you can do something about it because you’re on a panel where kids come through here every day. You may make a difference. So I wrote Mr. Kelly and I told him to send me information about bullying and I told him what I was doing down here along with these guys.”
For the next 20 minutes, Mason shares with these students the dangers of bullying. He starts by telling them what bullying is and the many forms that it can take; verbal, physical, cyber-bullying etc. He talks about the “evil side” of bullying and the ramifications it can have on people, especially young teenagers. “If you’re bullying you stop it. Right now! Because you’re affecting people’s lives,” he tells them.
Mason then tells them about the warning signs and the roles kids play when bullying others. “After today, if you’re bullying, or being bullied, ignorance is no longer an excuse.” He then asks each student one at a time, if they would be willing to promise him that they would no longer bully anyone. They all agree. At this point the presentation is over and the students shake hands with each of the panel members.
So was the message heard? 14-year old Marshonna Llyod says absolutely. “I think it really changed my life. Considering I’m on Spring Break, when I go back to school, I’m definitely going to have second thoughts on what I do and what others do. I won’t try to boss them around, but I am going to try to get them to do what is right.”
16-year old David Brown agrees. “When you come and hear the inmates and they are more mature and they tell you about what they’ve been through, it makes your mind change as a person.” And then there is Larry Ware, who is all smiles. But underneath his grin, is the understanding that one wrong decision could result in a life in prison. “It was a good experience, but I don’t want to end up in here.”
The students are escorted to their bus and head back to their church. However, I stay to interview the inmates. I start with Mason who tells me this, “To me (bullying) is becoming an epidemic. So I strongly feel it needs to be addressed and caught early in our youth.” So I ask him what happens if that’s not the case. “Oh, serious affects! Suicide, death, stuff like that and we don’t need that. I hope that through this panel we can reach these kids and show them how serious this is and hopefully we can take even more measures to stop bullying.”
JD Simpson agrees. “My hope is that they never come to prison, period. If we can reach just one, we’ve accomplished our mission. We’ve taken so much, we’re just trying to give something back.”
What these four inmates are doing may not sound like a big deal and let’s be honest, it won’t stop bullying, but at least they are taking action and addressing the issue, which is more than most of us. And they’re doing it from behind bars!
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