State News

Church, law enforcement guide teens from crime

Posted 12:01 a.m. Monday
Updated 6:55 a.m. Monday

— In a waiting area just inside the Pitt County Detention Center, Latisha Harris sat and prayed for her children.

There is no doubt that other mothers have been in the same seat, crying out for the sons or daughters they had come to see. But Harris had no reason for tears; her loved ones had not been given time behind bars. Instead, daughter Ahmiya, 13, and son Tyrece, 17, took time on a Saturday to be here.

The two were among more than a dozen teens who voluntarily stepped inside the detention center as part of the local Youth Incarceration Prevention Program. The program, an outreach ministry of St. John Missionary Baptist Church Soul Saving Center, is based on the idea that education and early intervention are two keys to keeping youth out of prison.

"(We want to) educate the younger people to show them that you don't have to end up in here," said St. John member Eddie Godley, a volunteer who directs the effort. "(We wanted) some kind of program that could help them, tell them that jail is not the answer. Being cool is not going to jail. Being cool is not walking around with your pants hanging half-way down. Cool is staying in school, get your education, go to college, being a help to society, not a minus."

Launched a year ago, the program partners with the Pitt County Sheriff's Office to warn teens of the potential consequences of their choices. After a discussion with deputies earlier this spring, organizers thought a demonstration would be helpful, so they asked for permission for a field trip of sorts that was unlike any they had taken at school.

As word of the jail tour spread, the church fielded calls from as far away as Windsor and Edenton, all from parents who thought their children could learn from what they might see.

"So many parents are seeing that their children are in trouble, that they are under a lot of peer pressure," St. John Pastor Gregory Black said. "Parents recognize that. They're seeing their children are in a lot of stress. They see that they're going down the wrong road. A child will listen to another person sometimes more than they will their parents."

Corrections officers had a captive audience; before they entered the building teens were instructed that their cellphones were considered contraband and could not be brought inside. When volunteers led prayers, the teens, accustomed to reading Scripture on a screen, had no way to follow along with a reading from the book of Ephesians: "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right."

The realization was one of the few light moments after the teens passed through a metal detector and sat quietly, waiting for instructions.

"This is not 'Scared Straight,'" Lt. N.M. Poston said, referring to a controversial documentary in the 1970s that paired juvenile delinquents with convicts who berated and screamed at them.

"That's not what we're here to do," she said, reassuring parents and teens. "You're not going to be yelled at. You're not going to be scared."

Still, she cautioned, "don't take it lightly. It's a totally different ballgame when those bars clank behind you."

It is a sound that Godley has heard for himself. A longtime church leader, he spent a night behind bars at the Pitt County Detention Center when he was arrested on a driving while impaired charge in his early 30s.

"In my younger days, I was the typical disobedient teenager, got into a lot of things," Godley said. "As I got a little older, had a brush with the law and finally got put in the handcuffs and they took me for a ride. Once I got down there, even at the age that I was, I didn't like it. I didn't get back in any trouble from that day on."

After becoming a Christian in 1996, Godley joined his church's prison outreach ministry. As he visited inmates at the detention center, he couldn't help but notice that many of them appeared to be hardly more than children.

"It started to make me sad just to see so many young people," Godley said. "Some of them didn't have a father figure, and some of them say that had something to do with why they went down the wrong path.

"God just placed in my heart and in my spirit, 'You have to do more,'" he said. "'You have to do something to try to prevent the next generation from coming in here.'"

Poston said the number of teens serving time in the detention center has increased in recent years. Fifteen years ago, when she began working there, it was unusual to have even a dozen juveniles.

On June 3, the detention center housed 30 juveniles — ages 16-17 — out of a total population of 464. Most of them were young men of color.

More than 10,000 people, adults and juveniles, were booked into the Pitt County Detention Center in 2016. Sgt. W.B. Cowley said corrections officers often see the same inmates cycle through the system.

"It's nothing for me to see the same juvenile inmate more than three times in a year's time," he said. "They will come in; sometimes they're still out on bond, haven't been to court, been sentenced for the initial crime before they go out and commit another crime."

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. made an estimated 921,600 arrests of people under age 18 in 2015. From 1980 to 2012, the drug abuse violation arrest rates for youth ages 15-17 have increased by nearly 20 percent.

Godley, who has seen friends end up in prison, now realizes he could have ended up there with them. He hopes to help teens avoid repeating those mistakes.

"I guess I had to go through what I went through because God had his purpose and plan for me to do what I'm doing now," he said. "When I talk to the young people, I can tell them about some experience that I had in the past because it's really hard to tell somebody about something if you've never experienced it."

Taking students and parents to an empty cell block, corrections officers explained that those walls defined the inmates' world. Except for a handful of prisoners assigned to work inside the detention center, there is no access to television.

Prisoners do not have a chance to go outside. Except for one hour a day, they remain in their cells. Trays of food are passed to them through openings in the steel doors, and even those remained closed except at meal times.

"It's a sight to see once you see it," Robersonville resident Caquan Black, 20, said as he stood peering into an empty cell. "You really have no freedom at all. It's nothing to do. It's really not a place you would want to be at. It makes you think about when you're out in the real world about your actions before you do them because you could end up somewhere like here."

Sixteen-year-old Kamara Haywood agreed.

"They put it on TV; they're trying to glamorize the whole thing but in actuality (it's different)," she said. "Having the door close and hearing that was a little more surreal for me."

Cowley called the teens' attention to the sound that the cell door makes when it slams shut.

"That is a very distinct sound that will not leave you," he said as he closed the door. "That is not the last thing you want to hear before you go to sleep."

Harris hopes the tour will be a wake-up call to parents who are working to teach their children right from wrong and to teens who are facing difficult choices.

"It let them know if they do anything wrong that this is a possibility," she said. "This is where they could end up."

Black plans to take the lesson to a meeting of the Middle Ground Association of churches next month. As many as 100 teens are expected to attend.

"All children are not bad, but we're living in a new generation now," Black said. "We're living in a generation now where people just will not listen.

"You can't just pray for them. . We have to lead them to Christ.

"The Bible says train up a child in the way he should go and then when they grow old they won't depart from it," he said. "So we have to train our children."

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