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Nothing Cool About Prison
Represent staff

For years, Sean “Dino” Johnson was a gangbanger. Predictably, he got in trouble with the law for drug trafficking. He did three stints in prison. The last one, the longest, was 16 years.

During that last bid, Johnson’s perspective changed radically. He transformed from thug to mentor. He founded the Sing Sing chapter of Council for Unity, a violence-prevention organization, and began to guide younger prisoners onto the straight and narrow.

When Johnson was finally free, he started his life over with a mission: preventing teens from joining gangs. These days, as the Director of Program Marketing at Council for Unity, he works with schools, youth organizations, and prisons to spread his message of nonviolence. The Council’s programs reach 100,000 children and teens annually.

“We’re not anti-gang, we’re anti-criminal activity,” he says. “It’s that negative thinking of gangs that we’re anti, not the fact that they want to be a part of something.” Here, Johnson explains why so many young people get involved with gangs—and describes why it’s a dead end.

He came to our office to talk to us on camera.

Q: Can you tell us about your own experience in a gang?

A: I got involved with gangs at age 14. Like most teenagers, I wanted to be a part of something. I didn’t identify too much with my family, though I had a good family with both parents at home. I looked to the street for my role models. And to be a part of it felt like it was giving me a sense of identity. I was affiliated until I was 30 years old.

Q: What gang were you in?

A: I prefer not to mention what gang because when you mention the gang, it gives them power…What I try to do is stay focused on the gang thinking and not the individual gang itself, because they all have that thinking.

Q: What’s the worst thing you saw during your gang years?

A: The worst thing I saw was a 15-year-old kid shoot another kid three times at point-blank range in the face, and for that kid to fall to his knees and call for his mother. It hurt me dearly because we live in a community where we’re told that the rules are to mind our own business, when in reality if that was my little brother, I would want somebody to help him.

Q: What was your motivation to change?

A: Spending most of my life in prison was the turning point. I was tired of being sick and tired.... I spent my 15th, my 16th, and my 17th birthday in prison. Came home, then I spent my 19th, my 20th, and my 21st birthday in prison. Came home. I spent my 25th, my 26th, my 27th, my 28th, my 29th, my 30th, my 31st, my 32nd, my 33rd, my 34th, my 35th, my 36th, my 37th, my 38th, my 39th, and my 40th birthday in a cage all because I bought into this mindset that when you go, you gotta go hard. I was willing to die for my people.

But let me be the first to tell you, it’s bull. Because when you’re doing all them years in prison, when you’re flipping the calendar all them months and all them days, you don’t see none of them. You don’t see a letter from them.

As a matter a fact, when you hit your 10th year, don’t be surprised if you call your girlfriend’s house and they pick up the phone and tell you not to call any more. The gang gives you that false sense of, “Yo, we got you, we got your back,” but the reality is you have yourself.

Q: Why do you think so many young people join gangs?

A: A lot of people join gangs because of that need to belong. That’s a human need. If you’re 12 years old or 77 years old, you have that need. Our elderly like to be part of the church, the tenants’ patrol, a choir group; in school, we want to be part of the football team, the basketball team. It’s part of just fitting in and belonging.

image by YC-Art Dept

A lot of our youth who find themselves drawn to the gangs have that same need, but a lot of them are not exposed to positive groups that they could be affiliated with.

Q: Are foster kids more likely to be involved in gangs?

A: Our teens in foster care would be at higher risk [of joining] gangs because when you’re lacking family the drive to be part of a group is even stronger. Many of our brothers and sisters in foster care experience so much tragedy and pain in their lives that they’re looking for comfort. They find that false sense of comfort by being around other people who are dealing with pain and tragedy, but they’re dealing with it in a negative way.

Q: Why are gangs so appealing to young men of color?

A: A lot of our youth are not used to being hugged so they go to the streets to get hugged by their friends. But what we’re doing is posturing ourselves in this way that we don’t even feel anymore. It’s that manly, macho thing: “Men don’t cry” and “Death before dishonor,” and “We put an H on our chest and we handle it.”

We become desensitized because it’s not cool to care. It’s not cool to love someone. We put on this exterior like we’re so big and bad, and that is not realistic for a human being.

The toughest and most dangerous gang members that are spending most of their lives in prison won’t tell you that they cry mostly every night when the lights go out. They have no future, and [they know that] the rest of their days they’re going to be looking at this cage, these bars in front of them.

Q: How long had you been locked up when you first mentored somebody?

A: I was about 32. Just offering insight, I didn’t realize how powerful my insight was, or my past.... A lot of us who are gang-affiliated and had violent pasts become hood legends. People tend to look up to that. And when you see young brothers from the community coming into prison, and they’re all looking up to you for your respect, and you realize they’re only here because they wanted to be like you.

Then you realize something went wrong. Then you begin to care. You realize that this individual who’s sitting in front of you could have a future. All you have to do is tell them the truth: that it’s not all it’s built up to be, that facade. I wish somebody would have told me the truth. I wouldn’t have wasted so many years of my life.

Q: How did you get involved with Council for Unity’s gang prevention work?

A: [After I had spoken to some young people at the prison] Mr. [Robert] de Sena [the founder of the Council for Unity] came over and did something that I’m not used to: He hugged me. When he hugged me, he whispered something in my ear. He said he needed me out there, and the hair on the back of my spine stood up because no one had ever said they needed me before.

Q: What advice would you give to a teen who has a friend or sibling involved in a gang?

A: The main thing you have to do is listen. Be consistent with offering them help; be consistent about showing them the right direction; be supportive, but never turn your back on them. Don’t leave them and let them figure it out for themselves. And the best thing you can do is lead by example.

Q: What would you say to young people who are considering joining a gang or have already joined?

A: There’s nothing glamorous about going to prison. There’s nothing cool about being a part of something that people fear. It’s not cool to be a part of something that hurts other people’s lives.

What’s cool is securing your presence for the future and knowing your potential. When I look back at it, [as a teenager] I had no idea what was possible for me. I’ve accomplished more in the eight years I’ve been out of prison than in my entire life before that. So I say believing in yourself is the main thing.

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