Clad in brown prison jumpsuits, workboots or black prison-issue shoes, and restrained by handcuffs and leg shackles, the prisoners made their way down the hallway.
But they weren’t walking through a prison. These men were visiting Fairview High School on April 19 from the Grafton Correctional Institution as part of the “Dope Is for Dopes” youth outreach program.
The men, who all requested anonymity, hope to help keep kids on the right path. They said the word dope stands for “death or prison eventually,” and claimed to be living proof the acronym is fitting.
“We try to share our life choices with the kids, and hopefully they’ll make better decisions,” one man explained outside of Principal Chris Vicha’s office before the presentation.
High school students filled the auditorium while prisoners were unshackled on stage. Vicha told the students they were at an important age and there wasn’t an adult in the room who couldn’t think back to when he or she was a teenager, to a decision made then that made a difference later in life.
“The age of 15 to 20 is the decision point in your lives that will change the course of your lives for the rest of your lives,” he said.
A man with tattoos covering his neck and arms acted as the emcee of the program. The man, serving seven years for felonious assault and aggravated drug possession, shared a little bit about himself before introducing the other two men who would also share their stories.
“I punched somebody, and never in my life did
I think I’d be serving seven years for that,” he explained. “So for those of you who want to be bullies, it’s tough to believe that the consequences are going to be great. What you get away with today … all
The second man to speak grew up on the east side of Cleveland surrounded by drug use and violence. But he could only blame himself for the consequences of his actions, he said, because at an early age he was exposed to both good and bad influences.
“I started choosing bad things,” he explained. “And before I knew it I had a habit, and that habit turned into addiction.”
While growing up, he saw adults, including his mother, using drugs and drinking. He said it looked like fun. He decided he wanted to have some fun, too. As a fourth-grader while walking to school, he made his first really bad decision. Drugs were passed to him and he accepted.
Around that same time he met his father, who had been in prison for murder, for the first time. He was confused and suppressed his feelings, which he said led to more substance abuse and hanging with the wrong crowd. He ultimately engaged in drug dealing and robbery.
“It was the beginning of consequences that would lead to a lifetime of pain, hurt and frustration,” he said. “Once I opened that door, it was hard to close.”
The third man to speak had not grown up in a violent environment, but like the Cleveland man, he made choices from a young age that he said led to prison.
Growing up in rural and suburban environments, he was far removed from the hardships of inner-city life. He hung around with athletes in his school and was a state wrestler. But as a kid, he pitched a tent in his family’s backyard and he and some friends got drunk and sick.
Now 42 years old and serving 10 years for aggravated vehicular homicide and assault, he told students he has hindsight into being a teenager that is impossible to have when one is a teenager.
His drinking escalated and, while attending a wedding with his family, he lost all control. Upon arriving home, he fell down in the mud where his family’s septic system had recently been fixed. His younger brother had to help him remove his clothes because he was unable to do so himself.
In a small town, word travels fast, he said. His wrestling coach told him he had better change his behavior or he was off the team.
The man stayed on his high school team and
ultimately went on to wrestle for Cleveland State
University. He did not adjust well to city life,
and drinking became a coping tool. Within nine months he dropped out of college, and his father
gave him the ultimatum of returning to school or
His low self-esteem led him to a low-paying job in Akron. He eventually found a better job in construction but began to surround himself with people who drank like he did.
In his early 20s he got his first DUI. Since he had surrounded himself with people who all had DUIs, he thought it was normal. Four years later he got another DUI and did 10 days in a jail-like rehab program.
Even those experiences did not open his eyes. One day, after drinking five beers on an empty stomach with little sleep, he struck and killed two children with his truck.
For 25 minutes he watched one in front of their vehicle choke face-down on his own blood while what he thought was a toddler stood by the other side of the vehicle.
“I thought he was a toddler,” the man explained. “He was 17 and had been coming around the car to put gas in it. He was that big because I cut him in half. Do you think I planned this? Do you think I got in my truck that night looking for someone to kill? But I became it and made it possible.”
Roger Vandersommen, a case manager with the Grafton Correctional Institution, said the program helps youth and inmates alike and some of the inmates hope to pursue careers in social work when released.
“Their stories really make people think,” he said.