For the past ten years, Long Island resident Lorenzo Steele has been speaking to middle school children in Central Brooklyn about the perils of prison life through a program entitled, “Behind These Prison Walls.”
From a projector inside the school’s auditorium, Steele displays larger-than-life photos of jail life to 7th and 8th graders. From a microphone, he details an existence of confinement, subordination, boredom and constant fear.
Sound harsh for a 14-year-old? Well, according to Steele, it’s a last resort in today’s society, where the high school dropout and youth incarceration rates have spun entirely out of control.
So Steele is trying to catch them before it is too late.
Steele is a former corrections officer. For nearly 15 years, he worked in the most violent adolescent prison in the nation, C74-ARDC, on Riker’s Island while also doubling as the prison photographer. Upon meeting Steele, listening to his stories and looking at the pictures, you would hardly believe his eyes are the ones taking those cold and violent images, because his disposition reads compassionate and… unbroken.
But you can also see that he is focused. He has been commuting between LI and school districts 23 and 19 in Brownsville for the past decade with the kind of urgency you would compare to an emergency room doctor trying to save a life.
“My sole mission is to deter youth from the criminal justice system, period,” Steele says.
“What’s happening is that we’re losing thousands and thousands of our youth to the prison system, because when they get to high school, there was information they were supposed to learn in middle school that they didn’t learn, so they turn into the class clowns.
“Now, they’re in high school, and smack!, they don’t know the work. They feel totally lost, and they drop out.” Once they drop out of school, they’re almost always lost to the streets, which often times leads right to prison, he adds.
“I work with 7th and 8th graders who were supposed to be in high school but they got lost early on and couldn’t really catch up. So I give them an inside look at where they’re headed, and then try to motivate them to want to learn.”
Through a PowerPoint presentation, Steele shows them the steps of incarceration for a juvenile:
“I show them what a cell looks like, the solitary confinement unit. I have pictures of 150 stitches on people from fights they got into… And because they’ve created the policy of re-arrest in prison, you can go in and get stuck. Imagine coming to jail with a misdemeanor, you get into a fight just defending yourself, now they’re re-arresting you.
“Now, you’re 16 and you have a felony and you’re going upstate. So when that judge says 6 months, that doesn’t always mean you are coming home in 6 months,” he says.
“I’m that person that will show you the future. If you continue the path you’re on, I’m going to show you that future.”
Steele talks to them about life skills, the importance of education, respecting your parents, the consequences of carrying a gun or hanging around someone who owns a gun.
He says you can hear a pin drop during his presentations. And afterwards, teachers and students always come up to him and want to talk. They say, “You know, my dad is in prison now,” or “My mommy had me in prison.”
Some simply come up to him and just cry.
Steele also has an outdoor installation of “Behind These Prison Walls,” whereby on the weekends, he sets easels around parks in high crime areas of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville and East New York, displaying photos of prison life with graphic captions to grab people’s attention as they walk by. Steele stands near the exhibit to answers questions.
“And the response is tremendous; it’s powerful,” says Steele of the photos. “I’ve got parents asking me, ‘How long you’re going to be here? I’m going to go get my son upstairs, so he can see this.’
“My mission is to motivate them, let them know how important school is. It’s not just some place you come to hang out; it’s a place that can save your life.
“I tell them, ‘So this is why your teacher should be your best friend. You don’t have to like them, but you have to respect them. They’re helping you pass that test. They’re giving you the tools to take you down a totally different path.’”
For more information on “Behind These Prison Walls,” contact [email protected].