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Program prepares youths to succeed after prison

Federal Way Mirror - 7/11/2019

The last time King County Superior Judge Judith Ramseyer saw one of the Green Hill School inmates was in the courtroom where she sentenced him to five years at the maximum security facility in Chehalis, Washington.

One year later, Ramseyer sits in the crowd at the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) Northwest Credible Messengers graduation to show her support for that very teen.

Eight incarcerated youths graduated from the mentorship program on June 21, now equipped with the workplace and real life skills needed outside the barbed-wire fencing of Green Hill School.

Green Hill School is a medium to maximum security facility for male juvenile offenders, managed by the State Department of Social and Health Services' Juvenile Justice and Rehabilitation Administration.

This is the first graduating class of JRA Credible Messengers in Washington state.

For the past six months, the incarcerated youths have met with Credible Messengers leaders every Friday for two hours during the pilot program session.

"I really believe in the work they're doing," Ramseyer said about the Credible Messengers program. "I think our juvenile and adult criminal justice system needs a lot of reform and they are part of that process."

Ramseyer is also the chief judge of the King County Juvenile Court.

She met with the 16-year-old graduate before the event started; it was the first time they had seen each other since the courtroom.

"I told him that I believe that he was capable of becoming whatever he wants to be," she said of the conversation.

The 16-year-old inmate still has four more years at Green Hill, which gives him time to put the work he's already accomplished into everyday action, she said.

"There's a reason why their title is Credible Messengers; they know what these young people have been through and that's so different than me, this sort of middle-aged white woman who has had a life of privilege, saying, 'Atta boy, you can do it. I believe in you.'"

While her sentiments never hurt to hear, she said, it does not make as powerful of an impression as someone who has walked the walk and lived on the same streets as these boys have come from.

"I'm more than just this story," said Willard Jimerson Jr., the keynote speaker of the graduation.

In 1994, Jimerson was 13 years old when he was sentenced to 23 years for fatally shooting a 14-year-old girl in the back.

"They gave me 286 months," he said. "I didn't know how much time that was."

Only when an employee of King County Juvenile Court pulled him aside and showed him the newspaper front page headline did he find out how much time those months accumulated to.

"I feel like I have an obligation to live for two people now," Jimerson told the Seattle PI in 2006. "A life was taken that shouldn't have been so I'm obligated to make sure that next person does get a chance to live. I don't want to see nobody else go through this, I really don't — on both sides."

He also told the PI he hopes to see himself mentoring at-risk youth one day.

At the recent graduation, Jimerson, now 38, stands before the group of boys he has mentored over the past six months.

"There's a lot of people who throw people like us away," he told the graduates.

"What helped me transition out of a certain mindset that said it was OK to gangbang, to hustle, to pick up a gun, to cause destruction to myself and also adults that look like me — because I didn't like me so I definitely wouldn't like you — I had to really re-address some values inside myself," he said.

He saved himself through reading. Everything from the Quran to Alice Walker. By educating himself, he realized there is a concentrated attack against people who look like him, he said.

"I was pissed off at everybody who was in an adult role that's supposed to be supervising and taking care of young folks, but they keep ostracizing us and pushing us away. I was pissed the hell off," he said, his evident fury spewing throughout the silent room.

A hopeful solution to end this recidivism cycle is for the graduates to recognize they are the pillars of change for this at-risk society within Green Hill School.

"You guys are the frontline, the strength of the community," he said, adding without these graduates, the chance of breaking the cycle crumbles. "If you don't do it, we aren't going to make it."

Green Hill Superintendent Jennifer Redman said these graduates were among the hardest of the hard-to-reach youth at the prison.

Never been done before, it challenged the thinking of Green Hill administrators to invite formerly incarcerated individuals to connect with the youth — a chance that turned out to be a success, Redman said.

"We need a program that is going to connect with the kids that I can't connect with, that our staff can't connect with … We weren't doing a good job of connecting with those young men," she said. "I appreciate Credible Messengers; they didn't even bat an eyelash, like, 'bring it, those are the ones we want to meet with.'"

After more than a year of incarceration, Eleeott Logitu is transforming his life. The 17-year-old graduate "made a mistake," he said, which landed him a nine-month stint at Green Hill School.

"It was rough at the beginning," he said. "I don't like hearing people talk all the time, I don't like counseling, none of that. But then I built a strong relationship with Eddie."

Eddie Howard is the president and founder of Progress Pushers which leads the Northwest Credible Messenger groups. The program has now expanded into Lewis, Thurston and King counties, and will return to Green Hill in the fall for another phase.

Logitu grew up in Federal Way, no stranger to the criminal justice system as his dad had been incarcerated. Logitu found the Credible Messengers program in Federal Way, but didn't take to it immediately.

In a conversation one day, he discovered Howard had been locked up at the same time as Logitu's father. Suddenly, Logitu said, "… That's when I really got to open up, because he knows my dad."

"They got me through my life struggles," he said about the NWCM leaders. "They've just been there like my older brothers. I look up to them. A lot."

He's learned how to interview for jobs, how to execute a proper handshake, and even completed a college class while at Green Hill.

Logitu sits at a wooden picnic table outside the multifunction room near Green Hill's entrance on the sunny graduation afternoon, just days away from his release from Green Hill. Identical to the other inmates, Logitu is dressed in the issued uniform of a green polo with yellow GHS initials and navy nylon pants with no pockets or fasteners.

Upon leaving the prison, Logitu will live in a group home until he's fully released in September.

He doesn't make eye contact often, but glances at the sprawling, empty campus of Green Hill School throughout the conversation.

"Now I'm changing my life."