How a Hollywood Producer Helped Build Writing Programs For Incarcerated Youth
Scott Budnick and Sam Lewis’ career paths first crossed in 2013. Lewis, a program director for Friends Outside Los Angeles County (FOLA), received a call out of the blue from Budnick, a film producer of “The Hangover” series.
Budnick called asking for Lewis’ help. He needed county jail prisoners to engage with a new program he wanted to start.
Since the early 2000s, Budnick taught writing classes for incarcerated youth. His involvement in juvenile and criminal justice facilities eventually turned into Anti Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a nonprofit providing support for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Lewis was an ARC member and had spent 24 years in prison. He met Budnick while he worked helping formerly incarcerated people gain employment through the FOLA nonprofit.
“I explained to him that I can’t because I’m on parole. I’ll go back to prison if I go on county jail grounds,” said Lewis over the phone with Budnick.
Budnick hung up and called Lewis back about 20 minutes later. He got approval for Lewis from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) where he met with a group of prisoners to talk about his personal experiences.
“I saw the impact of sharing my story with the people that are in the county jail. I saw both sheriffs and the people incarcerated look like, ‘If he can make it, I can do it too.’”
When ARC officially became a 501(c)(3) and a life coach position opened, Lewis left a supervisory role to directly mentor people through ARC.
“I’ve always wanted to help people like me. I want to be able to help kids in juvenile hall and state prisoners,” said Lewis.
The CDCR had historically not let formerly incarcerated people back inside. Nevertheless, Lewis wrote a proposal for the Hope & Redemption Team (HART), a program where nine former lifers go back into state prisons to demonstrate and prepare prisoners for reentry into their communities.
“The idea was getting people that have been incarcerated, on or off parole, to go inside as full-time employees and run programs to inspire and motivate people that were inside that hadn’t figured out how to change, ” said Lewis.
The department gave it a green light and Lewis took charge of the program. Since 2013, Lewis went from being an ARC member to a life coach, then a director of Inside Programs to executive director. Today, his work consists of meetings, writing reports, help coordinate events and new housing, making sure that ARC members’ voices are present in the nonprofit’s decision making and developing programs.
One of Lewis’ favorite new programs is a firefighter-training program. Although prisoners are allowed to fight fires while incarcerated, on the outside those with criminal convictions aren’t allowed to become firefighters in California. ARC advocated for a change with the governor’s office and developed a firefighter training facility for men and women. Some have been hired through independent companies and two were selected by CAL FIRE including Julio, a young man who did a stint in juvenile hall and had an ambition to become a firefighter.
“I’m just excited about seeing Julio come home, struggle and then get to where he wants to be at,” said Lewis. “And now the first thing he says is, ‘When can I go back inside and talk to [kids in juvenile hall]?’”
Some of ARC’s inreach services include: peer-mentorship in juvenile hall, workshops navigating youth offender parole policies, ride-home service and reentry tools. Former prisoners can tap in transitional housing, therapy, peer mentorship, retreats, and career and education development programs. In addition to direct services, ARC also works on making the American criminal justice system more equitable through policy. They’ve sponsored 17 bills, including a bill allowing felons to serve on juries, which successfully passed in 2019.
What Lewis hopes is that people and, specifically, employers remember: People who have and have not been incarcerated make bad judgment calls, but that doesn’t make them a bad people. Believe in second chances.