“Prison is only a microcosm of the larger society,” says Jerome Wright, who, after serving over three decades in state prison, was released in 2009. According to Jerome, what an offender battles on the “outside,” he or she will also confront within prison.
Jerome was arrested in 1979 at age 18. From Rikers to Comstock (referred to as “Gladiator School” for its high level of violence), he resisted his new reality. Leading up to and after his arrest, he was surrounded by men who praised his prowess and fearlessness on the streets. His community looked up to him; he recalls times when people genuflected in his presence.
In some of his descriptions of his past self, he comes across as a Robin Hood figure. “I thought, I rob people who do wrong things. If you’re a drug dealer, I rob you,” he explains.
It might not come as a surprise, then, that he at first believed he didn’t belong in prison.
“I went in knowing what I did [but] not understanding why I did it and all the things around that. So when I went in and nobody challenged me on that, [my objective] was to try to get out. I continued to perpetuate the same type of behaviors.” Such as acting out in violence, using drugs, and selling drugs.
For ten years, he lived by this mentality. “The need wasn’t to change. The need was to get out,” he explains.
During that time, he connected with a woman who would become a pillar of support, a source of unconditional love, and the mother of his children. Susan and Jerome had known each other since their young teenage years, but they began their romantic relationship when she reached out after Jerome’s arrest. Through letters and visits, they cultivated a strong love that would last a lifetime.
They eventually got married and decided to have children, though they knew it would be a challenge to keep their family a cohesive unit while Jerome was behind bars.
The burden of family engagement often falls on whoever is on the outside. Susan visited and called regularly with the children, and she also became a staunch and present advocate for Jerome’s rights. In the process of fighting for Jerome, she stood up for the rights of all prisoners. As a co-founder of the Coalition for Parole Restoration, she advocated for parole reform and helped prisoners and families prepare for parole board hearings.
Jerome, meanwhile, was going through serious internal changes.
“It took me a long time to grow up and become mature. It’s a rough process. That’s why they call it growing pains, because it hurts. It took a while, and it was stunted because of where I was at, to some degree, even though I was still responsible for my growth.”
Jerome has always possessed characteristics that typically should promise a successful future. He was academically gifted and graduated from his Catholic high school with honors. He had strong family ties, was athletically and socially skilled, and had a resilient, caring mother who taught him, “You’re only as good as your service to other people. You’re brought here to serve others, not for your own aggrandizement.”
Perhaps the traits that make him admirable now were also those that made him “legendary,” as Jerome puts it, in his rough Bronx neighborhood. He has charisma, a sense of humor, and a penchant for parsing wisdom in a digestible, emphatic way.
And he was captured by this idea of reverence from his community, even if it was for all the wrong reasons. In the end, the lure of infamy was a powerful influence throughout Jerome’s formative years, and it did not dissipate when he went to prison.
“I grew up with older guys teaching me you don’t unholster your weapon unless you’re going to use it,” he explains. “Any time you bring together guns, education, and no fear, that’s a volatile mix.”
Just as the male mentors and role models of his youth contributed to his destructive beliefs about greatness, Jerome’s actions influenced other young men in his neighborhood, including his eldest son, whom Jerome fathered before meeting Susan. His eldest son heard legends about his father from the old days, and eventually he would seek to live up to them.
Looking back, Jerome views his damage as cyclical. He recalls the cliché: Kids won’t do what you tell them to do; they’ll do what they see you do.
“I told [my son] what not to do and I was firm about it, but he saw what I did and he heard what I did. People in the street even mistakenly respected what I did and gave him the impression that I was somebody, but I wasn’t…He bought into it and allowed himself to get carried off into that, and it cost him his freedom.”
“It’s hard to fathom that with his intellect and his ability he could have been anything else if I had been there to help nurture that and guide that,” Jerome explains.
Mentors or teachers in our lives can guide our talents and energy for better or worse. Just as the wrong mentor can change one’s life irrevocably, so can the right one. This insight soon catalyzed a monumental idea – and purpose – within Jerome: a means for breaking the “cycle,” mitigating the damage, altering the world for the better. And it began in an unexpected place.
Reflection in SHU
Jerome’s lifestyle came to a head in the late 80s during a prison yard fight. It broke out with Jerome at the center, defending himself from a knife attack. He had time added to his sentence and was put in solitary confinement, known as Special Housing Units or “SHU.”
A prisoner in solitary spends 23 hours each day alone in a six-by-nine foot cell (not much larger than a parking spot). One hour each day is spent in a small cage outdoors. These long days without direct human contact are known to induce panic, rage, depression, and psychological breakdown. Many prisoners pass the time by exercising in their cells or reading the limited materials they are allowed. The entire SHU might echo with screams or cries, and other times they manage to talk to each other through the walls. Some prisoners exchange notes under their doors using “fishing lines,” or lines made of torn sheets or toilet paper, or anything else that can be scavenged.
Up until his time in SHU, Jerome hadn’t challenged the beliefs by which he was living. Here, he was prompted to reflect on the need for change.
“I consider myself an exception to the rule when it comes to prisoners,” Jerome says. “I benefited from SHU because I had the wherewithal to benefit from SHU. My peers go to SHU, they already don’t know how to read or write, they already have mental issues and social, emotional issues, they already don’t have ties to the community, their family. So SHU exacerbates their problems.”
More than half of his peers in SHU could not read the materials on the reading cart that so rarely came around the solitary units.
“What I did a lot of times, I would read something someone was interested in, and then break it down for them,” says Jerome.
Unlike his peers, Jerome also had family that reached out to him and the money to afford educational courses. Counseling services were scarce and inadequate, and GED advancement was not offered. Jerome, on the other hand, had Susan, a beam of encouragement.
“I don’t know how I was blessed to have someone like Susan as a companion,” he reflects thoughtfully.
He read the newspaper cover to cover every day. He had USA Today delivered regularly, was fortunate enough to pay for correspondence courses, and received letters. These advantages, though seemingly small, made isolation bearable for him where it so often crushes others.
SHU is often used as a disciplinary measure, and in some cases it is used to keep prisoners safe from the general population. Jerome attests that he deserved to go to SHU, but that was not always the case with his peers. One could be sent to SHU for having too many postage stamps or certain foods. In other cases, guards used it as a tool for retribution if a prisoner rubbed them the wrong way, or officers knew how to push vulnerable prisoners to their breaking points, causing them to lash out.
In simplest terms, SHU is one of the darkest, loneliest places imaginable: a prison within prison. Imagine spending twenty-three hours per day for an indeterminate amount of days in a small, gray space; a place echoing with the shouts of other prisoners losing their minds in their extreme isolation. Human rights organizations label long-term solitary confinement as a form of torture. Studies show that it causes mental decay within the first few days and in many cases it serves to make people more violent.
That is why Jerome is exceptional. He used his advantages to overcome and cope with this environment. Not only did he begin a personal transformation, but also he emerged with a vision to transform the environment around him from one of violence to one of nurture.
While in SHU, Jerome and his cell neighbor Samuel Holloway held philosophical conversations through the walls. Together, they brainstormed a concept for a program that would teach young men about the true meaning of manhood. They called it the Mentoring and Nurturing – or M.A.N. – Program. As Jerome once wrote of the program’s inception:
I began to acknowledge the lack of true and meaningful understanding of manhood. Manhood has become synonymous with and mischaracterized as being tough, pseudo-intelligent, rebellious without a cause, criminal-minded, “street wise” and basically unempathetic[sic] of others. So after much reflection, using mostly my own faults, failures, and few successes, I came up with some of the elements necessary to begin addressing those tenets of manhood rarely focused on in this day and time…change, responsibility, empathy, accountability, maturation. As the program’s name suggests, the primary goal is…teaching them, in ways they are usually unfamiliar with, what a “man” really does; e.g. mentor and nurture themselves and others.
After their brainstorming days in SHU, Samuel was sent to a separate facility. It wasn’t until the 1990s that they serendipitously ended up as neighbors once again – this time, on honor block.
They hadn’t forgotten about their dream. The only change was that the need for it had become more pressing. By that time, the people coming into prison were younger than ever, and they were angrier, less predictable and more violent. Gang activity and fights were rampant. To Jerome, these young men were aimless. They had no one in their lives to guide them into adulthood.
So, Samuel pulled out his typewriter, and he and Jerome sat up all night creating the curriculum for the M.A.N. Program.
The program consists of eleven classes which address HIV and sexual health; parenting and child development; emotional issues; math, reading, and writing development; and public speaking. The two men also developed a course on how to be an entrepreneur, honing skills in business planning, resume and cover letter writing, and interviewing. They asked their participants, “What type of man do you want to be?”
The young men in the prison responded positively. While prison staff initially were wary, accusing Jerome of trying to start a gang, they soon realized the program helped to stabilize the prison environment. In fact, it was so successful that Jerome was asked to bring it to other prisons.
Today, Jerome and a group of other formerly incarcerated citizens are teaching this curriculum in a charter school in Rochester, NY. The program participation is composed of approximately 98 percent young African American teens with absent fathers and who have academic deficiencies, many who are in ninth grade with fourth to sixth-grade reading and math skills.
Challenges of Reentry
It is a misconception that re-entry begins the moment a person steps foot out of prison. Rather, the process begins the moment a person is arrested. From that point forward, each experience he or she has with the “system” and those within it will have a profound and irreversible impact on the rest his or her life. Through adjudication, sentencing, and incarceration, offenders continue to wrestle with similar demons they faced on the outside. Confronting themselves, their reality, and their environment is a process that often takes years to unfold, long before reentry is even in sight.
Jerome’s reentry story began long before his release in 2009. From behind bars, Jerome remained engaged and active in his family’s lives. He was a disciplinary voice to his children and spoke with their teachers. Maintaining those connections throughout his sentence would eventually create a soft landing place after his release: he would have somewhere to go with people who cared about his wellbeing.
Susan and Jerome’s daughter grew up to be a lawyer who now works for the New York State’s Attorney General’s office, his youngest son is in college, and another is a supportive husband and father. When Jerome’s eldest son was released in 2017, the entire family was together for the first time in a non-institutional setting.
Of course, navigating marriage outside of prison has had its moments. Living with his wife for the first time was a demanding lifestyle adjustment after decades maintaining a long-distance relationship. As Jerome puts it, adjusting to the nuances of daily marital life requires the “same amount of fortitude, conviction and commitment” that kept them together throughout his incarceration.
Implementing the M.A.N. Program has not been without challenges, either. Jerome left prison knowing that mentorship and training facilitation were his strong suits, and he wanted to pursue a career that utilized those skills. While he worked relentlessly to bring the curriculum to certain Western New York schools in need of assistance dealing with student behaviors, his criminal record was a frequent roadblock to gaining access to space, participants, and funding.
Jerome believes you get what you put into this world, and that is exactly how he finally caught his break with the school in Rochester. The school was looking for a positive role model to teach character-building curriculum to at-risk students. The school initially approached a local business owner about the position. He declined but said, “I want to introduce you to the guy who made me into the man I am today.” He was talking about his former mentor – Jerome.
When Jerome was invited to come in to teach a trial class, he showed up and did what he does best: engage, captivate, inspire. The students who participated in the presentation volunteered to stay through lunch – a sacred social time to them – to continue listening and asking questions. Before Jerome left, the observing instructor noted, “You don’t even know what you just did. No one has ever had that impact.”
Jerome was offered the job on the spot. The school was aware of his criminal record, but they insisted they would go to bat for him if anyone objected.
He worked for three months before receiving a letter from the New York State Education Department saying they were going to contest his acceptance to the position. Jerome was invited to appeal the decision.
In response, he collected over fifty letters of support from community members, friends, colleagues, and family. He submitted extensive documentation asserting his rehabilitation.
The Department denied his clearance again without reading a word of it.
Jerome hired an attorney and continued pressing for a fair appeals process. In total, he was out of work for six months.
Finally, after bouncing from desk to desk for months, the paperwork ended up with an administrator who took the time to carefully review it. Once someone took the time to hear Jerome’s appeal, they had no objection to approving the process. At last the appeal was approved, and now the M.A.N. Program is running full time.
Bringing the program to students took an arduous fight, but that is not what Jerome focuses on. Instead, he continues to look to the positives. “I believe young men’s lives are changing,” he says. “And that’s all we’re trying to do.”
So many years after his arrest at the fledgling age of 18, Jerome has redefined what it means to be a “legend” in a person’s life and in a community.
Afterword: Jerome was also recently hired as a full-time organizer for the Western New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. He continues to oversee the implementation of the M.A.N. Program.