Almost four years ago, I was reluctantly convinced to teach inmates at a local jail. This wasn’t something that I wanted to do. My decision to enter this unique environment was based on family and friends’ recommendations for me to share my inspirational books and messages.
Prior to these discussions and my exploratory visit to a jail, I never wanted to enter one for any reason, including to visit someone I know. Regardless of my apprehensions, I pushed past my personal reservations to do something I never imagined. Nevertheless, my experiences volunteering in a jail unexpectedly altered my perspective about inmates, drove a change in my life’s trajectory, and solidified my desire to give-back to at-risk communities through my educational nonprofit organization "Saving Our Communities at Risk Through Educational Services (SOCARTES)."
Teaching inmates is surprisingly one of the greatest gifts of my life. In some ways, I credit the men in Unit 9A for helping to give my life a renewed significance and meaningful purpose. The connections I made in the jail are based on my willingness to be vulnerable, my proven ability to resolve life challenges, and the authenticity of my stories. My journeys to overcome educational, mental health, and other issues provide a unique perspective about falling, getting reoriented, and taking decisive actions to move forward.
On a fateful day in March 2014, I went to teach inmates a few hours after I narrowly avoided a near-suicide. As it would happen, the jail was on lockdown that day, but by forcing myself to move forward with positive and purposeful activities… I expedited my mental health recovery to discover unimaginable benefits for me and those who attended my classes.
Normally, prior to starting a new class, the jail’s program coordinator would introduce me in an informal/inspirational session to entice potential students to take my class. Afterward, anyone who was interested would sign-up for my program(s). This usually was an effective recruiting strategy; although, some individuals were directed to attend my class by their counselors. However, this time, I wanted to try something different. For my upcoming class, I conducted a social experiment to determine if individuals are interested and ready to drive their futures.
A couple of weeks prior to my next class, I visited a few units. Upon my arrival, I quietly setup a table with my books and other materials used in my programs. During my visit, there weren’t any announcements about me, my purpose for being there, my upcoming classes, or anything else. Then for approximately thirty minutes, I sat at the table working on personal items waiting to see if any of these guys would approach me out of curiosity.
Interestingly, there were a variety of responses, such as:
* “Walk and glance” to scan the materials on the table;
* “Yell across the room” to ask me a question from a distance;
* “Direct contact” in which someone asked about the reason(s) for my visit;
* “Speak to me just before lockdown” after almost everyone returned to their rooms, which interestingly encouraged others to approach me at the last-minute, too.
Each time, I immediately attempted to engage the person to answer questions and add interested students to my roster.
At the end of the sign-up period, thirty registered for my next class. This is a decent number for voluntary program participation without any promotion. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to explore different ways to engage these individuals to inspire them to pursue educational opportunities, which will hopefully drive their mental and spiritual growth.
The outcome of my social experiment is yet to be determined. Notwithstanding, these individuals’ ability to accept personal accountability and responsibility for their actions will be an essential cornerstone for their educational and professional successes.
As Shariee Sims (Addictions, Corrections, and Treatment Program Manager) said during a conversation on my show “Beyond Just Talk with S. L. Young,”
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. But, you can lead that individual to the water and give them enough crackers to make them thirsty.”
Well, let’s give these individuals plenty of educational crackers to make them thirsty!
Learn more about Mr. Young’s experiences voluntarily teaching at a jail at: www.slyoung.com/jail-perspectives.html
award-winning educator, mental health advocate, social entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, author/writer, program executive, and radio host