By Samantha Brandbergh
No matter the walk of life, one bad decision can put someone with potential in a prison cell.
Four current New Jersey inmates shared their stories with a group of Rider students on Sept. 20 as part of the Petey Greene program and the Promoting Responsibility in Drug Education (PRIDE) Project.
The Petey Greene program brings students into correctional facilities to tutor inmates, with the hopes of providing them with tools to prepare for life after prison.
Raisah Thomas, a teacher and facilitator for the New Jersey Department of Corrections, spoke about the program and the audiences it can reach.
“We have four pre-selected inmates who go out into our communities,” she said. “We go to public schools, community venues — such as churches and orphanages — probationary centers with at-risk youth and detention centers, and we speak about making better decisions.”
Junior criminal justice major Yasmeen Afiouni currently tutors at the Garden State Correctional Facility through the Rider chapter of the Petey Greene program.
“It gives you a positive outlook; it’s an enriching experience,” she said. “It doesn’t matter your age, race, gender. If you get the chance, it really will make a difference.”
The inmates, whose last names were not revealed, each spoke to the audience about what led them to incarceration and their hopes for the future.
The two male inmates are currently serving their sentence at Albert C. Wagner Correctional Facility in Burlington County, and the two female inmates are serving at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township.
Evan grew up with two brothers, and was subject to mental and physical abuse from a drug-addicted father. Because of this, he was not home often and would go out with his older brother which is how he was introduced to drugs.
“I was always curious about the wrong things,” he said.
Despite this, football was always a big part of his life during high school, Evan said.
“I could have gone to college to play ball. I got my foot into a couple Division III colleges to play football, but didn’t pursue it,” he said. “I was ignorant. I didn’t think I could afford it, didn’t think I was good enough.”
Evan opted to enroll in community college, selling drugs in between classes to make some extra money. He skipped classes to make sales,
resulting in him dropping out during his second semester.
“I remember one day in class when I thought, ‘I’m never coming back,’” he said. “I went to go make a sale, and I never went back to school that day.”
Evan’s drug habits escalated when he picked up percocet “out of boredom,” which eventually led to the crime that landed him in prison with a “three with an 85,” or having to serve 85 percent of a three-year sentence.
While walking through his neighborhood, Evan passed by an empty house and snuck through the back door. After going upstairs and stealing “guns, drugs and money,” Evan came face-to-face with the owners of the house — a little boy and his mother.
“She recognized me,” he said. “The cops caught up to me a couple days later and told me that the little kid was like, ‘Is the robber gonna come back and kill us tonight?’”
Getting into hard drugs was something Evan “vowed to never do” while in high school. Since his arrest, he is making that same vow again.
“In all reality, I wasn’t really happy with myself,” he said. “Something that I can honestly say is that I’m never gonna touch heroin again.”
Monique described her life growing up as “difficult,” as both of her parents did drugs and were not present during her and her sibling’s adolescent years. She began making “bad decisions” in the eighth grade when she got pregnant.
“Everything just went downhill for me,” she said. By ninth grade, Monique began smoking weed, drinking and joined a gang, resulting in her getting kicked out of every high school in Newark.
“They sent my diploma in the mail,” she said. “Nobody wanted me to walk across their stage.”
Monique was part of a program called READY, which grants students free tuition to any college they are accepted to. Monique said she had always wanted to be a doctor — she would help her mother with her insulin when she was younger — so she enrolled in medical school.
A year later, Monique started dating her best friend’s sister, who had recently lost her children in a legal battle. Monique started helping her pay her lawyer fees, a sum that amounted to more than she could handle.
To cope with the stress, she started smoking PCP, a hallucinogen. One day while smoking, Monique said she acted on one of her hallucinations, which caused her and a few friends to commit armed robberies across New Jersey.
“I felt like I had no consequences,” she said. Monique received a “10 with an 85” for her crime, and her friend who committed the robberies with her is facing 15 years in prison.
Monique advised the audience to think about consequences their actions could have and how they can affect those around them.
“I should have put my daughter first before anybody else and I didn’t,” she said. “So now I gotta go home to a 14-year-old that I have to get to know all over again.”
Adrian, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, had a different upbringing. His mother moved to America when he was 2 years old, and he lived with his father until the age of 7. His parents were 16 and 17 when he was born, but he was still subjected to strict discipline from his father.
“He used to tell me, ‘Be home from school at 3:05,’” he said. “School ends at 3:00, and my house was 15 minutes away, so he expected me to run.”
Adrian eventually moved to America at age 13 to live with his mother in Brooklyn, New York, where he stayed for a year, before moving to Newark with his cousins and aunt. His aunt was a nurse and worked long hours, so he and his cousins were left with little adult supervision during the week — a life much different than what he was used to.
Because of this, he started selling weed in seventh grade.
“I gravitated toward all the negative things,” he said. “I’m not blaming where I’m from. The situation I’m in now came from me and my decisions.”
Similar to Evan, Adrian had a bright future with sports, but fell off the path.
“I got recruited from my middle school to play basketball at East Side High School,” he said. “I played ball throughout my high school years. I found that when I was sticking to basketball, I wasn’t getting in trouble.”
Adrian went to Rutgers, Newark, for a year and a half but was still involved in selling drugs since his neighborhood was close by.
What caused Adrian to receive a “10 with an 85” sentence was what he described as “crazy.” He was caught on camera dropping off friends who participated in a robbery. The police found Adrian’s car, searched it and found a gun. He didn’t tell authorities the names of his friends, resulting in him taking the robbery charge.
“I’m not blaming them for doing whatever they did,” he said, “because if they were caught with something I did, I wouldn’t want them telling on me.”
Adrian plans to finish his college education through the NJ-Step program, which offers college credit classes to inmates with the ability to re-enroll into an institution once in a halfway house.
Like Monique, Adrian will be going home to his children but he is looking forward to getting to know them again.
“If you start thinking negative, negative things will happen to you,” he said. “If you think positive, you’ll get positive results.”
The last inmate to speak was Ashley who, unlike the other three inmates, came from a “really good home” growing up. She lived with her parents and two younger sisters, went to private school and was involved in extracurricular activities such as soccer and dance.
Once in high school, however, Ashley began partying with “the wrong crowd.” When her grades started to drop, she thought about where she wanted her life to go and the career she always dreamed of: nursing.
During her junior year, she stopped partying and was able to bring her grades up, and received an early acceptance to Thomas Jefferson University with a full scholarship. All she had left to do was graduate high school and complete her prerequisites at community college.
The next year, Ashley met a drug dealer and fell “head over heels in love” with him.
Despite her parents’ disapproval, Ashley moved out and started living with her boyfriend and his mother. His controlling ways caused her to drop out of college so she could stay home to cook and clean, while he payed the bills.
“I threw all my dreams away,” she said.
Shortly after, Ashley broke up with him and moved back in with her parents. The heartbreak led her to partying again and taking percocet. One pill a day eventually turned into 10.
“I shouldn’t be here today; that amount of pills should have killed me,” she said. “Nobody knew that I was taking my paychecks and getting drugs on my way home after work.”
When her money ran low, Ashley began stealing from her neighbors, coworkers and family.
“I wrote checks out of their checkbooks,” she said. “I didn’t care if they had to pay their mortgage. I didn’t care about their bills.”
The first time Ashley had been arrested was for stealing her sister’s identity. She didn’t believe her father when he told her she would end up in prison if she continued to live recklessly.
“When I got home that day, my parents knew I wasn’t going to change,” she said. “They decided I could no longer live in their house.”
She slept on the streets of Camden for five months and became addicted to heroin and cocaine. Her offenses escalated to armed robberies, a crime for which she received an eight-year sentence.
“Every year, I send my sisters birthday cards, Christmas cards, begging them to forgive me, and I haven’t heard from either one of them,” she said. “They’ve gotten married, they’ve bought houses. I don’t know them anymore.”
Like Adrian, Ashley is also currently enrolled in the NJ-Step program with one class left to finish her associate’s degree.
Ashley is thankful for the students involved in the Petey Greene program, as it brings opportunities to women who would otherwise not receive it.
“You have women in there who don’t know how to read or write,” she said. “It’s so easy to be discouraged where we are, and when you bring in someone who believes in them and wants to help them, that’s an awesome thing.”