Reformed prison inmate completes first degree; starts counselling programme for troubled youth What a change!

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

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HOWARD Lewis told himself that he would rather die than face the horrors of prison life, but when confronted with the reality of losing his freedom, the troubled resident of Canterbury -- one of the island's grittiest inner-city communities -- quickly realised that he desperately wanted to live.

"I defied the laws of the society and suffered the consequences, and through the process discovered another way. This way is the way that I see today. I met my turning point there (in prison). The transformation came where in a state of hopelessness, I found a ray of hope [and] I recognised that I don't want to die, I want to live," he said.

The 49-year-old, who had been on the wrong side of the law for many years of his life, said deep down he had always known that there was more to life than the tough existence that he knew but he had no idea how to go about charting that course.

It would take the threat of life behind bars, and six years served before he unexpectedly started on that path in 2011 with the help of the state-run Citizens Security and Justice Programme (CSJP), which targets at-risk youth in 50 volatile and vulnerable communities across eight parishes.

"I was afforded life skills training, counselling, given a way to see life from a different perspective. The process was such that from the very onset, you knew that change comes from within. They would impress upon you that you can do it, if you so choose," he told the Jamaica Observer's Monday Exchange.

As Lewis began to get a taste of the possibilities that exist beyond the rough-and-tumble life of Canterbury, he said a fire ignited in his guts and he took the initiative to reach out to others around him.

But breaking through hopelessness and apathy would be an uphill battle. "Like myself, most persons didn't really see society as anything to be of benefit... no chance and optimism for individuals like themselves," he said.

Still he was not about to give up. With his CSJP training and interactions, Lewis said he used this new chance and new way of life to set up the Canterbury Foundation for Positive Social Development to benefit his community.

He said the foundation allowed him to interact with youth, particularly other males in Canterury, through the promotion of physical fitness. "While we were there exercising, I would relate some of the things that I had learnt through the process of CSJP. It was very effective because at the time there was not only impasse between that community and other communities that spanned over 15 years, but there was almost an absolute aversion to the police," he said.

It was also next to impossible for any social development entity to get any worthwhile foothold in the community. "It's a community that is semi-permeable, either you come in over a bridge, or you use a helicopter to come in, which is usually the case with the national security and other elements," Lewis explained.

Determined to break down this barrier Lewis pressed on, engaging youth from within and outside of his community through CSJP workshops. "Out of that, I learnt a lot, how to just do something differently," he said.

Things took another positive turn for him in 2013 when he became a life skills teacher at the newly opened training centre at the Glendevon Centre of Excellence. By this time he had enrolled in the Northern Caribbean University studying social work, as a result of a scholarship from the CSJP.

Determined to turn his life around from prison, Lewis obtained a high school diploma and achieved four broad-ranging subjects including general science and social studies. He followed up with a distinction in human & social biology, which got him through the gates of the NCU.

"It all started from nothing. I had nothing to start with when I got that high school diploma; I didn't even know it would take me anywhere. I just did it because where I was we had to do something. I didn't even want to go to school. It was a punishment. They recognised that I didn't like school, so they made me an example. It turned out that when the opportunity presented itself for me to get a chance at the tertiary level, that thing that I never wanted became instrumental," he said.

He holds a Bachelor's degree in social work and is now a social worker with the Peace Management Initiative's Montego Bay office. Lewis is awaiting acceptance into the Masters' programme for counselling psychology.

"I lost a lot of friends... It was a state of loneliness that I came to appreciate at the time, because I just wanted another chance," he stated.

Initially he was supposed to serve a life sentence. "Life in that state that I was in -- a body bag or a pine box would be your only way out. I rejected the position they took towards me. I began working with God. I read my Bible, I did a lot of studying," Lewis said. This search led him to Christianity, and in 2005 he got baptised, and later won his appeal and was released.

Even the stigma that he faced as he tried to rebuild his life upon release did not shake his belief in himself. "Vision is a consequence of light, whatever you see there has to be some degree of light for you to have any perception. I recognised that even my state as it was at the time -- stigmatised and stereotyped -- was because there was some amount of good in me why somebody could actually recognise me. If there wasn't a light, if there wasn't something good in me, nobody would have perceived me. I found solace in that tthought and it kept me during those times," Lewis said.

The CSJP is a multi-faceted crime and violence reduction programme which started in 2001 and is run by the Ministry of National Security. Now in its third and final phase, the CSJP implements programmes and services in the targeted communities with the aim of reducing and preventing crime and violence. Its target group are victims and perpetrators of crime and violence usually within the age group of 15 to 25. Some of the programmes offered are: parenting skills, life skills, homework assistance, employment internship, and vocational skills training.`

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