The Everglades Correctional Institution (ECI) in Miami held its fourth annual Gang Prevention Summit in October, focusing on the theme of “homecoming” in preparation for individuals to return to their communities successfully.
Before the event began, I walked through ECI’s large visitation park, watching representatives from Miami-Dade County’s mayor’s office mingle with incarcerated men, and listening to R&B over the loudspeaker while drinking hot coffee.
Seasoned gang detectives shook hands with retired Crips and Bloods while community organizers and the wardens laughed; university professors sat chatting with attorneys, and everyone there was working towards a common goal–preventing violence and creating dialogue.
The four-day event began on Oct. 18, 2021, featured community dignitaries and was organized by Wayne Rawlins, the Anti-Violence Initiative project manager for Miami-Dade County. Rawlins is also the outside sponsor for Positive Peer Leadership, the prisoner-facilitated program at ECI that hosted the pioneering summit. Starting conversations is seen as an important key to stopping the cycle of gang violence inside prisons and in local communities nationwide.
When we took our seats for the opening introductions, the Positive Peer Leadership members, led by the program’s president Dexter Dukes, recited their mission statement together:
“As a positive peer leader I will walk and lead by example, motivate, inspire, encourage, and empower everyone I come in contact with. There’s no better way to predict the future than by creating it yourself. Change is our mission.”
Founded in 2016 by an ex-death row prisoner who wanted to lower gang violence at the institution, Positive Peer Leadership was initially run by former gang members trying to rescue prisoners from the violent and often deadly gang lifestyle.
In time, the program evolved to include anyone who wanted to focus on community leadership and changing negative thinking and behavior. Since coming under the sponsorship of Rawlins in 2017, Positive Peer Leadership has grown into a juggernaut, including the ground-breaking gang prevention summits each year. Their efforts have since expanded to include other social justice and community issues, as well as prison reform.
“Preventing youth violence and supporting the children of incarcerated people is important to us,” Dukes, the program’s president, told me, “but solutions to problems inside prison are too.”
The main event was a debate between members of Positive Peer Leadership and ECI’s Toastmasters Speech Club, and topics were wide-ranging: Should the Department of Corrections be responsible for rehabilitating incarcerated men and women? Do prison programs really work? How can people help the communities they live in?
On the second day, the activist Desmond Meade spoke. He was introduced as the man Time magazine named one of its 100 most influential people.
The voting rights advocate was a formally incarcerated addict and winner of the 2020 MacArthur Foundation “genius award,” one of the most prestigious awards in the world.
As Meade started to speak, 100 incarcerated men and guests witnessed the transcendental testimony of a man who had left prison and earned his law degree; who had recently received clemency in order to take the bar exam; who had flown in that morning from Orlando just to see us, the men who stood where he once did.
Meade talked to us about commitment, a commitment to something so strong that you’re willing to sacrifice your life for it. “In the 90s, I was willing to die to get high. I was committed to destroying myself … Now I’m committed to live for something greater than myself, and everything I have is because I was willing to lay my life on the line to do God’s work and help others.”
I was amazed that this brilliant man was a recovering addict and had been locked up. I listened in awe as he explained what came next: a treatment center, a homeless shelter, Miami Dade College, law school. Recognition and respect. Family.
Each afternoon there was a question and answer session with topics such as how to reach kids who are at risk of getting in trouble, tactics that should be used, and the importance of listening.
One of the Positive Peer Leadership staff suggested that law enforcement should start by just listening.
On the last day, the summit held a closing ceremony with step dancing, spoken word poetry, laughter and music. In place of a keynote speaker, members of the Positive Peer Leadership program stood up at the podium and shared their ideas and testimonies for how to help men being released from prison after long periods of time.
Gang violence prevention was a central part of the discussion, but other issues were raised as well about poverty, re-entry and mental health.
“Everyone walks away with something when we dialogue,” said Rawlins, the organizer, at the end of the ceremony. “The old can influence the young. Those in prison can enlighten the authorities.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.