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Monday, May 20, 2024

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A No-Nonsense Message About Life in Prison

By Al Campbell

COURT HOUSE – Know your friends. If they’re bad, stay away.
Consider consequences; if you accept a ride in a friend’s car, and there are drugs in it, they’re your drugs, too.
Don’t buy prison images in music or clothes.
Stay out of prison.
Mix those messages with the grim statistic: 63 percent of those incarcerated in New Jer-sey’s prisons are black, and that’s why Bethel Commandment Church, Whitesboro, em-barked on Men’s Fellowship Nights, first and third Wednesdays from 7:30 to 9, four years ago to help young males of all races who need positive male role models.
On Nov. 2, the mix of food, fellowship and fatherly advice at the American Legion post here, carried a no-nonsense message: life in prison.
Other evenings, subjects run the gamut from bowling, basic financial advice and dealing with peer pressure.
It came from Sheriff’s Officer Sgt. George Lewis, of the county Sheriff’s Department, and his son, “Who followed in his pop’s steps,” said Lewis, Senior Corrections Officer Adrian Lewis.
Sgt. Lewis is a familiar face around Superior Court and in the County Park. His son works at Southern State Correctional Facility.
Nearby sat a federal corrections officer from Fairton, who asked that his name not be pub-lished.
A table was spread with prisoners’ garb: an orange “carrot suit” worn by county jail in-mates, leg shackles, belly chain and hand restraints, khaki clothes worn in state correctional facilities.
According to state Department of Corrections, as of Jan. 11, 15,497 blacks were in prison, compared to 5,185 whites, 4,426 Hispanics and 99 Asians.
“That’s 63 percent,” said Lewis.
“What’s wrong here? What’s going on?” he asked.
He cautioned, “You better know who your friends are. Be aware who you’re riding with, because, if there are drugs in that car, and we stop that car, everyone’s coming to see me,” Lewis warned, in reference to court.
“Bail for drugs is a minimum $5,000,” he said.
“How many of you have $5,000 for bail? How many of your moms have $5,000 or maybe up to $500,000? I’ve seen bail as high as $1.5 million. Who has that much bail money?” Lewis questioned.
The room grew silent. Eyes widened, jaws opened.
That was the intent, said Gary Farrow, one of the group’s organizers. He wants young men, especially African Americans, to have good role models, and to plan a good future for themselves.
“There are men still locked up where I work (Southern State) who were in prison before I was born, in 1969. Do you want that to happen to you?” asked Adrian Lewis.
“Rappers, for the most part, are basically marketing you,” warned Farrow. “Be careful what you listen to, or you’ll buy into the images,” referring to songs that glorify prison life.
The Lewises broached the subject of clothing, an eye-opener to some present.
“You’ve got on prison khakis,” said Adrian Lewis. “If you walked down the street by our institution with that on, we’d snatch you right up, and make the inmates stand up and take a count to see if they were all there.”
With eyes of peers upon him, the teen seemed flustered.
“You do not have to dress like that, in prison attire,” said Farrow.
According to the federal corrections officer, clothing takes on an entirely new meaning in prison, where certain colors, or the way items are worn, proclaim what gang its wearer be-longs to.
“How many of you have heard of “a dollar 50?” asked Adrian Lewis.
“Do you know what that means? In some gangs, you have to have 150 stitches across your face to belong. Do you want that to happen to you?” he asked.
“There is nothing cool about prison life,” he continued.
Mundane things, such a piece of cheese, which prisoners may get twice a month, take on unbelievable value in prison, as do cigarettes, said Lewis.
He told of an incident when an inmate held a hammer to the head of another, who took his cigarettes.
“Now, in addition to his original sentence, he has a sentence for attempted murder,” he said.
Farrow urged the young men to take care how they dress, in order to help themselves succeed in the job market.
“I’m a black man, and if you scare me, what do you think you do to some Caucasian man or lady?” Farrow asked.
“You’re going to have to make place for yourself,” Farrow said. “You’re going to need to eat and work and provide things for your family. These things become important. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
“Think before you do stuff. Ask yourself, ‘What if?’ What if I get caught?'” said George Lewis.
“Don’t think it can’t happen to you. Remember James?” asked Farrow. “He was coming to these meetings, and now he’s in Jamesburg with a hole in his hand,” he added.
Many of those in the room knew exactly to whom he referred.
“How many of you have heard from James since he’s been in Jamesburg?” he asked.
Only a hand or two rose.
“See, everybody’s your friend now, but once you go to prison, nobody wants to know you or talk to you,” said Farrow.
Next, George Lewis held up a belly chain and leg shackles, and asked for a volunteer.
Once on, he asked the teen to walk.
“Does it hurt when you take a big step?” he asked.
“Yes,” was the answer.
“This is how you go anywhere outside of jail,” said Lewis.
Someone mentioned attending a loved one’s funeral.
“If you are allowed to go,” said Lewis, “You wear these (shackles and chains), and two of-ficers accompany you.
“One goes inside and makes sure nothing is in there except the deceased person. Then you are taken inside, just you and one officer, no one else is in the room,” said Lewis.
“We don’t even allow that,” said the federal officer. “We ask someone to take a video of the funeral, and send it. Then, the prisoner is taken to the chapel and allowed to watch the videotape of the funeral.”
To give the youths one last thing to weigh, a recovering alcoholic told what his life was like, ever seeking a way to get drunk, until he collapsed and was unconscious for 24 hours.
“When I came to, with monitors connected to me, they told me my blood level was so high, they didn’t know why I was still alive,” he said.
“It wasn’t my time,” he said. He pointed skyward, “He’s got a plan for me,” he said.
“Now, I live one day at a time. It gives me an opportunity to stay sober for just one more day,” he said.
Bethel Commandment Church provides transportation to men’s fellowship nights for those who need it. They may call Farrow at 465-4447 or the church 465-5474.
Contact Campbell at: al.c@cmcherald.com

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