By Mokah Jasmine Johnson
For the past five years, the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement has worked to establish a youth program that helps at-risk juveniles from failing through the cracks of the justice system, from becoming repeat offenders or dropping out of school. And recently, our first graduate has successfully completed our End School To Prison Pipeline program and I would like to share his story:
My name is Bernard and I am 18 years old. I’m writing about my experience with the criminal justice system as a teen and with the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement’s “End School to Prison Pipeline” program in the hopes of inspiring others.
I’ve always had the motivation to chase whatever type of dream or desire I wanted, but I always told myself that I’d chase them the right way. Some people turn to crime for money and, hell, some people turn to crime just to have something to do. I was on the right path, working everyday at a job that I loved and pursuing my personal life goals. Things were going good, until I lost that job.
I slowly began heading towards the wrong path and creating habits that weren't helping me on my journey towards success. I wasn't ready for that unexpected loss. I didn't have a backup plan to help me with setbacks. So I turned into a shoplifter. I didn’t think of it as theft because I wasn’t stealing from anyone. I wasn’t really hurting anyone. Then, like all shoplifters eventually are, I was caught. I didn’t end up going to jail, but I did get into trouble. After I was caught that first time, I swore to never shoplift again but it became addictive to me. Shoplifting was one of my bad habits that I couldn't get rid of, and at the time I used the excuse that I couldn't find a job to justify that bad habit.
Then, I got caught again and this time I actually went to jail for it. Dealing with the law is very stressful because some officers think you don’t know your rights but you still have to obey them. Going through this situation made me realize that I had to let go of this bad habit and really think about what I want to do with my life. I’m at an age where it’s not too late to turn my life around, but I knew that I couldn’t afford to have this on my record.
I ended up being recommended for the End School to Prison Pipeline program (ESTPP) through the Athens-Clarke County Probation Services Department, where I was completing a pre-arrest diversion program. Before I came in, I wondered to myself, “What kind of program is actually going to help me get back right?” Once I actually started coming in though, I met these nice people that can really help just about anyone that walks or calls in. It took some time for me to actually stand up and say that I wanted help for myself so I could get a clear vision on how to take the next best steps in my life. I've learned a lot going through ESTPP.
I've learned that there are people committed to helping and showing you your worth and strengths. I created a vision board which creatively showed what my goals are and how to achieve them. I worked on a resume to prepare for future jobs I want to apply for. I learned more about the school-to-prison pipeline– how schools and other places are sometimes set up to put you on a path for a life of crime and why it’s important to stop that process.
Getting to where I want to be is still a learning process and a journey that I have to go on myself but I’ve also learned it's also okay to ask for help or suggestions, especially from the people who want nothing but the best for you. My advice for others is to work hard to get what you want in the right way because when you put good into this world you'll get the same in return. Moving forward I've found another job that I enjoy doing and I’m continuing my cellphone business.
If I could change my past actions, I would. But there’s nothing else I can do other than to learn from them, make better choices, and help others avoid my mistakes. I can’t thank this program and AADM enough for giving me a second chance at life.
Mokah Jasmine Johnson is an adult educator, civil rights activist and mother, who is a candidate to represent the 120th District in the Georgia House of Representative. As president and co-founder of the nonprofit Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement she advocates for racial and social justice,