Words to Live By
This is for the children.
This blunt talk about life in prison--rapes and race wars, knifings, and solitary confinement--is meant to stop young people from going down the same road, ending up in the same place.
Yet when the men and women of “Straight Talk” speak of their experiences in the penal system, the future of the youth is not the only thing at stake.
“Let me tell you something,” Joseph Lopez, 38, told students recently at Cesar Chavez/Harriet Tubman High School, an alternative school in Compton. “My life is a waste, my life is in vain if I can’t give something back through my experience. All I want is one person to live.”
Founded in 1990 by parole agent Phyllis McNeal, “Straight Talk” sends members throughout Southern California, speaking to schools, youth groups and community organizations.
Unlike “scared-straight"-type programs whose speakers are still incarcerated, these are ex-convicts like Lopez who, after spending a third of his life in prison, is back in society.
“The program gives them an opportunity to really take a serious look at themselves by talking about their mistakes and seeing the reaction of the community at large,” McNeal said. “They’re having a chance to redirect all that negative energy they once had in a positive manner.”
In the auditorium at Washington Preparatory High School on Monday, students listened closely as “Straight Talk” speaker Ezell McDowell told how he was once a successful attorney with degrees in law and business from USC. But he became a serious addict who got high in MacArthur Park, disappeared from his Glendale hills home for long stretches, spent thousands on his cocaine habit, neglected his family.
And he told of life in prison, the daily fear, manipulation, and perversion.
“I’ve seen men running around in panties” made from laundry bags, he said, their eyes painted with ground-up pencil lead used as eye shadow, their lips painted red with Kool-Aid fashioned into lipstick.
“Prison is not happening,” McDowell said. “Everybody has this glamorized view of criminal life.”
That hustler, player, high-rolling mentality leads to the most degrading conditions a person can experience, he said.
“To those of you who want to be players--I’m talking to the young men--there’s nothing positive about misusing the women in your life,” he said, as the audience erupted in applause. “You’re nothing but a piranha.”
Afterward, McDowell said he participates in “Straight Talk” because “I owe something.”
That sentiment also keeps Walter Keeth, who was convicted on drug charges, talking to youth through “Straight Talk” and a similar program.
“You think that’s funny?” he said to the students at Washington, after hearing snickers when he talked about life as an addict, “puking and crapping” in his pants.
“If I got you in my cell, little smiley, you would be smiling,” he said. “You’d be walking the yard with your finger in my belt loop. I’d be selling you.”
“It is not easy to get up in front of you and to tell you to not be like me,” he said, his voice growing louder. “Do not waste your life.”
Students asked the speakers about the impact of incarceration on their families, about their daily routines in prison and if they had homosexual encounters.
And several stood to say, “Thank you.”
“I know it takes a very strong person to see you made a mistake,” said one girl. “I think you have touched someone in here. They might not want to say anything, but you never know.”
Shawn Seliger, Washington’s law program coordinator, invited the speakers to help stress the fact that “the best sense of hope is a sense of the future filled with education, hard work, personal responsibility and goal-setting.”
What the speakers have lived through--and their willingness to talk about it--gives them currency with young people. Whether they come with tattooed arms like Keeth, or in a suit like McDowell, they have the ear of the audience.
Deveron Ratliff, 27, a gang member who committed a litany of crimes and spent 14 years in prison, was discharged from parole last week. When he offers advice--stay in school, stay away from drugs, don’t let your homies influence you--it has an impact that he understands.
“I been on the inside looking out,” he said. “They say, ‘He knows what he’s talking about.’
“The more I talk about it, the more I strive to move forward instead of looking back. I do not want to be put back in nobody’s institution.”
At the Chavez/Tubman School last week, Ratliff stood on the auditorium’s tile floor and re-created the cramped quarters of his former cell while about 30 boys watched.
He showed how he and his cellmate had to slide from side to side to move about. He pointed out where the toilet would be and the lack of privacy.
“How many of you would feel comfortable [defecating] in front of your cellee?” he asked.
During the presentation, speakers revealed stories of shattered relationships with wives and children, the disappearance of homies who promised to visit, the difficulty in readjusting to life in the free world.
“I’m 38,” Lopez said. “And I’m barely learning how to live.”
Afterward, several students approached Ratliff and the other speakers. They talked about uncles and cousins and fathers who are also incarcerated. And about the challenges of their own lives.
“I don’t gang bang, but I still gotta deal with it,” said Darrell Jackson. "[People] still want to fight with me.”
“They will do that,” Ratliff told him. “You gotta keep a strong head on your shoulders. You are our future. Whatever future we hold, it’s you.”
Juan A. Garcia, 18, said the speakers made him realize that “I do not want to be in their situation.”
McNeal, who works in the Inglewood Parole Complex, was inspired to start “Straight Talk” by memories of people who guided her when she was growing up in a Los Angeles girls home.
“If it wasn’t for the direction I received in the girls home and Maxine Mcginnis, who turned my life around, I could have easily been in the system instead of working for the system,” McNeal said.
She receives no funding from the state for “Straight Talk,” and runs the program in addition to handling a full caseload. Other parole agents help, and some help transport speakers, who are not paid, to presentations.
“My goal is to get the speakers paid, because they make a difference,” she said.
And the audiences make a difference with the speakers.
“When they come up and shake our hands, there’s nothing better,” Keeth said. “Nothing.”