When Demetrius Lewis says, “I’m happy to be here,” you know he means it.
A hulking 38-year-old man, he once was a high school football star in Akron who looks like he could easily play on the Cleveland Browns’ defensive line.
But he wears brown today for another reason. It’s the color of his prison jumpsuit.
He paced Wednesday in front of hundreds of eighth-graders at Amherst Junior High, enjoying a little bit of freedom outside his cell at the Grafton Correctional Institute where he’s living out year 18 of a 20-year sentence for armed robbery.
In the arena of bad decisions, Lewis is an expert.
“At a young age, you might not think one bad decision can hinder you for the next 10 to 15 years, but it can,” he told students.
When he was in the eighth grade, Lewis led a double life as a promising athlete who sold drugs and pulled robberies on the side.
Today, after a long time to think behind bars, he is contrite. He doesn’t share his story to make excuses for his crimes, but to caution teens against making the same bad choices he did.
Lewis speaks as part of a program called DOPE Is for Dopes. DOPE stands for “Death or Prison Eventually.”
Those are the two inevitable end points Lewis and several fellow inmates said their previous lifestyles have. There are no happy endings for those who embrace violence and drugs, they said.
“The one thing I would tell you as a young adult is be protective of who you let in your inner circles. Don’t be influenced by people,” Lewis told Amherst students. “There’s no better guys to ask than guys who are in prison right now.”
“Don’t let anybody dictate who you’re going to be and try to steer you in the wrong direction,” said another inmate, 39-year-old James Moore, who hails from Cleveland.
He has about three months to serve on a mandatory 10-year sentence for aggravated drug trafficking and said eighth grade is also the point when his life changed, when bad decisions and the wrong crowd warped his thinking.
“You have the power to control your own decisions. When you hand that control to someone else just to be accepted, that’s where it all goes wrong,” he said.
Lewis said kids today deal with tough family situations and all kinds of temptations, from alcohol to prescription pill abuse, to bullying online.
“The thing being strong enough to say, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ Being strong enough to say, ‘That’s not for me,’” he said. “As a group, I’m telling you to be strong enough to know what’s best for you in your life.”
“Every day in life, you’re supposed to learn something, especially when you’re in an environment like a school setting. Today you can walk away and say you learned something from some criminals, some hope and highlights that can change your lives,” he said.
“Whatever it is you’re going through in life, I ask you not to shoulder it. I ask you not to go through it by yourself.”
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Photos by Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Demetrius Lewis speaks to Amherst eighth-graders about the choices that led him down the path to prison.