How Someone Who Was Formerly Incarcerated Ran Programs Centered On Solutions In And Out Prison

As a person who was incarcerated for 24 years, Sam Lewis has dedicated his career to creating opportunities for men and women who share similar paths as they transition back into society from incarceration. In 2013, while working as a program director for Friends Outside Los Angeles County (FOLA), Lewis received a phone call out of the blue from film producer of “The Hangover” series, Scott Budnick.

Since the early 2000s, Budnick taught writing classes for youth who were incarcerated. His involvement in juvenile and criminal justice facilities eventually turned into Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a nonprofit providing support for people who have experienced incarceration. Budnick’s call to Lewis was for help. He needed Lewis’ to share his story with people currently incarcerated in hope to engage them with a new program. But there was a hiccup.

“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,’” said Lewis.

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 people in state prison,” 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 life prisoners go back into state prisons to demonstrate what hope looks like, that redemption is in fact possible and to 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 the Director of Inside Programs to Executive Director. Today, his work consists of meetings, writing reports, helping coordinate events, and 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. While the training program with ARC and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), California Conservation Corps (CCC) and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is a positive first step there are challenges that still remain. However, some men and women with criminal convictions have been hired through independent companies and CAL FIRE. Julio, a young man who did a stint in juvenile hall and had an ambition to become a firefighter is now on track to making his dream come true.

“I’m just excited about seeing Julio come home, struggle and then get to where he wants to be at,” said Sam. “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 into 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 co-sponsored 17 bills, including a bill allowing people with felony’s serve on juries, which successfully passed in 2019.

What Sam 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 bad people.

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