Before their presentation, four inmates, dressed in loose-fitting brown prison attire, stared out to an audience of over 400 people on Tuesday, December 4 in Pollak theatre. Next to them hung a sign that read, “The worst thing that you can do is establish a criminal record.” For them, it was too late; as a result of a series of events topped with poor decision making, their records are forever blemished.
Cumulatively, their prison sentences combine to over 25 years behind bars. But in an effort to teach others about the dangers of using drugs and the results of making bad decisions, they participated in Project PRIDE (Promoting Responsibility in Drug Education) and for an hour they told their stories.
Michael Ridder, Coordinator of Project PRIDE, said that the four inmates were once just like the students who sat in the audience. “These four people, before they headed down the wrong path, were goal-orientated, talented young adults. They never imagined that one day they would be prisoners in a New Jersey Correctional facility,” said Ridder. “Unfortunately, they made bad decisions that led them to where they are today.”
The first of the prisoners to speak was a 27-year-old man named Evan. After losing his job because of a business merger, Evan said that it didn’t take long for his finances to dwindle down and feeding his family became nearly impossible. “I couldn’t pay any of my bills and within two months I was handed an eviction notice by my landlord,” said Evan. Making “the worst decision of my life,” Evan robbed three stores with a 9mm gun and was later arrested on armed robbery charges and first degree possession of a gun. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. “The one thing that weighs on my heart and my mind all of the time is that I acted on impulse,” said Evan.
“I want people to realize that it is imperative that every decision they make should be made so it benefits them, their family and their dreams,” said Evan. “Things would have been different if I understood this five years ago.”
The next inmate to speak was a woman named Jessica. Experimenting with drugs at a young age, Jessica said that she gradually moved to harder drugs as she got older. “I began to use heroin and started stealing from my parents, my grandparents and even my little brother,” Jessica said. “I did anything to get the money to obtain the drugs.” On a night when Jessica and her friends couldn’t scrape any funds together for their habit, she said that her and her boyfriend decided to go to a pharmacy. “My ex-boyfriend robbed it [the pharmacy] by knife-point while I was in the car,” said Jessica. Protecting her felon beau, Jessica took the wrap for him because she had no criminal record and expected a lenient punishment. “I told the police that the robbery was my idea.” As a result, Jessica was sentenced to three years in prison and three years parole when she gets out.
Jessica said that she volunteers for Project PRIDE so that young adults can learn from her mistakes. “I come here to let the students know that no one is exempt from going to prison,” said Jessica. “I want them to learn from my mistakes and see how my decisions got me to where I am today.”
After receiving an applause from the audience, Jessica passed the microphone to Lauren. Describing herself as a hardworking and ambitious person, Lauren said that she had wanted to become an FBI agent when her service with the Marines ended. However, her dream was shattered the night she left a New York City bar after drinking four beers and hit a motorcyclist who died from the impact. “I thought that I had hit a deer because there was blood covering the front of my car and I was in Northern New Jersey, where the deer population is high,” said Lauren. “But after a few moments, I saw a motorcycle lying next to my car.” The devastating accident put Lauren in jail for a five years. She says that she participates in Project PRIDE to honor the victim of her deadly decision and to let students hear her story so that the same misfortune does not occur to someone else.
Following Lauren’s share, Ridder took time to give examples of how people’s decisions behind the wheel can negatively effect them for the rest of their lives. In his first example, he explained how a driver is responsible for an accident even if they are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. “There is a woman in our prison system who was sentenced to three years for hitting a pedestrian while she was texting and driving,” Ridder said. “Her decision to text while driving cost the pedestrian his leg and, in turn, three years of her freedom.”
His next example was from a woman named Sophia who was sentenced to three years in prison for a vehicular accident that involved a fatality. “Several days before the accident occurred, Sophia smoked marijuana, but regardless of the fact that she wasn’t high at the time of the accident, she still tested positive for THC, the chemical found in marijuana,” said Ridder. Her positive drug test was enough evidence to convict her. “It is critical for people to understand the importance of safe driving,” a stern Ridder said.
The final speaker, Vincent, told the audience that he was a talented track and field competitor as well as a Golden Gloves boxer who was on his way to stardom. Because of his bad habits though, he got involved with the wrong crowd and started making careless decisions. It eventually caught up to him. “I was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to ten years in prison,” said Vincent. From the descriptions of his experiences in jail, he doesn’t like it too much. “I have a job in prison that pays me 30 cents per day. I would trade to be back in my shoes as a teenager any day,” said Vincent. “It is excruciating to live under the circumstances of jail,” he said.
The event was co-sponsored by 18 groups from the University, such as the Office of Substance Awareness, Artists for Change and fraternities and sororities like Alpha Kappa Psi and Zeta Tau Alpha. Shelby Goldman, a member of the Zeta Tau Alpha said that her sorority could learn a lot from the night’s presentation. “Something like this will benefit all of the girls in the sorority because we will take what we heard here tonight, and discuss it in more detail amongst each other when we get home,” Goldman said.
Jackie Leming, a sophomore, went to the event with a group of her friends. “What was most moving for me was to hear how well some of the speakers’ lives were going and then they just took a turn for the worse,” said Leming. “It really shows how spontaneous and impulsive decision-making can backfire.”
Suanne Schaad, Substance Awareness Coordinator at Health Services, said that this is the seventh year that Project PRIDE has been to the University. “Many of the inmate speakers throughout the years have been young adults who were in college when they committed their crimes,” said Schaad. “This makes the interaction peer-to-peer and easy to identify for the students. It works so well because it is the inmates telling their story. They are not telling the students what to do, rather they are showing how their bad decisions led them to addiction, criminal behavior and jail,” said Schaad.
Schaad urges any student who thinks that they might have an alcohol or drug problem to visit the Office of Substance Awareness in the Health Center or call 732-263-5804. The service is free and confidential.