Students make life-changing visit to jail

-A A +A
By Alice Du Pont

It was a field trip like nothing the 40 students from Florida A&M University's Black Male College Explorers program had ever experienced. At the request of program counselor Barry Young of Greensboro, Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young gave permission to show the students what it’s like behind bars.

Young, along with corrections officers and inmates, didn't sugar-coat the facts as they told students the reality of jail.

"I don't usually welcome people to jail. I hope today that after you leave here you will not make the mistakes that these people have made. But you are responsible for your own actions and all of you have a choice. You can go to college or you can go to prison. This is not a hotel but if you end up here we'll take care of you. Before the day is over, I hope you will change your thinking about what jail is like," Young told the students.

Barry Young said the field trip was not punishment but "an eye-opener" for kids who have romanticized life in jail. Some of them, he said, think that jail is comparable what they see on television. Saturday's trip was intended to show them the reality of incarceration.

The program is an at-risk prevention/intervention program designed to specifically prevent black males from dropping out of high school, facilitate their admission to college and increase their chances of earning a college degree.

Statistics show, according to Young, that only 36 percent of black males who graduate from high school attended college and there is a disproportionate number of black males in jails and prisons when compared to the rest of the population.

In 2008, over 3,900 inmates came through the Gadsden County Jail. At times, there were close to 300 inmates daily in a facility built to house 150. Many of them slept on the floor and on Saturday, there were 198 inmates there.

"A jail is not what some of you think it is. All of you who like to play basketball every day, forget about it. There is no going to the the 'yard' every day for exercise, weightlifting and playing ball. Depending on staffing, you might not get outside for fresh air in 30 days," said corrections officer Earl Galloway.

He told the students that jail offers no individualism and no creativity because every action inside the jail is determined by someone else. Inmates are told when to shower and when to eat. There is, he said, no such thing as privacy.

"I know some of you don't want to listen to your parents or teachers or anybody. I can see the smirks on some of your faces right now. But if you come in here, you're going to listen to me and any other corrections officer. You're going to do what we say, when we say do it. We have other inmates in here and it's our job the keep all of them safe. So we can't allow one person the be disruptive," he said.

"We serve breakfast at 6 a.m., lunch at 10:30 a.m. and dinner at 3:30 p.m. Jail is not free. For every day you are here you are charged $5 and $2.10 for meals," said Galloway.

Before the tour began students got a taste of jail life. All cell phones were taken, students couldn't take any personal items inside and they were sternly warned not to try to give inmates anything. Then they were lined up in pairs of two and counted.

Some of the students laughed when corrections officers explained life in jail.

"Nothing’s going to happen to me if I come in here," said one young man to a fellow student sitting near him.

"If that's what you think, you are wrong. Some of these men haven't seen a woman in months and if they like you, or even if they don't, you could become somebody's girlfriend while you're not only here but in any jail or prison. Then there is the violence. Other inmates will take your canteen items just because they want to and there is nothing you can do about it," said corrections officer Anthony Boyland.

When students went into the cell blocks, they got first-hand knowledge of what jail is like. The crowded, smelly condition was clearly something the students had not experienced. Some covered their noses with their T-shirts while others looked at the inmates as if they were in a zoo.

While students were walking close to the bars, one inmate called the student over who had been laughing earlier.

"You was laughing when you came in here. What's so funny? You had so much to say then, say it now. These boys (other inmates) are serious up in here," growled the inmate.

Other inmates, in graphic detail, told the boys what happens to young men when they come to jail. Then they told them to stay out of trouble so they won’t ruin their lives as they had done.

A young inmate, who was a former student of counselor Edgar Griffin, called Griffin to the cell bars and asked him to call his mother.

Griffin told the students that it's not unusual for parents and siblings to not visit or send money once their loved one is incarcerated. He said the young man had no more money in his canteen, for snacks and other personal items not provided by the jail, and wanted to speak with his mother.

After the tour, students were a little more quiet. The giggling was gone and the mood was somber.

"It was scary. I've never been inside a jail. To have someone look you in the eye to say what he said he would do to me sexually made me nervous," said Abelard, 17, from Port St. Lucie.

Several years ago, Norris, 18, of Tallahassee, said he visited a detention center after making a few poor choices.

"This is different. It's an experience I never expected. Like the counselor said, it's been an eye-opener," he said.