By Brooklyn Reader

October 2, 2014, 2:08 pm

 

Lorenzo Steele, at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Gym where he volunteers regularly

Lorenzo Steele, at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Gym where he volunteers regularly

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.

Photo: Lorenzo Steele

Photo: Lorenzo Steele

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.

A juvenile arrest Photo: Lorenzo Steele

A juvenile arrest
Photo: Lorenzo Steele

“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.

Lorenzo Steele talking to a group of youth at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Gym. He pulls them aside for 30 minutes each day and discusses "Life Skills," and the importance of education

Lorenzo Steele talking to a group of youth at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Gym. He pulls them aside for 30 minutes each day and discusses “Life Skills,” and the importance of education

“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.

Juveniles being arrested Photo: Lorenzo Steele

Juveniles being arrested
Photo: Lorenzo Steele

“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.”

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Young people arrested on their way to Riker’s Island Photo: Lorenzo Steele

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.

"Behind These Prison Walls," outdoor installation, Fulton Park, Bed-Stuy Photo: Lorenzo Steele

“Behind These Prison Walls,” outdoor installation, Von King Park, Bed-Stuy Photo: Lorenzo Steele

“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.’

"Behind These Prison Walls," outdoor installation, Fulton Park, Bed-Stuy

“Behind These Prison Walls,” outdoor installation, Von King Park, Bed-Stuy

“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].

 


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5 Responses

  1. julie

    So the kids in so many cases are going to crap schools and not learning anything. They possibly have parents who don’t know how to care for them and encourage them to make something of their lives. And now this former cop comes to them and makes them cry by showing them what’s in store for them?
    Sorry, there’s gotta be a better way. I feel so sorry for these kids.

    Reply
    • Lorenzo Steele Jr.

      The reason some of them cry is because they now realize that they are behind, and yes it does start with parenting. There was a time when the parents were the first teachers in the home and many parents believe that the teachers are fully responsible for raising, baby sitting and disciplining there children. The village in the black communities have been dismantled, churches have forgotten their role in the the community. Yes there has to be a better way and my message is simple, there is a system that was created to warehouse our children and famy members , and I am bringing awareness to that system that’s my mission. We all must commit to these children because they are our future . The question is what can YOU contribute to help a family and a child?

      Reply
  2. Shani Moore

    Powerful!!! Yes, it is the parents responsibility but many parents are doing the best they can (or not!), whatever the cases these images can reach the kids cause it’s there language. They understand this!!
    Hats off to this brother! Be about it and not talk about it!

    Reply
  3. Brooklyn

    This is a great effort. More is needed (people , ideas and places) for children to do things THEY are interested in. I will make an effort to stop by and offer suggestions. In the meantime, there are resources in the community…folks need to make a demand on the resources. Stop waiting for other people (especially the schools) to do it. I’m talking directly about the people that don’t work a 8-10 hour day/night anywhere.

    Reply
  4. Michael Lambert

    I grew up with Lorenzo Steele and there were many in our circles who didn’t have a “Lorenzo Steele” to show them the darker side of what they thought was cool, and the end result was more than the shedding of tears as a free adolescent. While it’s unfortunate that some may be brought to tears by his presentation, it’s a message that needs to be communicated. Steele’s methods may help to deter that child who is hanging with the wrong crowd, or thinking that some of these criminal activities and lifestyle’s are “cool”. Yes, there are many, especially adolescents who think that way. I also worked in ARDC as a civilian back in the 90s and some of the things you saw kids being subjected to was incredibly sobering and shocking. While there must be a better way, we must use the tools at are disposal to raise the level of consciousness and educate young people who otherwise will unfortunately learn their lessons in a much harder way than “Behind These Prison Walls”!

    Reply

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