Inside the Suffolk County Jail, deep behind the crude barbed wire, cold iron bars and stale-painted walls, inmates accustomed to lockup are freeing themselves.
In a semi-circle they sit — young, old, black, white and Latino, some of them hardened, others baby-faced — opening up to one another about where they’ve gone wrong and how they can become better.
All of them are members of Council for Unity, an education and outreach program that works in high schools and correctional facilities to keep kids from gang life, and to change the culture of violence in prisons and the lives of inmates inside them.
“What Council has done for me,” said Ines Reyes, 19, “is help me become a leader and positive thinker. It gives you the tools to change.”
NYSUT is playing an important role, too.
The union is a longtime supporter of CFU. NYSUT President Andy Pallotta is a council board member. And recently, the union started publishing Amazing Grace — CFU’s new magazine in which inmates write about what led them down their wayward path and how they plan to get back on track.
“NYSUT has made possible through this publication an opportunity for the public to gain a new perception of incarcerated people,” said Council founder Bob DeSena, a former English teacher and United Federation of Teachers member. “Everybody in this room is worth reclaiming.”
The Council helps inmates “slay their dragons” by confronting and overcoming what triggers anti-social behavior. Through inmates sharing their stories, the Council also aims to ease the isolation felt by prisoners and create for them a lifelong support network.
Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said Amazing Grace serves an educational and spiritual purpose.
“Reading and writing is paramount to any success,” he said. “Writing also helps them express their feelings. By doing so, you can really dig down deep into your soul to the root causes of what may be going on in your life.
“They have to believe that they can change,” Toulon added. “We can reinforce a lot of different personal values. But if they don’t realize it themselves, it’s never going to work.”
Such a realization for inmates isn’t easy. You do your time, get released, and suddenly, you’re on the street again around the same old crowd, with the same temptations.
“Growing up in Amityville, I was always around negative energy. Going to jail — everybody thought it was the norm,” said Kymel Sims, 22. “This last time I came to jail, I found Council for Unity, and I learned about being positive. When I get out, I want to do something with my life, instead of coming back here like I always do.”
Taroy Hamilton, 24, agreed.
“I can’t let what happened in the past define me,” he said. “Council gives you another chance at life. It makes you realize that even though you’ve made mistakes, there are people willing to give you a second chance.”
“The group aspect is important because it helps build confidence. Sharing feedback is very important in group because each person can teach, learn and benefit,” said Robert Cummings, a 23-year-old inmate.
But make no mistake: no one is chanting kumbaya in this men’s group.
“There is no coddling here,” said DeSena. “If you’re fronting, the men in this room will know in five seconds and tear you up. That’s as important as all the love and affection.”
Inmate Joshua Francois said that honesty is what makes CFU credible.
“When I first came to Council, I thought this was going to be another one of those jail programs that lacked substance. But Bob really cares. He’s making an impact on people who are struggling.”
“I want for these men what I received — a second chance,” said DeSena, a former gang member himself. “Not investing in them costs us a fortune in incarceration. They’re paying their price to society, but society isn’t paying its price back to make sure they stay out of here. This is about reclamation.”