Lorenzo Steele is on a crusade to keep America’s youth out of prison. Steele retired about a decade ago after 12 years as a corrections officer at New York’s infamous Riker’s Island Corrections. In 2000, he started the Behind These Prison Walls prevention program for at-risk youth, his response to the horrors and inhumane conditions he watched inmates suffer first-hand.
“I just couldn’t take it no more,” said Steele, who’s based on the East Coast. “There was definitely a spiritual connection on my growth to go into the schools and mentor children about what really takes place in prison.”
The “scared straight”-style program presents statistics on incarceration in a graphic DVD titled Scarface 4 Life. It features more than 100 prison photos, including those of inmates slashed by razors and other disturbing images collected by Steele, who’s also a photographer, during his years of service in Riker’s Island Adolescent Reception Detention Center .
“There’s an average 70 to 80 razor cuts a month,” he said. “It’s the most violent adolescent prison in the nation.”
Steele also believes sexual intercourse among inmates is resulting in the increased spread of infectious diseases throughout the United States as those inmates are released.
“They’re bringing home AIDS, tuberculosis; it’s alarming. No man is going to tell you they got raped in jail,” he said. “Let’s say, your daughter may hook up with a man who’s been to jail, so it affects everybody in our communities.”
The former corrections officer criticizes rap artists who glorify prison life, but neglect to warn their listeners of the real-life consequences of incarceration. Steele insists some rappers have sold out by not presenting the truth. He maintains this misinformation causes children to embrace a lifestyle that leads to incarceration, believing it is normal.
“They don’t tell you about the rapes, the homosexuality, the cuttings,” he said. “People don’t realize how serious prison is, and how serious breaking the law is.”
According to Steele, from 1980 to 2000, the number of incarcerated Americans rose from around 329,000 to more than 1 million. He wonders what took place in those 20 years to cause more youth to go prison rather than college. America’s expanding prison industrial complex may be the cause, Steele says.
“A lot of private corporations are investing in these prisons. You can’t have jail without people getting locked up. You’ve got a lot of people out there that are not breaking the law, getting jammed up.”
After developing momentum in New York, Steele now plans to take the program nationwide with his Stop The Violence Tour, which launches the month. He also plans to make his presentations available through MySpace and YouTube and other networking sites. Since the inception of his program, Steele has lectured at many schools, civic groups, churches, youth groups and other correctional facilities, including Riker’s Island.
“Mr. Steele came back to reach out to our young men and women whose lives are in the balance between extended incarceration and productive citizenship,” said Riker’s Island Academy principal Frank Dody. “His message was clear: get out of jail, stay off the streets, stay in school.”