Mentorship leads incarcerated men to leave violence behind
Mike Perry (left) mentored Russell Green (right) when they were incarcerated in a Maryland prison. Today, both men work for the program through advocacy, mentorship, and community engagement. See more photos.Photo: AFSC/Bryan Vana
Friend of a friend
As a teenager in the 1990s, Russell Green wanted to be at the center of the action. He used violence to get attention, but had to watch his back all day, every day. Before long, the lifestyle caught up with him; at age 18, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for second-degree murder.
Russell watched his reflection in the mirror as he got older. He realized that he was not the same person any more, but no one else could see the transformation. He was doing the time by himself.
He was isolated, but not really alone, though he didn’t know it at the time. He had a lot of company—entire generations of black men siphoned out of Baltimore neighborhoods into the prison system as part of the so-called “war on drugs.”
From prisoners to peace builders
Marshall “Eddie” Conway, who has been locked up since 1971, has watched these generations pour in during his years in prison. “It makes me think of those stories of the young African children who were reputed to have been lured onto the slave ships with red cloths,” he says. “The drug game has become the new lure, and it is quickly reeling them into the hold of this new vessel: the criminal justice system.”
By the time he got involved with AFSC in 2002, Eddie was disgusted with seeing this. Along with other prisoners in the Maryland Correctional Training Center (a state prison), he wanted to offer mentoring and guidance to younger prisoners, to help them find a sense of purpose.
Borrowing the phrase “a friend of a friend” from the Underground Railroad—it was a password used to indicate that an enslaved person would receive safe conduct—they started a program that, 10 years later, is sending transformed men back into Baltimore neighborhoods as leaders. The name also sums up participants’ desires to be free and the relationship to AFSC, a Quaker organization.
Friend of a Friend uses a curriculum developed by men who have frequently experienced chaos and violence, but have chosen to encourage unity and love moving forward. Participants develop conflict resolution skills and mentoring relationships to support them in finding useful alternatives to conflict and violence in prison and upon returning to their communities. Today, the program works in five prisons, reaching an average of 150 men every year.
Despite the size of the program, the experience is very intimate for each individual.
Getting a grip
Recognizing where his violent front had gotten him, Russell was open to something new. When a mentor with Friend of a Friend began to talk to him about becoming a better man, he was ready to listen.
Russell joined Friend of a Friend as a mentee, and he met Mike Perry, a program mentor. At that point, Mike had already spent over 25 years behind bars for two different robbery charges—but he had also already transformed himself. It was appealing to Russell to think that he might be able to learn “how to think and function reasonably,” he says. “Actually getting a grip was persuasive. Violence should not always be the first option.”
At weekly meetings the men focused on anger management, conflict, and coping skills. They started at the beginning—identifying their own influences, values, and attitudes. They discussed frustrating scenarios, brainstormed alternative solutions, and analyzed a healthy course of action.
But Russell was not accustomed to always having someone else deeply involved in the choices he was making. At first, he thought his mentors were too pushy. Over time, he realized why: “That is the role of the big brother—they are on your back because they have the experience.”
That’s why the mentor relationship has been a part of the program from the start.
Fathers, brothers, friends
The men who first formed Friend of a Friend realized that a lot of people who ended up in prison because of the Baltimore drug conflict had grown up without the guidance they needed: Men enter in their late teens and early 20s, spending formative years behind bars. In turn, Baltimore neighborhoods have fewer male role models and many men find themselves in a system where they are isolated and deprived of family.
As Russell started to get comfortable with his “big brothers,” he responded well to the strength of Mike and his other mentors. “Eventually I saw that they had my best interest in their hearts,” he says.
He began to address problems not with violence, but with conflict resolution skills, finding peaceful solutions.
Eddie talks about the “magic” that happens when young men, initially skeptical or ambivalent, become focused and committed to change.
“It not only helps them better navigate conflict but makes them think in a more critical way about issues that affect their communities,” he says. “Our goal has been to equip these young men to leave prison in a better position emotionally and intellectually than when they came in. Our great hope is that they will contribute to the uplift of the communities that they come from.”
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Podcast: AFSC/Madeline Schaefer
Eddie has frequently filled the role of father figure, because he knows that for many young men a healthy relationship with a father or grandfather has been lacking. “I have a godson who found his first positive role model only once he was incarcerated,” he says.
One of the magical moments for Russell came when they talked about self-discovery. “When we did that, we had the chance to express the things that were lying and waiting inside of us,” he says. “The way the brothers had it formatted—it was like emotions and experiences were ready to jump out of you.”
Mike encouraged Russell to help uplift the community he had harmed in the past. Russell started with forming genuine relationships with his brother, mother, and two daughters, but this healing also included giving back to the wider Baltimore community—to help make it whole again.
While Russell was learning about himself, so was Mike. “As a mentor, I learned so many things from the young guys who came into the program and I grew in the process,” Mike says. “When you are in this program you know it is significant.”
Russell says that he is a different person now—and he is happy.
“I am not the smallest guy, and my face is not one that looks soft as cotton balls. But my mentors taught me that I can have that look but my actions can be different,” he says. “They taught me that my inner appearance will outshine my outer appearance.”
A loving culture in the streets
Mike and Russell were both recently released from prison. They both continue their group work on the outside—working to support each other, still emphasizing healing and personal development.
They’re fulfilling the vision of Friend of a Friend’s founders, including Eddie, who believed that bringing people together and giving them a way to see new options is the way to start a “new community” that is steeped in a loving culture.
“For anyone who ever bought into the myth that the ‘bad guys’ are behind those bars, let this give them pause,” says Eddie, who is still in prison. “I am surrounded by men who, had it not been for a drug addiction, might otherwise be upstanding members of their communities.”
On the outside, Mike, Russell, and other Friend of a Friend participants have organized speaking engagements, conducted advocacy campaigns at the state level, and explored opportunities to mentor young people in Baltimore.
“The same thing that Friend of a Friend does in prison, it has the potential to do it in the street,” says Mike. “We have an opportunity to decrease violence and spread love. An opportunity to change the streets.”