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Life goes on

In Michigan and New York, AFSC programs support people serving long prison sentences

Ron Simpson-Bey leads the Good Neighbor Project in AFSC's Michigan office. Photo:AFSC/MichiganThere are 160,000 people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons, according to The Sentencing Project, a national advocacy organization. Tens of thousands more are serving at least 20 years.
Ron Simpson-Bey knows a lot about the people behind that statistic—the “lifers” and others who spend decades behind bars. Ron is what he calls a “returning citizen,” having spent 27 years in a Michigan prison before his release in 2012.

He has seen what can happen to people locked up for that long. And he knows the challenges they face in rejoining the rest of the world when they complete their sentence.

Communities have a stake in ensuring that returning citizens are equipped to make that transition. “More than 90 percent of people living in prison will return to the community,” Ron says. “Do we want them to return angry, or do we want them to feel like they can contribute to the community?”

Natalie Holbrook, director of AFSC’s Michigan office, met Ron while he was still serving his sentence. “I’ve worked with thousands of people in prison,” she says. “If they’re able to become introspective and given the tools they need, they can become great community members, even amidst these insane obstacles.”

Here’s a look at two new AFSC projects that are working with people in prison to develop programs that fit their needs, so they’re better prepared to handle life both within and outside of the walls.

Being good neighbors in Michigan

In AFSC’s Criminal Justice Program in Michigan, Natalie and Pete Martel offer parole-readiness workshops to thousands in prisons throughout the state. In those workshops, they stress the importance of letters of support from loved ones at parole hearings. But many older inmates aren’t able to produce those letters—whether because their family and friends have died or because they have fallen out of touch in the decades since their sentences began.

As in most states, it’s difficult to achieve legislative changes in Michigan that would benefit people serving long-term sentences for serious offenses. Last year, AFSC launched the Good Neighbor Project to provide support for these individuals and contribute to advocacy efforts to change policies that keep people locked up well beyond what their sentence requires.

Nearly 50 community members now serve as co-mentors in the Good Neighbor Project.  Photo: AFSC/MichiganUnder Ron’s leadership, the Good Neighbor Project connects people serving 20 years or more in prison with people on the outside to create support in the general community. Participants start by exchanging letters in the mail, and, if they choose, talk by phone or make in-person visits.

These connections aren’t one-way relationships; they’re “co-mentorships,” Ron says. “People on the outside need to be educated, as well. They see who’s in prison—these aren’t just violent people. They’re human.”

Co-mentors are given a curriculum to guide their communications, designed to bring about difficult conversations that require self-reflection. They talk about empathy, responsibility, and what makes a good neighbor. They also discuss the actions that led to the inmate’s long-term sentence—something few people have an opportunity to do in prison.

“A lot of people in prison don’t ever talk about the crime committed, but it’s something you have to do in parole hearings, and you have to be able to show remorse,” Ron says. “The curriculum can bring that out of them.”

Since January, nearly 50 co-mentorships have been established. One of them connected Jim Dankovich, a retired chiropractor, and Jennifer, a nearly 40-year-old woman serving life after being sentenced as a teenager.

“I think we have a great deal to learn from each other,” Jim says. “She seems like an awesome woman who has turned her life around and is helping many others.”
Jim encourages community members to look beyond stereotypes of people serving long sentences in prison. “Nobody should be defined by their worst moments,” he says. “Many people have transformed, both in and out of prisons.”

In time, Ron hopes the Good Neighbor Project will produce more ambassadors like Jim, who can share the stories of people like Jennifer as they advocate for a more compassionate justice system.

“Right now, politicians use fear-mongering to pass measures that focus on punishment,” Ron says. “We need more people saying, ‘These are our brothers, our sisters. They’re returning to our community. What kind of neighbors do we want them to be?’”

Hope for lifers in New York

While incarcerated in a New York prison, Larry White began developing a manual for people serving long-term sentences. Photo: AFSC/New YorkLarry White is the founder of Hope Lives for Lifers, a project of AFSC in New York. But his work really began during the 32 years he spent at Green Haven Correctional Facility.

Now 80 years old, Larry remembers growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and ’40s. He knew early on that his family didn’t have much. As a young child, he would wake up at 4 a.m. to steal food from the early-morning deliveries made to the grocery store down the street.

“I made up my mind early—all the things that other people had, I was gonna get on my own,” he says.

Throughout much of his youth, Larry was in and out of trouble. He was 14 years old the first time he landed in a juvenile detention facility. Mostly theft. Burglaries. The last sentence he would serve started in 1975, when he received 25 years to life for an armored truck robbery in which two people were killed.

“The prospect was both frightening and overwhelming for me,” Larry says. “When you get that kind of sentence, nobody sits you down and tells you how to go about serving it.”

His survival had a lot to do with the strategy he developed to live out those years. “I established two principles of confinement—to earn my release from prison as quickly as possible and to leave prison in better condition than when I came in,” he says.

To reach that goal, he mapped out the next 25 years, dividing his time into five-year increments. For each increment, he set shorter-term goals—educational, family-related, spiritual, and so on—and worked to accomplish them.

Larry followed prison rules. He ran the prison newspaper. He became a mentor for younger inmates, sharing his approach to serving his sentence. In time, he helped found the Think Tank, a support group for people serving long-term sentences, under the guidance of prison chaplain the Rev. Ed Muller. The Think Tank was in turn instrumental in launching the Alternatives to Violence Project, which got its start in the 1970s when the prison group invited Quakers to Green Haven to discuss ways to teach younger inmates about resolving conflicts without violence.

“No one is going to tell you how to do this—you have to evolve yourself,” Larry says. “I studied literature on confinement and talked to others about developing a road map to survive long-term prison sentences.”

The manual that Larry began formulating in prison, “Beyond the Yard: Constructing a Prison Life,” will soon become a resource for people throughout the New York state prison system, as the Department of Corrections has agreed to distribute the publication to inmates serving long sentences. Several groups contributed to the manual’s development: Exodus Program, led by the Rev. Muller; the Association of Black Psychologists; Be the Evidence, based out of Fordham University; Community Service Society of New York; and Aging Resources Consultation and Help, run by the New York Yearly Meeting.
Over the past year, AFSC and Exodus have piloted the Hope Lives for Lifers program in Eastern Correctional Facility, coordinating prison group discussions using the manual as a guide. They plan to expand the program to other prisons by the end of this year.

“People serving long sentences have a great deal of potential,” Larry says, “but that potential needs to develop while they’re inside. This program helps get people in touch with their potential.” 

—RONNA BOLANTE