From Serving Time to Serving Youth Ex-Cons Turned Youth Workers

Print More

John Artis, youth counselor, Norfolk Juvenile Detention Center, Virginia - Convicted with boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in the 1966 slaying of three white people in a New Jersey bar, Artis served 15 years in prison before a federal court overturned the convictions in 1985. In the mid-1980s Artis started using cocaine to lessen the pain of a circulatory disease (Buerger's disease), got arrested and pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute.

At Rahway State prison Artis earned a bachelor's degree from a local college in business administration and helped run a "juvenile awareness program" (a forerunner to "Scared Straight") in which prisoners talked to visiting youths about prison life. After his final release from prison in the late 1980s, Artis moved to Virginia and landed work at the Pines Residential Treatment Center for children and adolescents. He worked with sexually abused youths, many of whom had been arrested for abuse and other crimes.

Artis later went to work for juvenile court in Norfolk, teaching and mentoring adjudicated youth. About six years ago he started at the detention center. There he talks to youth about the horrors and boredom of prison life, and impresses upon them how long he spent locked up (4.7 million seconds, he says). In a Washington Post profile of Artis, his supervisor said of the youths, "Their eyes get big, and they listen to him. They know they're getting the truth." Sometimes Artis hosts boys at his home, playing drums and cooking dinner.

Lina Fuentes, counselor for adjudicated youths, Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos, California - A member of a violent female gang, Fuentes first visited the Barrios Unidos office because they were offering pizza and "I wanted to eat." Sent to juvenile detention at 16 for gun possession, she later assaulted a staffer and was locked up with the California Youth Authority (CYA) for three years. During her stay she ran into Liz Ayala, a staffer with Barrios who worked at juvenile hall and whom Fuentes had met when she ate the Barrios pizza. The girl began calling Barrios collect just about every day; Ayala made sure that someone always took time to talk with her. Lina got out at 20, and found that a lot of her old gang friends were locked up or had moved away. She had no direction, but Ayala kept visiting. "I would hide from her," Fuentes says.

Ayala convinced Fuentes to do some volunteer work with kids in juvenile detention. Eventually Fuentes joined Barrios full time. The 22-year-old now performs various tasks with adjudicated youth, including running group sessions in detention and working on a program with teen fathers. She also talks to probation officers about the reality of juvenile hall, which led to a memorable encounter with her prosecutor.

Fuentes attended a meeting where an assistant district attorney told new probation officers that juvenile detention is often the best way to straighten out a wayward youth, because of the efforts made to help the detainees. When it was Fuentes' turn to speak, she says, she turned to the prosecutor and said, "You sent me to detention six years ago. You weren't right when you said to me in court that I was never going to be nobody, that I needed to go to CYA to turn my life around. The programs at CYA didn't help me. They're full of s --- . All CYA taught me was how to become a more sophisticated criminal."

James Jones,. program director, Victims First program for adjudicated youth, Lincoln Action Program, Nebraska - Jones was a small-time teen offender, having been caught only shoplifting by the time he joined the military in his late teens. But after coming home to Washington, D.C., in the early '80s with a back injury, Jones began to deaden the pain with street drugs. Soon he was a "fully blossomed crack head. ... I threatened to kill and hurt people for money for cocaine." After moving with his wife and son to Lincoln, he began robbing stores to fund his habit. He robbed five in one night, stopping only because he was arrested. He served 30 months in the state penitentiary, where "I kind of figured out what my excuses were and my justification for self-destruction."

After his release in 1991, he enrolled in a community college, earning an associate's degree in drug and alcohol counseling, with a focus on youth. "I wanted to help young people who are going through the same thing I went through," he says. He responded to an advertisement to work with at-risk kids through an AmeriCorps program at Lincoln Action. "Thank God they gave me the opportunity" even though they knew about his conviction, says Jones. "I guess they saw that I was sincere." He began working as a liaison with local schools, helping kids get tutoring, but it was in Lincoln's program for juvenile offenders that Jones saw a chance to implement an idea he had developed in school. He created "Victims First," wherein youthful offenders perform work for crime victims (not the victims of their own crimes). "We teach long-term and short-term effects of crime," says Jones, now 40.

Luis Rodriguez, founder, Youth Struggling for Survival, Chicago - A gang member since 11, Rodriguez started with shoplifting and moved up to stealing cars, robbing stores and assault. His drug use escalated as well, from inhalants to heroin. Arrested several times and doing short stints in detention for his offenses, Rodriguez's turnaround began while hanging out at the John Fabela Youth Center, where he was befriended by a youth worker. The former California Youth Authority counselor and community organizer helped Rodriquez ease up on his gang activities, return to school and channel his anger toward community activism. That activism - participating in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration - led to another arrest and, at 16, a frightening stay in adult jail that he calls "my 10 days in Hell."

He went on to college, but an altercation with police outside a nightclub led to three months in jail for disorderly conduct. He dropped his classes and worked odd jobs (steel mills, construction sites) while pursuing his real avocation, writing. He reported for several small newspapers and, after moving to Chicago, published two books of poems and started Tia Chucha Press, to publish young (mostly minority) writers. He has also written extensively about using youth development techniques to deal with youth violence.

With his oldest son in a gang, Rodriguez formed YSS in an effort to draw his own child and his friends out of gang life. The mentoring program (about 30 youths and 10 adults) exposes youth to arts (running a poetry workshop, for instance) and gives them leadership roles in community work. It could not save Rodriguez's son, who in 1997 was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Jitu Sadiki, director, Black Awareness Community Development Organization, Los Angeles - Sadiki served time twice, once in connection with a brawl in the 1970s that left a young man dead, and once for assaulting a police officer. In prison he became involved with the Black Awareness group, which helped young African-American men prepare for life outside of prison and stay out, and after his last release in 1992 worked to expand the effort to his own community, the Athens/

Woodcrest area of southwest Los Angeles.

The organization tries to steer youngsters from gangs and violence through recreation, education and adult guidance, but the educational program is "on hold" while it is being rebuilt. Sadiki's program has been funded by the Liberty Hill foundations (California). In 1996 the California Wellness Foundation honored him with a California Peace Prize award.

Eddie Timmons, youth pastor, Colorado - When the Columbine High School massacre occurred in 1999, some of the youths at the Trinity Christian Center in Littleton turned to this ex-convict for support and guidance. Timmons always liked working with young people: Even as he began burglarizing gas stations, liquor stores and houses at about 14, he helped coach Little League baseball and Police Athletic League football. "I grew up in a suburban upper middle class neighborhood near San Jose," he says. "I had a nice Mustang. I had everything going for me." He was bored. He was at a party when a friend goaded him into robbing a house. He loved the thrill, and made theft a hobby. The fun ended at 18, when Timmons was convicted on seven counts involving "strong arm" burglary and robbery. He served "two years, 10 months, eight days and about four hours."

Timmons had gone in as "a stone cold atheist," but became a Christian under the guidance of ministers who visited the prison. He began ministering to prisoners, and after his release did street ministry with a San Jose church, eventually ministering to youth. He has worked in several churches throughout California and Colorado. One of his shticks was traveling with a police officer, who'd lead Timmons into a school in handcuffs to launch a talk about the consequences of crime. Today Timmons is an in-your-face, jovial Teddy Bear, resonating more energy than the teens he guides.

His record sometimes hurts his job prospects. A few years ago he was in line for work with youth at a Los Angeles church and school when the supervisor "called me up and said, 'I just can't get over your record.' I said, 'Hey, it's your choice.'"

Andrew Valdez, juvenile court judge, Nevada - As a poor youth growing up in Utah with his mother and three siblings, Valdez began hustling for money on the street and hanging around with older boys when he was still in grade school. His first stint in juvenile detention came at age 10, for fighting and truancy. A year later he was in again for the same offenses, plus minor property damage. He credits a youth counselor there with helping him realize "there were other kids that had the same kinds of situations like me, yet they weren't out on the streets or locked up." The counselor helped craft a release plan which kept Valdez in school and put him under the wing of a mentor, a local businessman. "He was really involved in my life," Valdez says.

His success in school prompted him to go on to college, and he eventually earned a law degree. He worked as a public defender and on Nevada's youth parole authority, then became the state's first Hispanic judge. He established a court-based mentoring program for kids, and advocates for policymakers and business leaders to focus on ways to provide more in-home services for the families of troubled youth, noting, "If nothing has changed in the home, then we will lose that kid in a matter of weeks."

Ronald Laney, director, Missing and Exploited Children's Program, U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Washington, D.C. - When Laney was an adolescent, his mother fled with him and his four siblings from North Carolina to Jacksonville Beach, Fla., to escape a husband who abused her and the children. Laney fell in with a rough crowd and was arrested for fighting at 15. After more convictions for fighting and burglary, Laney was sent to a state reform school, where he was regularly beaten by staffers. Living with young people who seemed headed for adult crime and adult prison convinced Laney to try to complete high school and stay clear of the police. But at 17 he was arrested for drinking in public.

Laney was old enough to serve adult time; but a police officer who'd arrested Laney in the past and the juvenile judge who had sentenced him convinced the judge to let Laney join the Marine Corps. Laney served for seven years, won numerous medals (including a Purple Heart) and was discharged after he was hit by a rocket, losing part of one shoulder and the sight in his right eye. Laney returned to school, studying criminology and hoping to find a way to help kids headed for trouble, as he had been. His first paid job in youth work was as a juvenile probation officer in St. Petersburg, Fla. His supervisors saw his delinquent background "as a positive," he says, because he stood as an example of success after having been through juvenile court, and because he "had the experience of being on the other side, knowing where the children were coming from." In 1979 Laney joined OJJDP, where he helped to develop juvenile training programs for law enforcement. Sitting in one of Laney's training sessions one day was the police chief from Jacksonville Beach, who recognized Laney.

Laney was named to his current post in 1994. His office trains and helps to coordinate law enforcement agencies around the country in searching for missing and abducted children, and responding to child abuse cases.

Dennis Sweeny, retired chief juvenile probation officer, San Francisco - "At first, we didn't get into much trouble," Sweeny recalls. "Stealing candy bars, little mischievous stuff like that." But by adolescence Sweeny and his friends were doing small burglaries in homes and businesses. His first arrest came at 15, for taking watches from an amusement park. A short stint in San Francisco's juvenile hall didn't sway the boy; he was soon arrested again, this time stealing a gun from a house, and served two months. Scared, ashamed and determined never to return to the "juvie" again, Sweeny finished high school and joined the Marine Corps. His captain encouraged him to continue his education, which he did after his discharge.

His academic success (dean's list) at San Francisco State University gave Sweeny a confidence and motivation he'd never had. His juvenile justice professor suggested that he work as a counselor at juvenile hall. The director didn't care that Sweeny had done time there himself. Sweeny rose quickly through the probation department, serving as full-time probation officer, assistant director of the guidance center and, in 1984, was named chief juvenile probation officer.

Stanley Williams - He will probably never be an ex-con, because he is on death row. Convicted of killing four people in 1981, the co-founder of the South Central Los Angles Crips gang has become a youth-oriented anti-violence advocate - so much so that members of the Swiss Parliament nominated him for a 2001 Nobel Peace Prize. Williams has published seven anti-gang books for youth and one book about life in prison, and started a website (, set up and monitored by someone outside the prison). A recent New York Times article (Dec. 6, 2000) described how Williams has become a role model for youth at the nonprofit Neighborhood House, which runs after-school and anti-violence programs in impoverished North Richmond (Calif.). Through his brainchild, the Internet Project for Street Peace, the kids communicate with Somali immigrant children in Switzerland about avoiding gangs and other troubles. Not everyone supports Williams' role as youth worker from death row: A San Francisco Chronicle columnist wrote, "What a swell message for kids. You can gun down four people and still turn your life around."