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NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript: Rebuilding Lives, 6.20.03


DAVID LEWIS: I go to jails all over the country. All over the damn country and I see y'all there everywhere. I saw you in Sing Sing the other day. I saw you in the California Youth Authority the other day. I saw you in the federal prison in Pennsylvania the other day.

KATHLEEN HUGHES, PRODUCER: David Lewis is used to speaking to a captive audience.

DAVID LEWIS: We got to start thinking, man. We got to start thinking about what this system is doing to us.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: He travels the country, giving lectures and workshops not only to prisoners, but social workers, policy makers, academics, and others.

DAVID LEWIS: Did I tell y'all I was a drug addict too? I didn't tell y'all I was a drug addict?

KATHLEEN HUGHES: He's sending them a message that even hardened criminals can change their ways.

DAVID LEWIS: I was the kind of drug addict that would steal your dope and then help you look for it, you know. I mean, you check all your pockets and look over here.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: That's David Lewis today. Now take a look at him twelve years ago, when he was just out of prison himself.

DAVID LEWIS: All this is kind of, you know, real new to me, getting up going to work in the morning and stuff, you know. It's kind of really new to me.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: We first met him in 1991 when Lewis was 35 years old. He was just getting on his feet, having spent most of his adult life behind bars in some of California's toughest prisons: Folsom, Soledad and San Quentin.

DAVID LEWIS: I used to often wonder, you know-like I might be up this time in the morning, trying to buy dope or something like that or doing something, up all night. And I would kind of always often wonder where were all those people going? Because I would go to prison and come back - do three four, five years or whatever and come back-and they'd still be doing this, you know.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: He was managing to earn a few dollars painting houses. It was the first legitimate job he'd ever had.

How David Lewis went from here...to here...

DAVID LEWIS: On a daily basis I try not to self destruct.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: ...is a story of crime, punishment and a kind of resurrection.

DAVID LEWIS: I've been in prison all my damn life.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: But this is more than one man's tale. David Lewis says he has a model for changing the way America treats its prisoners, moving away from an emphasis on shame, punishment, and the building of ever more jails, toward one of recovery and rehabilitation.

DAVID LEWIS: Just one mistake can send you back to where? The bench. My bench is in San Quentin. Sometimes I go there and look at it. Just to make sure that it's a place that I don't want to be.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: David Lewis was raised in East Palo Alto, an unincorporated, almost forgotten part of California where poverty and unemployment were common.

DAVID LEWIS: East Palo Alto, East St. Louis, East New York--" For some reason or another, these east places, I don't know, something happens. Something happens in 'em.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: At school, Lewis says, he was a failure. He was dyslexic, and never even learned to read. He dropped out in the 10th grade.

DAVID LEWIS: And-- but I still had this burning desire to succeed. And the people that I saw that were succeeding that didn't look like they was going to school were people that was involved with criminal activity.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: By the time he was a teenager, Lewis was already hooked on heroin. He committed armed robberies to support his addiction.

DAVID LEWIS: I consider myself probably at fifteen having a full blown drug habit. You know, my whole day centered around drugs.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: He was behind bars by the time he was 18. In prison he says, he became a leader of one of the most notorious gangs in the California penitentiary system. He ran drugs, practiced extortion, made people pay protection to stay alive.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: Prison was his school, says Lewis. Violence the curriculum.

DAVID LEWIS: Violence was a positive emotion. Anger was a positive emotion. The angrier you were the more violent you were or attempted to be, the more people kind of like left you alone and stayed a away from you, that kind of thing.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: Ironically, it was also in prison where Lewis eventually learned to read.

But when he was finally released from San Quentin in 1989 he immediately went back to his old habits.

Within days he was arrested again. But this time, instead of recommending incarceration, his parole officer got Lewis into a residential drug treatment program. He stayed there for a year.

DAVID LEWIS: I want to be maybe some day, be a husband to some woman...

KATHLEEN HUGHES: Not long after leaving treatment, Lewis became involved with a group of men who were all struggling to stay sober…they'd formed what they called a "circle" and met every week to talk about their lives.

DAVID LEWIS: Am I ever going to have to share a cell with my son?

KATHLEEN HUGHES: In the group he slowly began to admit the damage his addiction had done to other people, especially the son he'd fathered but never raised, David Jr.

DAVID LEWIS: I got a son 18 and it hadn't really dawned on me until tonight how I might have been the cause of maybe him going to penitentiary one day. Soon, probably because he's got this kid coming. He doesn't' have no job, he never went to school, you know what I'm saying? He's going to do something, you know. I went by his house the other day and he had a big diamond ring and shit and I said, "where'd you get this ring, man." He said, "You ain't got none, no ring?" And I said, "No," he say, "I get you one," you know and it scared the hell out of me. I don't know what to do, you know. If anybody you know, know anything or have any suggestions or-

TONY, CIRCLE MEMBER: Start hanging out with him. Start doing things with him. I take my son to the show, take him to the Burger King. If he calls me, I talk to him. I didn't raise him. I was in jail. I was shooting dope.

DAVID LEWIS: Gradually and incrementally-- the obsession to use drugs started to be lifted. I could walk by people who were selling drugs on the streets, I could walk past liquor stores and things like that.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: Lewis was making the transition from junkie criminal…to reformer. He began talking to friends and neighbors in East Palo Alto whose lives had also been damaged by drugs and crime. It was 1992, and the town of 23,000 had gained a dubious title: Murder Capital of the Country. News crews rushed in.

CNN REPORTER LINDA JOYCE: Last year, 42 people died violently here. Per capita, that's more than double Detroit and Washington, D.C. Officials blame poverty, unemployment, gangs and drugs.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: Local police turned to the FBI for help. But Lewis and his neighbors believed that more law enforcement wasn't the answer. In 1993 they formed Free At Last, a drug and alcohol center run by and for the people of East Palo Alto.

Linda Mills is a Professor of Social Work and an Affiliated Professor of Law at New York University. Back in 1993 she worked at the Echoing green Foundation, one of the first to fund Free At Last.

LINDA MILLS, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY: You know, in the past drug treatment was about taking somebody out of their community, putting them in another community, providing them with that treatment. And then re-integrating them. And of course, as soon as they got back all the triggers from what they'd gone through in the past were all there and they go back. And so the idea that this treatment program would happen right there in the community was a radically new idea.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: In most of the country prisoners get little more than a few bucks and a bus ticket upon release, according to Todd Clear, Professor of Criminal Justice at New York's John Jay University.

TODD CLEAR, JOHN JAY COLLEGE: The classic cases that a guy whose been out of-- out of the community for three years comes back to a community and goes to a shelter. Does not have a job. None of his clothes fit. Doesn't have money to put down on a car. Doesn't have money to put down on an apartment. Works-- starts working day labor where he gets cash. Can't establish credit. Doesn't have a bank card. On and on and on and on. And those kinds of disincentives-- make it very hard for a person in transition from prison to make it.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: Clear says the lack of services — inside prison as well as outside — helps explain the nation's recidivism rate. It's estimated that fully two thirds of all prisoners released this year will be re-arrested within three years.

The staff at Free At Last know those odds well. Nearly half are ex-cons; and at least as many are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Yet all the treatment in the world, they say, won't help a person who doesn't have a place to live or a job to go to. So along with drug-and-alcohol counseling, Free at Last offers literacy training, job placement and a myriad of other services.

And it seems to be making a difference. One independent study found that over 60 percent of those who complete Free At Last's program were clean and sober a year later. Not only that, they were off public assistance and in stable housing.

The organization's reputation has spread, even inside local prisons.

HAROLD ATKINS, FORMER COUNSELOR, FREE AT LAST: When I was in prison everybody was talking about Free At Last, Free At Last...around recovery. David Lewis to me, is basically like a savior. I don't think nobody had the courage to do what he did right here in East Palo Alto. Me? I look at it as man, look where he came from. If he did it, anybody can do it.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: David Lewis is determined to help teach others how to do it.

DAVID LEWIS: We see probably about 500 people a day, you know, in various different — I'll use you all's words, treatment modalities. Y'all didn't know I knew that word, huh? Technically, the buzz word is cognitive restructuring through behavior modification…you might want to write it down. Now a lot of time people asks, what does that mean-well, it's thinking skills.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: With some partners, he's developed a curriculum that provides tools and techniques for people who want to make changes in their lives. On this day he's working with prisoners in a jail just south of San Francisco.

DAVID LEWIS: I'm gonna do a little exercise. Would you participate with me, sir? Now, put your hand up for a minute.

LINDA MILLS, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY: Something happens when David Lewis goes in a room with 50 inmates or with 50, you know, formerly incarcerated folks and says, "This is how I did it. This is the step-by-step process that I took.

DAVID LEWIS: Now, I push him, it stimulates him. He doesn't even have to think before he pushes me back. Y'all got iron in there, man. You damn near killed me. Automatically, automatically, he didn't even have to think. I pushed and he automatically pushed me back. It feels real good to push somebody. See that instant gratification of pushing, of getting it off, of satisfying that urge. It feels good to do that. But I have to ask myself the question, "Is the result of my response gonna meet my needs? Not the instant gratification but over time."

LINDA MILLS: In the same way that people were taught to be violent, and were taught to use drugs and were taught to drink alcohol, he teaches them to unlearn those patterns.

DAVID LEWIS: But now if I walk away-- if I walk away, if I make a decision to do something else that's not violent, that's not aggressive, that's not putting my hands on you I get the opportunity to walk out of this damn jail. And when I get a chance to walk out of this jail I get a chance to go out in the streets and actually try to participate in life on life terms and be the responsible person that men are supposed to be

KATHLEEN HUGHES: Today's East Palo Alto is no longer the murder capital of America. But it's not as if the community's problems have gone away. Lewis can barely walk down the street here without someone asking for help.

DAVID LEWIS: What you doing now?

MAN: I didn't want you to think I wasn't' ready just that I had to make sure my wife is situated,

KATHLEEN HUGHES: This man says he is ready to enter Free at Last's residential addiction treatment program.

MAN: Now would be the best time, because I'm off work.

DAVID LEWIS: I'll go over there and see what the bed situation is...

KATHLEEN HUGHES: Last year a combination of government and corporate grants put Free At Last's budget at two and a half million dollars. But a weak economy has led to government funding being slashed. And earlier this year, Lewis laid off half of his paid staff.

And as the economy worsens, he is working hard to try and ensure that whatever jobs are created here go to the people living here. To that end, David Lewis makes it his business to keep in touch with the community's leaders.

DAVID LEWIS: This is our banker, for Free at Last.

Banker: How you doing?

DAVID LEWIS: And I think we have probably one of the biggest accounts here. A pretty big account. And we try to patronize, you know, business. They just brought this bank into our community. This is the first time they've had a bank here in East Palo Alto in I don't know how many years.

BANKER: Fifteen. By now, it's, yeah, we were the first bank in fifteen years that was here.

DAVID LEWIS: Where-- where is Kathy? …I think I robbed the last one. (LAUGHTER). No, I'm just kidding.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: David Lewis' criminal past is well behind him. Still, he knows the people who make the rules are not necessarily ready to forgive him, or to change their approach to crime and punishment.

TODD CLEAR, JOHN JAY COLLEGE: There's this kind of assumption that if we just make prison a nasty enough idea, regardless of what's going on in people's lives or their circumstances, they will choose to do the things that are necessary to avoid prison. Try to teach people law abiding behavior by threatening them and that just isn't working.

LINDA MILLS, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY: It seems to me that policymakers may not have made the shift yet. But that we have a responsibility to convince them that not only is David Lewis not unique, but that he has a what is punishment and shame that hasn't been successful toward the model of recovery and possibility that can be successful.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: Right outside the San Francisco jail where I watched Lewis speak, a new, bigger jail is under construction. Over the last decade, the nation has spent more than 26 billion dollars building more than 350 new prisons. They help house the ever increasing number of American inmates — a record two million at last count, more than in any other country in the world.

DAVID LEWIS: Kathy, this is my oldest son, David.

KATHLEEN HUGHES: Remember David Jr., the son David Lewis feared he would see in prison one day? He did wind up behind bars for a short time…but like his father, he found his way out.

DAVID LEWIS: You still work at the boy's club? Okay. He still works at the boy's club now.

DAVID LEWIS: How many of you are fathers? You know what the statistics say...

KATHLEEN HUGHES: David Lewis' success in helping his son change is his crowning achievement. And it offers a lesson not lost on the many fathers inside this jail.

DAVID LEWIS: I convinced my son that he had an alcohol problem. I took him to Walden House in San Francisco. He stayed there a year. He graduated that program.

Two years later he called me again and he said, "Man, I need you to come and do something for me." And I came to the house and he showed me a letter where he had got a full scholarship to the University of Hastings Nebraska under one condition that a parent had to bring him to school. I said, "If you don't get your ass in the car right now."

Hey, man. My son is a thug out of East Palo Alto. See? He went and broke every damn football record that school ever had —- And my son was on the news thing- And the guy asked him-- he said, "What made you change the course of your life?" You know what he said? I'm gonna start crying. And I understand there's principles on our belief when those-- that men don't cry. But I don't care, see? My son told the news reporter — he said, "My father intervened in my life at a time that I needed him" see? I didn't fall out of heaven, see? I didn't come in over-- some cape and some wings and all that kind of stuff. I did some fundamental things, some fundamental things like hanging out with him.

DAVID LEWIS: I'm impressed that this workshop is so well attended.

LINDA MILLS: His story is about the possibility of human transformation — if we don't have people like David Lewis who can convince us of the possibility of that healing and transformation, we can have no hope. And without that hope, all we can do is continue to build more prisons.

DAVID LEWIS: Thank y'all for having me and allowing me to share.