Tag Archives: educate

Prison Experiments

prison expA little over a decade ago, in one of my first psychology classes under the tutelage of Dr.Cook at Trinity Valley Community College, I came across the work of Stanford psychologist Dr. Phillip Zimbardo and was literally blown away by how closely Dr. Zimbaro’s had adequately reproduced the conditions of prison life with his Stafford Prison experiment.

This learned man-made be believe in the power of laboratory experiments to reproduce and study the conditions of everyday life and experience. Since first coming across his work more than a decade ago, I have been a huge fan of this great man who had so eloquently provided a voice to, over 2 million voiceless American prisoners scattered around the nation.

Although Dr. Zimbardo’s work is now several decades old I find it as chilling in its accuarcy today as it was when first published.

What follows is a short summary of his work that he prepared for the U.S House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary: Hearing On Prison Reform

The Psychological Power and Pathology of Imprisonment by Phillip G. Zimbaro:

In an attempt to understand just what it means psychologically to be a prisoner or a prison guard, we created our own prison. We carefully screened over 70 volunteers who answered an ad in the Palo Alto City newspaper and ended up with about two dozen young men who were selected to be part of this study.  They were mature, emotionally stable, normal, intelligent college students from middle class homes throughout the United States and Canada. They appeared to represent the “cream of the crop” of this generation. None had any criminal record and all were relatively homogeneous on many dimensions initially.

Half were arbitrarily designated as “prisoners” by a flip of a coin, the others as “guards.” These were the roles they were to play in our simulated prison. The guards were made aware of the potential seriousness and danger of the situation, and their own vulnerability. They made up their own formal rules for maintaining law, order, and respect, and were generally free to improvise new ones during their 8-hour, 3-man shifts. The prisoners were unexpectedly picked up at their homes by a City policeman in a squad car, searched, handcuffed, fingerprinted, booked at the Station House, and taken blindfolded to our jail. There they were stripped, deloused, put into a uniform, given a number, and put into a cell with two other prisoners where they expected to live for the next two weeks. The pay was good ($15 a day) and their motivation was to make money.

We observed and recorded on videotape the events that occurred in the prison, and we interviewed and tested the prisoners and guards at various points throughout the study. These data will be available to the committee in a forthcoming report. Some of the videotapes of the actual encounters between the prisoners and guards can be seen on the NBC news feature Chronolog, November 26, 1971.

In the short time available at this hearing, I can only outline the major results of ‘this experiment, and then briefly relate them to the “experiment” which our society is conducting using involuntary subjects.  Finally, I wish to suggest some modest  proposals to help make “real” prisons become more successful experiments.

At the end of only six days we had to close down our mock prison because what we saw was frightening. It was no longer apparent to us or most of the subjects where they ended and their roles began. The majority had indeed become “prisoners” or “guards,” no longer able to clearly differen­tiate between role-playing and self. There were dramatic changes in virtually every aspect of their behavior, thinking and feeling. In less than a week, the experience of imprison­ment undid (temporarily) a lifetime of learning; human values were suspended, self-concepts were challenged, and the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced.  We were horrified because we saw some boys (“guards”) treat other boys as if they were despicable animals, taking pleasure in cruelty, while other boys (“prisoners”) became servile, dehumanized robots who thought only of escape, of their own individual survival, and of their mounting hatred of the guards.

We had to release three “prisoners” in the first four days because they had such acute situational traumatic reactions as hysterical crying, confusion in thinking, and severe depres­sion. Others begged to be “paroled,” and all but three were willing to forfeit all the money they had earned if they could be “paroled.” By then, the fifth day, they had been so pro­grammed to think of themselves as “prisoners,” that when their request for “parole” was denied, they returned docilely to their cells. Now, had they been thinking as college students acting in an oppressive experiment, they would have quit once they no longer wanted the $15 a day we used as our only incentive. However, the reality was not “quitting an experiment,” but “being paroled by the parole board from the Stanford County Jail.” By the last days, the earlier solidarity among the prisoners (systematically broken by the guards) dissolved into “each man for himself.” Finally, when one of their fellows was put in solitary confinement (a small closet) for refusing to eat, the prisoners were given a choice by one of the guards:  give up their blankets and the “incorrigible prisoner” would be let out, or keep their blankets and he would be kept in all night. They voted to keep their blankets and to abandon their brother, a suffering prisoner.

About a third of the guards became tyrannical in their arbitrary use of power, in enjoying their control over other people.  They were corrupted by the power of their roles and became quite inventive in their techniques of breaking the spirit of the prisoners and making them feel they were worthless Some of the guards merely did their jobs as “tough but fair” correctional officers. Several were “good guards” from the prisoners’ point of view, since they did them small favors and were friendly. However, no “good guard” or any other one ever interfered with a command by any of the “bad guards”; they never intervened on the side of the prisoners, they never told the others to ease off because it was only an experiment, and they never even came to me as Prison Superintendent or Experimenter in charge to complain. In part, they were “good” because the others were “bad”; they needed the others to help establish their own egos in a positive light. In a sense, they perpetuated the prison more than the other guards because their own needs to be liked prevented them from disobeying or viola­ting the implicit guard’s code. At the same time, the act of befriending the prisoners created a social reality which made the prisoners less likely to rebel.

By the end of the week, the experiment had become a reality, as if it were a Pirandello play directed by Kafka that just keeps going after the audience has left. The Consultant for our prison, Carlo Prescott, an ex-con with 16 years imprisonment in California’s jails, would get so depressed and furious each time he visited our prison, because of its psychological similarity to his experiences, that he would have to leave. A Catholic priest, who was a former prison Chaplain in Washington, D.C., talked to our “prisoners” after four days and said they were just like the “first-timers” he had seen.

But in the end, I called off the experiment not because of the horror I saw out there in the prison yard, but because of the horror of realizing that ^ could have easily traded places with the most brutal guard, or become the weakest prisoner full of hate at being so powerless that I could not eat, sleep or go to the toilet without permission of the author­ities’.  I. could have become Galley at My Lai, George Jackson at San Quentin, one of the men at Attica, or the prisoner quoted at the beginning of this report.  I believe you could too.

Significance of these findings

(1)   Individual behavior is largely under the control of social forces and environmental contingencies rather than “personality traits,” “character,” “will power” or other empir­ically unvalidated constructs.  Thus we create an illusion of freedom by attributing more internal control to ourselves, to the individual, than actually exists.  We thus underestimate the power and pervasiveness of situational controls over behavior because:  (a) they are often non-obvious and subtle, (b) we often can avoid entering situations where we might be so controlled, (c) we label as “weak” or “deviant” people in those situations who do behave differently from how we believe we would.

Each of us carries around in our heads a favorable self-image in which we are essentially just, fair, ‘humane, understanding, etc.  For example, we could not imagine inflic­ting pain on others without much provocation, or hurting people who had done nothing to us, who in fact were even liked by us.  However, there is a growing body of social psychological research which underscores the conclusion derived from this prison study. Many people, perhaps the majority, can be made to do almost anything when put into psychologically compelling situations—regardless of their morals, ethics, values, attitudes, beliefs, or personal convictions. My colleague, Stanley Milgram, has shown that more than sixty percent of the popula­tion will deliver what they think is a series of painful electric shocks to another person even after the victim cries for mercy, begs them to stop, and then apparently passes out. The subjects complained that they did not want to hurt him more, but blindly obeyed the command of the authority figure (the experimenter) who said that they must go on.  In my research on violence, I have seen mild-mannered co-eds repea­tedly give “shocks” (which they thought were causing pain) to another girl, a stranger whom they had rated very favorably, simply by being made to feel anonymous and put in a situation where they were expected to engage in this activity.

Observers of these and similar experimental situations never predict their outcomes, and estimate that it is unlikely that they themselves would behave similarly. They can be so confident only when they are outside the situation, but since the majority of people in these studies do act in these “non-rational,” “non-obvious” ways, then it follows, that the majority of observers would also succumb to the social psycho­logical forces in the situation.

(2)   With regard to prisons, we can state that the mere act of assigning labels to people, such as “prisoners” and “guards,” and putting them into a situation where those labels acquire validity and meaning, is sufficient to elicit patholog­ical behavior. This pathology is not predictable from any available diagnostic indicators we have in the social sciences, and is extreme enough to modify in very significant ways fundamental attitudes and behavior. The prison situation, as presently arranged, is guaranteed to generate severe enough pathological reactions in both guards and prisoners as to debase their humanity, lower their feelings of self-worth, and make it difficult for them to be part of a society outside of their prison.

General Conclusions and Specific Recommendations for Reform

Prison is any situation in which one person’s freedom and liberty are denied by virtue of the arbitrary power exer­cised by another person or group. Thus our prisons of concrete and steel are only metaphors for the social prisons we create and maintain through enforced poverty, racism, sexism, and other forms of social injustice. They are also the physical symbol of the psychological prisons we create for others, by making even our loved ones feel inadequate or self-conscious, and, worst of all, the imprisonment we impose on our own minds and actions through neurotic fears.

The need for “prison reform” then is a cry not only to change the operating procedures of our penal institutions, but a more basic plea to change the conditions in our society which make us all prisoners, all less happy, less productive, less free to grow, and less concerned about our brothers than about our own survival.

Our national leaders for years have been pointing to the enemies of freedom, to the fascist or communist threat to the American way of life.  In so doing, they have overlooked the threat of social anarchy that is building within our own country without any outside agitation. As soon as a person comes to the realization that he is being “imprisoned” by his society or individuals in it, then, in the best American tradition, he demands liberty and rebels, accepting death as an alternative.

The third alternative, however, is to allow oneself to become a “good prisoner,” docile, cooperative, uncomplaining, confor­ming in thought and complying in deed.                                                                                             Our prison authorities now point to the “militant agitators” who are still vaguely part of some communist plot, as the irresponsible, “incorrigible” trouble-makers.  They imply that there would be no trouble, riots, hostages, or deaths if it weren’t for this small band of “bad prisoners.” In other words, if they could break these men, then everything would return to “normal” again in the life of our nation’s prisons.

The riots in prison are coming from within—from within every man and woman who refuses to let The System turn them into an object, a number, a thing, or a no-thing.  It is not communist-inspired, but inspired by the spirit of American freedom. No man wants to be enslaved. To be powerless, to be subject to the arbitrary exercise of power, to not be recognized as a human being is to be a slave.

To be a “militant prisoner” is to become aware that the physical jails are but more blatant extensions of the forms of social and psychological oppression experienced daily in the nation’s ghettos. They are trying to awaken the conscience of the nation to the ways in which the American ideals are being perverted in the name of “justice,” but actually under the banner of apathy, fear, and hatred, if we do not listen to the pleas of the prisoners at Attica to be treated like human beings, then we all have become brutalized by our priorities for property rights over human rights. The consequence will not only be more prison riots, but a loss of all those ideals on which this country was founded.

Recommendations:

1)                      Do not demand simple solutions for the complex problems of crime and law enforcement.

2)                      Do continue to search for solutions, to question all assumptions regarding the causes of crime, the nature of the criminal, and the function of prisons. Support research which might provide some answers to these issues, and continue to keep the legislature and the public informed about these issues.

3)                      Put the specific question of prison reform in the broader context of societal reforms and social injustice which may account for why many commit crimes in the first place.

4)                      Investigate the public’s latent attitudes about punishment and retribution, and then initiate programs to reeducate the public as to the rehabilitative purposes and goals of our correctional institutions.

5)                      Insist that Judges have a continuing interest in what happens to people they sentence.

6)                      Help make the public aware that they own the prisons, and that their business is failing. The seventy percent recid­ivism rate, and the escalation in severity of crimes committed by graduates of our prisons are evidence that current prisons fail to rehabilitate the inmates in any positive way. Rather,
they are breeding grounds for hatred of the establishment, a hatred that makes every citizen a target of violent assault. Prisons are a bad investment for us taxpayers. Until now we have not cared, we have turned over to wardens and prison “authorities” the unpleasant job of keeping people who threaten us out of our sight. Now we are shocked to learn that their management practices have failed to improve the product, and instead they are turning petty thieves into murderers. We must insist upon new management or improved operating procedures.

7)                      Remove the cloak of secrecy from the prisons. Prisoners claim they are brutalized by the guards, guards say it is a lie. Where is the impartial test of the truth in such a situation? Prison officials have forgotten that they work for us, that they are only public servants whose salaries are paid by our taxes.  They act as if it is their prison, like a child with a toy he won’t share. Neither lawyers, judges, the
legislature, nor the public are allowed into prisons to ascertain the truth unless the visit is sanctioned by “authorities” and until all is prepared for their visit. I was shocked to learn that my request to join this committee’s tour of San Quentin and Soledad was refused, as was that of the news media. However, after talking with convicts, it is apparent that such a guided tour would be the same kind an American
general would get in Moscow. Did this committee visit A section of the South Block, the upper floors of the adjustment center, B section, third tier, any floor above the bottom one in the hospital? It is likely they did not, because these are not part of the prison “show rooms” in San Quentin.

8)                      There should be an ombudsman in every prison, not under the pay or control of the prison authority, responsible only to the courts, state legislature and the public. Such a person could report on violations of constitutional and human rights.

9)                      Guards must be given better training than they now receive for the difficult job society imposes upon them. To be a prison guard as now constituted is to be put in a situation of constant threat from within the prison, with no social recognition from the society at large. As was shown graphically at Attica, prison guards are also prisoners of the system who can be sacrificed to the demands of the public to be punitive and the needs of politicians to preserve an image. Social scientists and business training personnel should be called upon to design and help carry out this training.

10)                  In line with this new human relations training, would be changes in the perceived role of the “guards.” They would instead be “teachers” or “counselors” and the “prisoners” would be “trainees.”  The reinforcement (bonus, advancement) for such a “teacher” would be contingent upon the “trainees” learning new social and technical skills which will enable them to leave the “training-rehabilitation” center as early as possible, and not: come back.

Positive reinforcement would replace coercion, threats and isolation as means of behavior management.  Most prisoners want to return to their community, to be capable of earning a living, to be socially responsible and to be needed by others. Many are in prison not because they don’t have a manual trade, but because of deficits in social training. Prisons should be constituted to provide the opportunity for such people to have positive social experiences, to be responsive to and responsible for others. This could be done by giving them training as psychiatric aides and social workers who must care for other disturbed prisoners. This “peer management” is the best way to build an individual’s sense of self-worth and a feeling of community. In addition, these skills are vitally needed in the communities to which the “trainees” will return. College students and professional social scientists could volunteer their services or be part of a Vista campaign to produce such training.

11)                  The relationship between the individual (who is sentenced by the courts to such a center) and his community must be maintained. How can a “prisoner” return to a dynam­ically changing society, that most of us cannot cope with, after being out of it for a number of years? There should be more community involvement in these rehabilitation centers, more ties encouraged and promoted between the trainees and
family and friends, more educational opportunities to prepare them for returning to their communities as more valuable members of it than they were before they left.

12)                  Once a trainee has finished the prescribed course and is judged ready to leave the institution, there should be no stigma attached to his training, no need to report to pros­pective employers that he/she was a “prisoner,” no need to be labeled an “ex-con.”

13)                  Finally, the main ingredient necessary to effect any change at all in prison reform, in the rehabilitation of a  single prisoner, or even in the optimal development of your own child, is caring. That is where all reform must start — with people caring about the well-being of others, especially people with power, like those on this committee, really caring about the most hardened, allegedly incorrigible prisoner in solitary confinement. Underneath the toughest, society-hating convict, rebel, or anarchist is a human being who wants his existence to be recognized by his fellows and who wants someone else to care about whether he lives or dies and to be sad if he lives imprisoned rather than lives free.

Criticism Filter

THINKIf you’re like most people, myself included, it’s easier for you to give out criticism to others then it is to receive it yourself.

In one sense I think we all wear blinders and rose-colored shades when it comes to our own shortcomings. I also think because most of us don’t consider a lot of the criticism we receive as good criticism (meaning factual and true), we out-right reject it. If you are hip you might use the universal ego booster via hip-hop lingo, “They just hating on me.” However, there is usually a trace of truth in even the most virulent criticism that we receive – truth that has the potential to help us grow and mature into our full potential

Yet since we are bound to dish it out – more than take it, I came across a acronym called THINK that I feel we would each be wise to use next time we get ready to tell someone off. THINK stands for, Is it: True, Helpful, Inspirational, Necessary, and Kind.

Just THINK about it when we find ourselves on the business end of someone’s sharp tongue-Most of us would prefer that their words be, True, Helpful, Inspirational, Necessary and Kind. As opposed to Harsh, Hurtful, Mean, Sarcastic and Unkind.

I   know   I   would!

So remember – is it

T True
H Helpful
I  Inspirational
N Necessary
K Kind

THINK before you address someone!

Don’t Forget To Check The Scrap Pile

Have you ever seen a junk collector or metal recycler? If you have then you probably noticed them picking up old broken stoves and refrigerators, A, C units, sometimes discarded furniture and other items. All things that another person judged as useless, unfit,  outdated, and a waste of vital space. So they threw them out.

While you and I may drive by and see only useless junk, a collector sees potential, not to mention $$$$. Because he’s not looking at what is, but what will be. You see, it’s all in a matter of perspective. The person who threw it out was looking at the past and present, while the collector has his eyes on the future.

That’s how I liken my prison experience. As I look around I see a sea of human, wreckage-wasted lives and unused potential. People who just like that junk on the side of the street society have been declared as unfit, useless, outdated, as vital waste of space and resources.

But every now and then, I run into men like myself who do more than refuse these harmful labels. They scoop them up and hurl them right back into the faces of the senders. So fast that they begin to wonder how did he do that, he’s a convict? Who does he think he is anyway? I’ll tell you. He thinks he’s someone with more potential in his future than calamity in his past. Someone who knows that it’s not what you say about me that counts, but what I say about me. As British author Zadie Smith so eloquently states, “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines ME.”

For that reason I was excited when I ran into a group of incarcerated brothers who have created a community service problem solving organization called OnDaVerge.com and I wanted to share it with you that you can be inspired as well. Check these brothers out as they are doing big thangs.

http://www.ondaverg.org/

From the brochure:

On Da Verg.Org is a community service organization geared towards educating & assisting people in problematic situations about proven methods they can use to alleviate their burdens. We also offer vital resources to prisoners, their families & children of incarcerated parents.

Founded in 2004, On Da Verg.Org’s pioneers have designed and developed informational products called Solution Based Models, which are the blueprint or problem or crisis resolution!

At this time, our main focus is on youth ages 12-19 who are faced with various negative circumstances, and at-risk. Our models also assist the parents & guardians of troubled youth, providing easily understood steps to totally eradicate the problem at hand. Our social networking spectrum is wide-ranged & very resourceful, as we direct parents & guardians to the proper agencies who specialize in dealing with specific problems.

Our On Da Verg.Org team is filled with crisis survivors and our crisis response team have effective tactics to intervene in certain problems when necessary.

Everyone is looking for solutions to problems. The problem is, ‘Solutions’ are very limited. This creates a Demand!

Perfect Business Model. The illusion in the world is that everyone is solving their problems. Fact is, almost no one is solving their problems effectively. 99.9% are actually trying to avoid their problems. The
average person’s life is rife with problems. This is what makes the name, On Da Verg.Org what it is? People are constantly on the verge of some extremely important decision(s)….

 

On da verge broch 1

on da verg broch 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Pursuit of Excellence — My Master’s Degree

Pursuit of ExcellenceIf you have read my blog for a while, you already know that I am a former 8th grade dropout who didn’t began the process of educating myself until I found myself wrongfully incarcerated in 1997.

Beginning in the county jail, I earned my GED from Houston Community College. From there I embarked on a long and tortuous journey to receive a formal education.

Once I arrived in prison I didn’t want to get caught up in the usual nonsense and unproductivity that my current environment seems to mandate. So I threw myself into education whole heartedly As a result I was able to earn a few associates degrees, one in language arts through Trinity Valley, and two others in Business Administration and Humanities in Huntsville on the Wynne unit.

But I wasn’t finished there. While still on the Wynne unit I began taking classes from Sam Houston University in pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology.

Unfortunately my education dreams got side-tracked when the state of Texas cut the budget at all state colleges. Being a public college, Sam Houston took a major financial blow and promptly decided that with funds in short supply spending money on educating inmates was a unconscionable expense. The crazy things was no one even considered the strong rehabilitative value of these programs which have been shown to cut recidivism.

As the ax fell myself and several other former Sam Houston students pursuing their degrees found ourselves in limbo.

Luckily after two years of educational purgatory the pearly gates of higher education finally opened to me. When I was finally transferred to my current unit which offers a bachelor’s degree program as well a Masters one through the University of Houston Clear Lake.

I have set it as a personal goal to have my master’s degree by the time I’m 40. Being 35 and a ¼ as I write, this means I have 4 years to do it.

I am convinced I can do it. But for me, the ironic thing is that out in society I grew up less than two miles from University of Houston’s main campus, but had to come to prison to attend. Go figure. Like they say, better late than never.

And today I am happy to report that I am headed head first into that place called graduate degree land. Hip Hip Hooray!!!

Will The Real Heroes and Role Models Please Stand Up

In the United States we tend to look at celebrities and sports figures as Heros. Even though the antics of a good portion of these individuals constantly reveal that majority of them are anything but .

For instance I am a Miami Heat fan who likes league MVP Lebron James, but I don’t consider him a hero or role model. For me he is a young athletic man who plays a game that a lot of people like extremely well and earns a large income as a result. Nothing more or less. Same thing with rappers, singers and so forth. Since when does talent, record sales, and box office reviews equals morals and character?

What got me to thinking about this subject was that awhile ago myself and few more guys were in the weight room working out when another guy begin to make a point by quoting rapper Lil Wayne. Another guy jumped in and cut him off, he was like, “Man, wait one goddamn minute, who the F— is lil Wayne that you basing your life on shit he say? What college did he graduate from, what movement did he start, how many people has he helped, or how many lives has he changed for the better?”

I listened to this dude rant and nodded my head in agreement. But that got me to thinking about what a hero or role model is and isn’t. I mean, normally we quote people who have really changed our world, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus, Thurgood Marshall, President Obama, Winston Churchill, Malcolm X, Fredrick Douglas, to name a few. Yet here was a young man basing a large portion of his thinking on something he heard Lil Wayne say on a rap song.

As I gave it some thought I came to the conclusion that a true hero is someone who improves the lives of a significant number of people in a measurable way, while often being unsung and derided in the process.

Think of the mostly faceless and nameless college students of CORE and SNCC who came together and helped to desegregate the South with their sit-ins and Freedom Rides. Besides a few of the leaders, I bet you can’t name even one, yet there were literally hundreds.

True heroes. Or someone like Sojourner Truth who wasn’t content to simply escape to freedom herself. She continued to put herself in harm’s way by going back to help some 300 others. Knowing all along that should she be caught, the penalty would certainly be death, but only after being raped and tortured. That’s a hero. Not someone who makes 20 million dollars for their latest action movie, lives in a mansion, has 13 luxury cars yet hires illegal immigrants to raise her kids and clean her house in a effort to save money. I mean come on people.

And while heroes heroics tend to have an effect on a large number of people, role models can be just plain everyday folks who work with what they have while living their lives with respect and dignity.

With this in mind it’s my pleasure to introduce you to a few of my heroes and role models.

Claressa Shields

Claressa Shields

Claressa grew up in Flint, Michigan in a low economic area surrounded by drugs, gangs, violence, and negative influences. Raised in a small house with several other siblings, her mother was a real heavy drinker, she said, “Growing up, I could never get my mom to stop drinking.” She was also picked on by older bigger girls in her neighborhood. According to Claressa, “I was smart, but skinny. There were always girls who would pull my hair and try to bully me for no reason. I felt like nobody could hear me or understand me, so I stayed to myself.”

Her sense of having no voice had began even before she was a teenager. At the age of 5 she was repeatedly raped by a friend of her mothers. To get away from the sexual predator whom her mother was still involved with, she had to move in with her grandmother.

All in all this brown skinned girl had had a hard life. But God. Her luck begin to change when at the age of 11 she wandered into a local boxing gym and asked to train. At first the coach laughed to himself and thought she was just joking. Not wanting to make a big fuss, he figured she would mess around for a few days, a week at the most and then be on her way. But before long he noticed her dedication and the disciplined approach to training that she exhibited. That, and the fact that she was whipping up on every boy her size and bigger in the gym. The girl had fire.

It turned out that Claressa’s inner pain had found an outlet in the form of a pair of boxing gloves. She said, “At the time I felt like I was in a real dark place; I was just real mad. And then I started boxing, it kind of brought light into my life, into that dark room. It opened a window.”

Before long Claressa was considered one of the best female boxers in her division, eventually qualifying for the 2012 Olympics where she not not only competed but won a gold medal. The first for a African-American female boxer in her entire state.

The girl from the bottom had made it to the top on the world’s biggest stage. She said, “I don’t walk around carrying a burden like, oh I was raped; oh, I was molested; oh, my mom didn’t believe me, because to me, all that is in the past and I overcame it. God let all that stuff happen to me because he saw that I was strong enough to handle it. He knew that I would be successful. His purpose was that all this would happen, and when I make it, when I win a gold medal, I’ll be able to tell my story, and they’ll be able to see that God is real.” Claressa Shields – a True Hero.

Ms Latiker

Ms. Latiker standing in front of a a memorial she built to memorize the 370 young victims of gun violence killed Chicago in 2012

Chances are you’ve never heard of Diane Latiker. Our President probably hadn’t either when Ms.Latiker typed him a letter. She wrote, ”Being a organizer from Roseland, I’m sure you understand the need that exist concerning the violence that’s taken the lives of thousands across our nation. We need your help Mr. President.”

You see Ms. Latiker is one of our unsung real heroes. In the city of Chicago, a city with a gang epidemic as well as the highest murder count in the nation, 507 in 2012 alone, she decided to do something heroic and step into the gap by starting ”Kids of the Block”, a youth mentoring and after school program for underserved poor kids on the cities’ Southside. Since she began, some 2000 kids have passed through the doors of her organization.

While Ms.Latiker and the world may never know for certain, she has undoubtedly saved many of these young people’s lives. All with no radio or TV shows or fanfare. But that’s what a real hero does, continues to fight the good fight even in the face of seemly insurmountable obstacles. All the while Screaming “No retreat, No surrender. Victory or death.”

Catherine Rohr

Catherine Rohr

Another hero I want to introduce you to is Catherine Rohr. An attractive young white lady who once earned millions of dollars as a Wall Street investment banker. A job she gave up to teach MBA style entrepreneur skills to incarcerated robbers and murders.

At the age of 25, Ms. Rohr became a born-again Christian and took a trip to several Texas prisons with a church group whom she was visting. It was during one of these trips that Ms. Rohr got the inspiration to teach business classes to inmates. According to Ms. Rohr, “these men exhibited many of the same qualities she looked for when she met with founders and investors.”

Fired up, Ms. Rohr quit her cushy investment banker job, moved to Texas and started the, “Prison Entrepreneurship” program, or PEP for short, with her own money.

In a five year time PEP had graduated 500 students, 60 which went on to start successful businesses. Even better was that compared to the national average of a 40 percent recidivism rate for PEP graduates, it was only 10 percent a significant improvement

Eventually Ms. Rohr left Texas and moved back to New York, raised 1.5 million and began a new prison entrepreneurship program called “Defy Ventures”, a program that is doing for convicted felons in New York, what PEP is still doing for men in Texas — changing lives forever.

 Quanell X

Quanell X

The last unsung hero whom I want to give credit to is local community activist Quanell X. He grew up in Southeast Houston in a predominantly black area known as Sunnyside. A recent report on America’s best and worst neighborhoods named Sunnyside as the 6th most dangerous neighborhood to live in in the entire United States. So it’s no secret the types of activities that you can find going on in Sunnyside and areas like it.

As a black male child searching for his way in the world this is where a young Quanell cut his teeth. And it wasn’t long before he was on the path of death and destruction that seemed the only avenue open to a entire generation of black youth. But after his young brother who was also in the, “game” was found murder execution style along with his girlfriend Quanell decided to change his life for the better.

Initially he found salvation in the Nation of Islam. Articulate and well spoken he quickly rose in the organization until a split caused him to go his own way. For awhile there after he was affiliated with the New Black Panther party before eventually forming his own community support activist organization.

Today Quanell X is considered the number one activist in Houston’s black community who even has his own nightly TV segment called Face-off on the local Fox News affiliate. As the first person most African Americans call when they need someone well spoken, fearless, and knowledgeable to speak truth to power he is at the pinnacle of success.

While many people dislike his confrontational in your face style, very few can doubt his effectiveness. And knowing Mr. Quanell personally, where he comes from as well what he was once about, it’s a joy and inspiration every time I look up on TV and see this former SA Fool immaculate in his tailor made suit, telling the mayor, Police Chief, FBI and whoever else that we won’t rest until justice is served.

Calling All Genealogy Buffs

genealogy

I am seeking help with finding cut more about my family tree. In particular the path my ancestors took after emancipation from slavery. I am interested in submitting a sample of my DNA to a online genealogy service such as AfricanAncestry.com which holds out the promise of connecting modern day African-Americans with their pre-slavery African ancestors, kind of like a high-tech version of Alex Haley’s journey in Roots.

Former Houston Rocket’s basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon is responsible for reigniting my interest in tracing the various branches of my family tree. Several years ago I read an article in the business section of the Houston Chronicle about a 245 acre tract of land Mr. Olajuwon purchased on one side of Clear Lake to add to his existing real-estate holdings. What caught my eye in the article was that a former slave owner named James West, who at one time was the largest slave owner in Texas once owned the property that Mr. Olajuwon was purchasing.

That stunned me. As I knew from my knowledge of slavery that following emancipation, many former slaves simply took the surnames of their former masters. Which is the reason why we have so many Jones, Johnsons, Smiths, and Williams etc in the black community –

Furthermore on my father’s side my family’s name is West. I also knew that my father’s relations are originally from Galveston, TX a small island about twenty miles from clear lake.

At that point I couldn’t help but wonder if my paternal ancestors had once been enslaved on the West Plantation in Clear Lake and had simply migrated a few miles down the road to Galveston after emancipation. But of course it was only a hypothesis, although not a far-fetched one.

Seeking to put the pieces of the puzzle together I reached out to my aunt Desira, my father’s sister and she provided me with a little more information. Namely that her mother, my grandmother, was named Vermilya Matthews, her mother my great grandmother Catherine, and my great grandmother’s father who was born in slavery was named Wiley. My aunt’s father, my grandfather was named Charles West Jr., and his father, my great granddad, was named Charles Jonathan West Sr. and was a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While it’s not much, I am hoping it’s enough for me to begin connecting the dots.

On my mother’s side things are a little more sketchy and all I know for sure is that my maternal grandmother, whose name was Amanda Brown, has roots in Louisiana and Arkansas. That’s about it. But like a bloodhound I have a scent to chase. Now all I have to do is hop in my time machine, set the dial to the year 1600 and the hunt is on. Woof!!!

The Young African-American Survival Guide – Go Get It for Free!

I can’t explain how good it feels to do some good from a bad situation which is what I feel this book will do.
As a result of my own struggles and troubled childhood, I have developed a strong desire to work with disadvantaged African-American youth from inner city communities, particularly those from single parent homes, to encourage them to make better life decisions.

Using the gift I’ve been given, I have written an illustrated book of some 200 pages, a workbook for Africa- American youth, entitled “The Young African American Survival Guide for ages 8-18”.
The book is built around the topics of sex, drugs, hustling, education, gangbanging, and violence.

The book is certainly needed in many African-American communities:

• 67 % of all black children are born to single mothers
• African-American women and their children make up 60 percent of all new AIDS/HIV cases in the United States
• 50 % of black female teenagers have contracted a sexually transmitted disease by age 18
• At birth a black male child has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison
• In 2002, 1,772 black youth died from gunshot wounds
• 1 out of every 21 black men will be murdered. The murder rate for black males is 10 times higher than the murder rate for white males
• 40 % of prisoners on death row are African-American
• 64 % of black students cannot read at grade level in the 4th grade, compared with 29 percent of white children

For many of us, these are only numbers, and essentially not our problem. But it’s the human beings behind these numbers that concern me and all individuals who have love and concern for their fellow human beings.
I decided to try to make a difference, even if it’s just a small one, in the life of some inner city child with my book “The Young African American Survival Guide”.

Access my book for free on Prisonsfoundations.com

Talk to Your Daughters

Asia Graves, a former teenage prostitute

Disclaimer: I’m from the hood which means I know what it is to go without. What it means to have your lights or water turned off. What it means to see your single mother rob Peter to pay Paul and try to stretch a dollar thinner than the paper it was printed on. So I understand Poverty and the soul killing, ambition stealing nature of it.

I stated the above to stress that I understand hustling and what people in poor communities have to do to make ends meet, even when their actions sometimes puts them on the wrong side of the law. Even as a Christian man, I can’t knock a person in their battle for survival .

However, there is one hustle that I personally never appreciated or condoned, which is pimping, where a man uses force, mental coercion, manipulation, material possession or whatever to convince a woman to sell her body for his financial benefit. And to be honest with you, it upsets me every time I read or hear about it, especially when a young girl is turned out and either forced or tricked into this soul-crushing lifestyle.

But it’s happening everyday right up under our noses and it happened to Asia Graves the beautiful young woman whose picture is at the top of this article. Like a lot of black girls from the hood, Asia had a rough childhood which consisted of a drug-addicted mother, and being bounced back and forth to different relatives homes.

Until at the tender impressionable age of 16, she found herself broke and homeless on the streets of Boston. One night while she was out on the streets, broke and cold, a well-dressed man approached her smiling as if he had the world at his beg and call. He told Asia that she was pretty and much too beautiful to be outside with no place to go. Encouraged by his nice words, she accepted what she naively thought was the man’s kindness. Kindness that consisted of food, clothes, money and a place to stay. To tell the truth, she felt like she had been rescued by a nice wealthy man whom she had no idea was a pimp.

After a few days of providing her a place to stay and feeding her, the man told Asia that it takes money to live in this world and that she had to start earning her keep — pimp talk for whoring.

But he told her not to worry about it, that he would take care of it by setting her up with a “date”. Only this date involved Asia having sex with men in exchange for money. Soon this one date turned into two and three, until Asia found herself having sex with multiple men a night for money. Money that she had to quickly turn over to the man who has supposedly “rescued her”. Asia said, “If we didn’t call him daddy, he would slap us, beat us, or choke us.”

For nearly two years Asia found herself stuck in this destructive lifestyle as a result of her need for material support and a place to stay, and fear of what her pimp would do to her if she tried to leave. And because it was Asia along with some other girls that he had selling his body for him, he was able to convince them that they were all one big family and used them to recruit other girls for his “stable”.

”It’s about love and thinking you’re part of a family, a team. I couldn’t leave because I thought he would kill me.”

Fortunately with the help of the police and FBI, Asia was able to break free of her pimp after he nearly killed her and she had to be hospitalized for her injuries. But not every girl is so lucky – too many wind up dead, or strung out and on the streets for life.

Today Asia works with “Fair Girls” a D.C. organization started by Andrea Powell that offers a four hour curriculum entitled “Tell Your Friends” about how young girls in general, but especially black and Hispanic girls from single parent households are these predators number one target.

Since it began, “Fair Girls” has reached thousands of teenage girls. However, that is still a drop in the bucket compared with the millions of young girls in these predator’s crosshairs .That’s why we all each individually have to do something. We have to talk to our teenage daughters, sisters, nieces, cousins and neighbors. Don’t think it can’t happen to anyone who you love and care about. Girls have been exploited from the suburbs to the Subway and from the Penthouse to the Poorhouse pimps and sex traffickers don’t discriminate.

Asia Graves put herself out there on the front page of a national newspaper so we call could see the face of teenage prostitution.

Now the ball is in our court talk to the teenage girls in you life, don’t assume it can’t happen because it can and is happening everyday all around this country.

What IS Black?

Is being black an act?

Is it a walk, or talk or, better yet, an attitude?

Maybe it’s the way you dress, or the car you drive?

Does being black equate a life of stress?

Is Clarence Thomas Black? What about Republican J.C. Watts?

What does being black mean?

Does being black meaning standing on the corner smoking marijuana?

Why or Why not?

Does it mean embracing the fictional American Dream?

A dream that was only intended for a few

Does it mean getting a so called good education?

To prepare you for a good job

Or getting the Clock and ski mask to rob?

Does being black mean dying young, or being strung out on crack?

How about doing time in jail?

Does it mean black women raising kids alone,

Or leading the country in rates of HIV?

Will someone please explain this to me

Or just answer the question…

What is Black?

 

Reprinted from “A Windowless Room” by Kenneth West, Trafford Press

I did it ! ! !

I gave my first Toastmaster’s speech on 11-26-12, which was the 3 to 6 minute icebreaker meant as a opportunity for the speaker to introduce him- or herself to the guest and fellow Toastmasters.

The title of my speech was ”Line of Demarcation”, which for me signifies the divider between the two lives that I have lived. On one side of the line is the old man I used to be and on the other is the man that I am striving to be and have become in prison.

My speech, which lasted on four minutes and fifty-one seconds, was kind of short but went pretty well. Still, I was nervous as hell. Why is the act of standing up before a group of people and speaking so damn terrifying?

But I am determined to master the art of public speaking and to become an all around better communicator.

So one speech down and nine more to go. Once I give my tenth speech and officially become what Toastmaster calls a competent communicator, if you need someone to speak at your graduation, Bar Mitzwah, annual corporate retreat, look me up, I’ll give you a discount on G.P.!!!

Audience feedback from my first Speech: