REPRESENT JUSTICE X JR: TEHACHAPI
So, my name is Sam Lewis. At the age of 18, I committed a horrible crime and was convicted of a life sentence. But prior to turning 18, I witnessed and was part of a lot of different things in South LA. I grew up at a time when LA was going through the crack epidemic and when it was considered the gang capital of the nation, when you would read about murders and shootings every day. And I grew up in that environment. My father left my home when I was seven. It was a tumultuous departure. I saw him literally beat my mother black and blue at the age of seven. And for a long time, I just carried that anger with me. Eventually, I began to act out in school, dropped out of high school, joined the neighborhood gang, and eventually found myself committing worse, and worse crimes. By the time I was 18, I was sentenced to life and rightly so. And my mom, who was a working mother, a registered nurse, made sure that we always had everything that we needed. She just couldn't give me the guidance that I needed from a male role model, so to speak. So, I sought that guidance or that role model out in my community in the streets.
When I went to prison, I thought that was it. About a month after being arrested, my daughter was born. And I didn’t know, but she would be the reason why I would want to change. Seven years into my sentence and after going to what’s called the Security Housing Unit or the SHU. And my daughter comes to visit me when I had just gotten into some trouble, and I’m behind scarred prison glass, if you can imagine that, a non-contact visit because I had just started an incident inside the institution.
And my daughter had never seen me shackled in chains and behind this glass. And she looked at me, and I could see the fear in her eyes. And she simply asked, “Daddy, why are you back there? And why can’t I hug you?” And when I looked into her eyes, seeing the fear just… It hurt me because I saw what I was doing to my daughter. And I told her, “Daddy had gotten into some trouble.” And she wanted to know what kind of trouble, and before I could answer, she just said, “Could you not get in trouble so I could hug you when I come back?”
And it just shook me to my core and made me want to change. I didn’t know how I was going to change. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Like I said, I was a high school dropout, could barely read and write, and was on this maximum security yard. And when I left that visiting area from behind the glass, I just wanted to change. I just didn’t know how. But it took me time. I didn’t change overnight. It’s not like I just, all of a sudden, stopped being involved with the gangs and things of that nature. But I did want to change it. And little by little, I did.
Fast forward 24 years later, nine parole hearings, a court ordered hearing, I walked out of prison with my bachelor’s degree, a number of trades, and a desire to want to change the system that had kept me for decades inside. I didn’t know how I was going to do that, but I knew I wanted to come home and help people that were like me, that grew up in environments like mine, and show them that there was a different way, a better way.
So, as I worked to make my environment different, I met a guy by the name of Scott. And that’s what he wanted to do, too, literally work with youth that were in juvenile halls and prisons and places to just show that there’s an opportunity for a second chance. So, now, after being released now for almost eight years, I’m now the executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition or ARC, a statewide organization in the state of California. And we literally are changing the way our criminal justice system works.
We mentor inside juvenile halls and camps in both Sacramento and Los Angeles. We go inside of state prisons, and we run rehabilitative programs, a team of former lifers known as the Hope and Redemption Team, the first ever of its kind, that go back into both medium and maximum security prisons and help men figure out how to change and how to come back and how to be the persons that they were truly meant to be.
We also do a great deal of policy change throughout the state that makes our system more equitable. We also offer direct services, housing, therapy, different employment tracks, career tracks. Every idea that we’ve created within this organization has come from our members and our members being men and women that have been formerly incarcerated or that were incarcerated at one time.
So, from therapy to building trade jobs to housing, these ideas and how to conduct them have come from our members. Our staff is 70% formerly incarcerated, and we believe we have a model that can literally change the way that our criminal justice system works, not just in the state of California, but across the nation.
I personally believe, after being in prison for 24 years, after growing up in an environment that was filled with gangs and drugs, and coming home for almost eight years and working in this field, I believe we have a model that can literally change how the criminal justice system works. Not just because I worked for ARC, but because I’ve seen it on so many different levels.
As you look at the individuals that have been interviewed today, they’re not staffed. They’re all ARC members. And the five things that we pledge to be and to do, as we come home and become members, is to be gang-free, crime-free, drug-free, be willing to be of service to our community, in school or working, or both.
The last thing that I’d like to say is that I truly believe in second chances and that, given the opportunity, a person can not only change their lives, but give back to our communities in a way that that can be unbelievable.
I don’t know why I’m nervous. I know a lot of people are going to see this, and I think it’s important for people to really understand… People make bad mistakes, bad choices or poor choices, but should that be how they’re defined for the rest of their lives? And I don’t think they should be. If I was just that way, I would not be able to help the kids that I help today. I would not be able to help others believe that they can change and give back. So, if I was never given that opportunity, the people that I’ve been able to help, how would I be able to help them? But thank you for your time. I appreciate it.