Detroit prison visit offers youths reality check

By Gus Burns

The Saginaw News

DETROIT (AP) -- They appear nervous as they sit surrounded by the cinder-block walls of a Ryan Correctional Facility waiting room in Detroit.

Since March 2010, groups of at-risk Saginaw County teens ages 14 to 18 have visited this Detroit prison, its perimeters lined with high fences, guard shacks and razor wire, to experience its prisoner-led Youth Deterrent Program.

Prisoners spend two hours trying to penetrate the psyche of at-risk teens to impress upon them to realize that when they gaze upon the prisoners' faces -- men who have murdered and spent decades behind bars -- they might be looking into their own futures.

"They don't bring the choir boys," said Noah Bruner, director of the Saginaw-based nonprofit organization Operation Reach, which organizes the monthly trip. "They bring the ones that are carrying guns, the ones that have some serious charges."

Since its inception, Bruner said nearly 200 dropouts and students, about 15 on the last Friday of each month, encounter the criminals inside the prison.

"I see the kids, they're kind of going in, they're acting kind of hard, they're trying to not show any weakness, but once they get in there, it's like the walls are brought down," Bruner said. The inmates "tell them to stand up. These men who have been in prison more than 20 years, walking around the group hugging them, shaking their hands, apologizing."

Saginaw County Chief Family Court Division Judge Faye M. Harrison planned to attend in June to see the program in action.

"We hear from (prisoners) firsthand what might have made a difference in their lives and what we might do to bring that back to Saginaw," she said

Organizers hope to begin tracking results soon to see what impact the program could have on the youths.

"Anecdotally ... it seems to be an impact that lasts," Harrison said. "When they come back, the impact seems to extend over time."

Each of the past two years, nearly 800 Saginaw County teens landed in the county's juvenile system for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.

Since January of this year, 292 teens have entered the juvenile system.

Earlier this year, Bruner, who also works as caseworker for the Department of Human Services, escorted a group of eight at-risk Saginaw County teens to the prison in Wayne County. Four of the young males made the one-and-a-half-hour journey in Bruner's pickup.

Caseworkers, officers and parents refer the teens.

"A lot of people know me in the community, they know what I do, so they call me and say, 'Hey can you take my son,'" Bruner said.

Bruner began Operation Reach last year to mentor youths using tools like the day trip to the Ryan Correctional Facility, followed up with weekly counseling, activities and job training.

Ryan Correctional Facility has "an awesome youth deterrent program," Bruner said. "It's a group of prisoners ... and the majority of them are lifers, and when you add up all the time that they've spent, they've spent over 200 years behind bars already.

"They were the ones that were causing all the trouble in the community, and now they're trying to give back."

Jeffery Allison, a Ryan Correctional Facility employee, oversees the prisoners in the program.

"We do a lot of role play ... and we just try to show them love, that someone loves them, cares about them and has a vested interest in their future," Allison said.

"We only have the kids for three or four hours, and these kids go home to somebody. ... We really need the buy-in from the community ... so that when we send the kids home, we can get them plugged into something.

"It's one thing to tell a kid not to get into a gang, (but then you have to give) him another option."

Darryl Woods was convicted of first-degree murder in Wayne County in 1990 -- among other crimes -- and is sentenced to life in prison.

"I see myself in you, because I went down the same path, dropped out of school in eighth grade, started selling drugs, didn't listen to my parents," he tells the teens. "I see potential in you as well. I see greatness. You don't have to repeat my mistakes."

Published: Wed, Jul 13, 2011