In a Tennessee prison, life-sentenced inmates show a better way forward

At Turney Penitentiary in Tennessee, life-sentenced inmates want to show younger inmates how to go the other way once they’ve served their sentences.


People serving life sentences in prison often have a great influence on the culture there. And in one Tennessee prison, about an hour southwest of Nashville, people on life sentences are trying to use that influence for good. Paige Pfleger reports that from the WPLN member station, they want to help newcomers navigate life behind bars, and when they get out, how not to climb.

PAGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: A group of young people gathered around David Richardson.

DAVID RICHARDSON: We’re going to look at some, I guess, bad labels.

PFLEGER: He wears gold-rimmed round glasses and calmly commands the group. He asks everyone to take a piece of paper and read the words written on it.

RICHARDSON: I’ve got a felon, and you’ll never be anything in your life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I got a jailbird, a lost cause.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mine says you’re nothing.

PFLEGER: And one more thing – I won’t live to be 21. These labels are how these prisoners feel that society sees them. But Tyreen Cherry, 26, says those labels shouldn’t dictate how he lives his life.

TYREEN CHERY: We’ve been labeled criminals, but look what we’re doing. We’re really trying to change and all that. It’s not really, you know, it’s just what you make of it.

PFLEGER: And Cherry is trying to make the most of it. He will be released on parole next year while Richardson is serving a life sentence. Their conversation is part of a new mentoring program at the Turney Center industrial complex that pairs lifers like Richardson with newcomers like Cherry.

GILDOR SIMPLIS: The older kids have been in jail for so long that there are traps they can help them avoid falling into.

PFLEGER: Prison counselor Gildore Simplis helped bring these two groups together, who usually had little contact with each other.

SIMPLICE: Usually a lot of them come in very young, and they’re like, you know, if I had an older brother, prison life would be a little easier for me. And so we started working on how to launch it. And here we are.

PFLEGER: This is the first program of its kind in the state, and David Richardson knew he wanted to be a part of it. He was only 20 when he went to prison, and there was a group of older guys who helped him stay out of gangs and out of trouble. Now he wants to pay up front.

RICHARDSON: They have the whole world in their hands, and I just want to help them see it.

PFLEGER: And that means being vulnerable to young guys because he got a life sentence for murder.

RICHARDSON: For example, I had no prospect of going to college, of doing anything with my life. I knew this was where I was going. And it’s so unfortunate that I think a lot of the young guys that we’re dealing with, and a lot of those who weren’t here today, have the same expectations.

PFLEGER: He says it’s hard to think of yourself as someone you can look up to. He made mistakes, and he’s only 32 years old. But his openness to his experience is why young guys like Tyreen Cherry admire him so much.

CHERIE: Because I didn’t have a father as a child, so I can look up to him.

PFLEGER: Cherry says that this band and a role model like Richardson is kind of therapy for him. This type of mentorship and education proved to be of great importance for his age group.

CHERIE: Like I said, I don’t want to be called another statistic who just goes back to jail and keeps going back to jail because next time it could be a life sentence, you know?

PFLEGER: The program is too new to know what long-term effect it will have. But Cherry says it has set him on a new path, and that path does not lead back to prison.

For NPR news, I’m Paige Pfleger of the Turney Center Industrial Complex.


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