In the past 30 days, 39 violent crimes, 103 property crimes and 24 drug crimes have been reported in Frankford. Many the students attending Allen M. Stearne Elementary School, located on Unity Street near Hedge, have parents who have been or currently are incarcerated.
That’s why Stearne was picked as the beneficiary of a back-to-school drive funded by the Men of Action group at SCI Smithfield prison in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, a three- to four-hour drive from Philadelphia. Men of Action is a group of 12 incarcerated men working on social-impact projects fostering restorative justice, personal growth and change.
On Friday, Aug. 24, students at Stearne received backpacks filled with notebooks, crayons and other school supplies in time for the new school year. Men of Action’s members, many of whom are serving life sentences, each donated at least $28 to purchase the supplies.
Forty-year-old Tyree Wallace, the founder of Men of Action, is serving a life sentence in Smithfield. His inspiration for Men of Action came from a desire to do something charitable, but wanting the impact to be larger than what he could accomplish alone.
“I decided to take some of my owns funds and do a bookbag drive,” Wallace said. “I started putting those steps in place, but then I said, ‘Why don’t I bring some other guys in and we can make it a bigger thing? I thought we could … do some good and we could all do it together.”
The Institute for Community Justice, a 13-year-old prison services and reentry program within social services nonprofit Philadelphia FIGHT that provides support, education and advocacy for people, families and communities impacted by mass incarceration, served as Men of Action’s outside partner for the drive and presented the children at Stearne with the supplies.
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The Men of Action spent three months coordinating the drive with ICJ and saving money from their jobs in Smithfield, which include working in food service and the law library.
“It’s not a lot of money, but when you think most of the men here make 19 cents per hour, it really is a sacrifice,” said Wallace, who works as a janitor in the prison. “It really is a sacrifice that’s well worth it, though.”
In addition to buying school supplies for the elementary schoolers, the Men of Action wrote inspirational letters to the kids that were included inside the donated backpacks.
“The future for you all is bright, exciting, and full of opportunity,” Wallace wrote in his letter to the students. “There is potential for greatness in each and every one of you. You all have the ability to be leaders in whichever direction you choose to focus on.”
ICJ Director Assata Thomas said she hopes the letters will help negate any cultural acceptance of incarceration for the Frankford children.
“The children will read what these men wrote and make a decision for themselves that they are leaders, they can do great things [and] they are wonderful,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, it’s like jail or prison is something that you attain, that you look forward to doing as part of a rite of passage.”
ICJ staffers visited Smithfield for the first time last year to do a workshop on HIV, hepatitis C and reentry services. The organization now visits at least once a month to work with various prison programs, including Men of Action.
“There are so many lacks and gaps in the [criminal] system and so when we give folks the opportunity to actually give back, they want to,” Thomas said. “It gives them an opportunity to give back to communities that they helped to destroy.”
The aspect Wallace said he enjoys most about Men of Action is helping others realize the importance of doing something for others when they can’t reciprocate the good deed.
“[Smithfield] is extremely stagnant, it can be stifling, it can keep the life and drive out of people,” he said. “But [the goal is] to show even in this situation we are in, these are things that we can get done if we’re willing to do the right thing.”
All the men incarcerated at Smithfield are invited join the Men of Action program. The group members, who are roughly 30 to 50 years old, also run a mentoring program called Man Up that holds one-on-one sessions with younger inmates.
“We try to give them new ways of thought, thinking about responsibilities, thinking about accountabilities,” Wallace said. “For many of them [it’s] the first time thinking about the impact that their actions have on others.
A long-term goal of the Men of Action program is to help the members not serving life sentences to successfully reenter society after release.
“[Giving back] makes the community better, it makes you feel better, it makes you a less selfish person,” Wallace said. “It will help in every capacity.”
The program also helps participants start the process of actively contributing to society while still being incarcerated.
“It’s a continuum when they come out,” Thomas said. “It’s just continuing where they began or left off from behind the walls.”
While the back-to-school drive was Men of Action’s first coordinated project, the group is now organizing a winter coat drive. Its members also hope to set up a booth at FIGHT’s Beyond the Walls: Reentry Summit and Prison Healthcare, an Oct. 5 event at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where people can listen to audio stories about their lives and participation in the program.
“[The men] have all of these wonderful and amazing ideas,” Thomas said. “If you could see the level of excitement, [it’s] like, ‘I’m doing something, I’m being productive, I am giving something.’ It just turns on this lightbulb of creativity that I think is so amazing.”
Editor’s note: Read our deep dive into a unique pilot music program inside Pennsylvania’s largest prison and its implications for reducing recidivism.-30-
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