An Interview with Demetrius Titus, Good Neighbor Project Director, AFSC Michigan Criminal Justice Program. The project pairs co-mentors inside and outside of prisons in Michigan for mutual growth. Learn more about the program by checking out their latest newsletter. Contact Demetrius at DTitus@afsc.org.
Please tell us about yourself.
I’ve been working for AFSC for four months. Before, I worked in the management and hospitality industry. My passion has always been in prison advocacy work. It was amazing how this opportunity came about. At the time, my wife was doing social work, and one of her duties was to connect people with jobs. She just happened to see the posting for this position. And she said, “Hey honey, look at this, this is something you’d like to do. It’s right up your alley." As she read the qualifications, she said it sounds like it was describing me. I had the opportunity to apply, and the director here, Natalie Holbrook, brought me on board.
What have you been doing these first four months?
I’ve been working with the Good Neighbor Project, started by our director, Natalie and my predecessor, Ron Simpson-Bey. It’s based on restorative justice practices. It’s a co-mentor program. We connect those people who are currently incarcerated doing life or long sentences with people who are outside participants. It’s beyond just a pen-pal program. We give prompting questions to both participants. It creates a dialogue by which each person is able to open up. We know that in prison, there’s an unwritten rule that you never talk about it or work through your situation because it puts you a position of vulnerability.
This project allows people on the inside to open up and work through their situation. We know that only way healing can take place is by dealing with it. This project allows people in prison to deal with their issues, the reasons for their incarceration, the trauma from their incarceration. As well it educates the outside co-mentor on things going on in prison, what’s transpiring in the judicial system. It’s a project I truly believe in. These past four months I’ve had great joy being a part of this, and I look forward to taking this project even further.
What has the project meant for people inside and outside of prison?
One story in particular stands out. We had a young woman who was incarcerated for a life sentence. A little back story – she had been through sexual abuse most of her life. She had built a shell around herself when it came to men. One man she hooked herself with committed a murder; she partook in it and was incarcerated for it.
While she was in prison, she had the mindset that men were untrusting creatures. She couldn’t dialogue with men, couldn’t speak with them. There was no trust because of the abuse and things she had gone through in her life.
She signed up for the Good Neighbor Project. We connected her with a man named Jim. He was a doctor whose son was incarcerated for an extended length of time for murder. He was very interested in advocacy work, looking into the judicial system and finding out what he could do.
They’ve been connected now for about a year, almost about the duration of this project. We recently had a letter from her. She was very thankful for the project and for us connecting her with Jim. One of the things she said that stands out for me, she expressed that there was a time in her life when she did not trust men, did not trust having a relationship with men, and that all men were always out to get something from her. Because of the project, her whole concept of men has changed. She has come to a place of feeling that there are good men out there, there are men not looking for what they can get out of her, but what they can do for her. When you hear stories like that, it’s reassuring to know the project is actually working.
How many people are involved both inside and outside?
We have a little over 40 active co-mentor relationships. What I mean by active is they are staying in contact with each other and are within the project's guidelines. They’re writing each other at least twice a month, which is one of the criteria. We also do follow-ups with our inside and outside participants to make sure we know if there’s any trouble shooting that needs to be done, any technical support needed. The project is going well and is making quite a few strides.
Currently I have 30 people on inside who are waiting to be linked up with an outside co-mentor. We’re in the recruiting process; we speak at different affairs, different function, a lot of church functions. We have the opportunity to bring people in, quality people. We’re not so focused on quantity. We want people who, when they sign up, will truly commit to the project because there’s so much needed to make it work. We’re really excited with where we’re going. We’re excited about how many co-mentor relationships we have right now. We’re looking forward to creating as many more as we possibly can.
Is this project just for people in Michigan?
We’re just dealing with people in prison in Michigan. However, we do have outside mentors who are from all over the nation. I have people who write from Boston, one who writes from Texas. So we extend the program out nationwide and worldwide. We only deal with Michigan prisoners because that’s who we have direct access to.
How do you see the project growing?
I would like to see as many connections as possible. The project is based on restorative justice, the healing of the offender, the victim and the community as whole. Sooner or later, the way we look at it, these individuals will be released. We want to create these mentorships in order to create contact with the outside. Through that contact, they can be better prepared.
The thinking behind prison walls is completely different from what it is out here. What this project does with our questionnaires is help them learn how to re-think. Someone in prison for 30-40 years in a controlled and intense environment, their thinking shifts. My desire is to get as many people connected as possible.
What we’ve been doing is creating a continuing training. We’re offering conference calls with outside participants. We’re having roundtable discussions. We’re having guests come and talk about things like cognitive thinking, substance abuse, relapse prevention. We’re bringing people in to speak with our outside volunteers in order to facilitate more and more conversations about the individuals in the inside.
Right now we’re working with people called “jaywalkers,” or juveniles sentenced to life without parole. A recent US Supreme Court decision changed the scope of these sentences. Michigan is working to resentence these young men and women under these laws. So they’re going to be coming home. We want to connect them with as many people as possible so they come home with a realistic perspective of what’s going on out here. This is what this project focuses on, giving them that realistic perception of what’s out here. Building that friendship and co-mentorship with the person who is out here will, in turn, help them with their transition.
You’re a returning citizen yourself?
Yes. I spent 18 years incarcerated. I was in prison for drug possession. No priors. I was in school at the time, I made some wrong choices, went with the wrong people. I was sentenced, believe it or not, to three life terms for possession of a controlled substance. This was during the “war on drugs.” There were giving long and extended sentences for people caught with drugs.
During my time of incarceration, I was able to educate himself. I was able to learn about the law. I was incarcerated in December of 1990. Around 2007-2008, Gov. Granholm was governor of Michigan. The system was completely overcrowded, and she was looking for a way to offer relief. One of her ideas, for those who were incarcerated for a long period of time for drugs, she wanted to give them relief. What I did, when I got wind of this, I was working in the law library, I was able to draft my own commutation request. She established an executive clemency board. I was able to submit my commutation request and, after a about year, I was released in 2009 because my commutation was granted.
This is why I’m so passionate about this. Even for me who had a lot of support, it was still very difficult, the transition in my thinking, the obstacles I faced. No one wanted to give you a chance, no wanted to give you a job. Everywhere you went, as soon as you expressed or let them know you were incarcerated, it was doors shut. It was a very difficult transition. But I stayed with it. I had a very strong support system; along with my belief in God, that's what helped get me through that very difficult transition.
During this transition, I finally landed a job in working in a factory, I worked my way up and ended up in hospitality, in management. When this position became open to me, because of my passion for what I had gone through, I wanted to reach back in and help. This gives me the opportunity to fulfill the passion that was created in me from everything I’d gone through.
Anything else you’d like to add?
As I said, I worked in factories, worked in the hospitality field, the corporate world, it was all about the dollar. We focused on the need to make money. To work for a nonprofit, to work for an organization that works for genuine change in social justice, it’s opened me up to so much more. Now I appreciate going to work. Now at the end of the day, I can say I actually did something that made a difference. That means a lot to me. For everything I’ve gone through, for all the different situations, I’ve done a little something to make a difference. That makes me sleep a lot better.
Coming out of prison can be very hard.
I love doing this. I love being able to reach back in. During my 18 years of incarceration, I went through a lot. I lost a lot of loved ones. You lose so much. It’s really difficult, the transition out. The biggest thing I want to say to someone coming out, I know the transition is hard, it’s difficult, sometimes if feels like it can’t be done. If you stay committed to the cause, you can overcome.