I stared into his eyes, sensing his contempt for me. I also saw his pain, confusion, hopelessness. Staring deeper, I saw regret, a sentiment that he conceals from the world _ and from himself.
"None of you have to be locked up," I said into the microphone. "You put yourselves here."
As I spoke, the muscles in the young man's forearms tightened. This young inmate was resisting my words. Looking at the several hundred other mostly black faces, I realized that he wasn't alone. His peers are also in a perpetual state of denial.
The occasion was a speech I gave during a recent Black History program at New River Correctional Institution in Raiford, one of Florida's 35 prisons for men whose crimes range from drug sales to first-degree murder. Of the institution's 1,500 inmates, 800 are black. The average age is 24.
"Youth at Risk" was the program's theme, and the superintendent, James V. Crosby Jr., had asked me to speak honestly.
My message was simple: People are responsible for their deeds. Sure, circumstances sometimes overwhelm our best attempts to stay on the right side of the law. Under normal conditions, however, the average person rarely has a good reason to commit a crime. And we never have a good reason to harm or kill the innocent or to steal someone else's hard-earned possessions.
As I spoke, most of the older prisoners nodded in agreement. But the younger ones, those between 19 and 25, scowled and muttered insults.
When I asked for questions and comments, dozens of the younger black inmates raised their hands. Almost to the person, they blamed society for their incarceration.
"I don't care what you do or how hard you work, a black man don't have a chance out there," the same young man said.
My reply was candid: We have rules that everyone must live by. Black men _ society's most endangered human species _ must prepare themselves for opportunity. We must educate ourselves. We must learn marketable skills.
I tried to convince the younger inmates of the fact that they commit virtual suicide by not using their prison time wisely. Before going into the free world, I said, they must shake the cynicism and naivete that initially landed them behind bars. They must accept responsibility for their actions.
In response, most of them said that the "system" has treated them unfairly. Many are right. Society often is unfair. But African-Americans, especially young males, must stop succumbing to victimization because it leads to stagnation and control by outside forces.
"Society, your tormentor, won't be changing any time soon," I said. "You, the victim, must do the changing if you want to be successful."
Unfortunately, prison life naturally feeds the pathologies that accompany this victim mentality. That's why Crosby, a 20-year veteran of prison administration, and his staff focus on programs that help inmates explore positive approaches to life.
In defense of the penal system, and as a former English and reading teacher at Florida State Prison, I want critics to know that corrections professionals in Florida don't sit on their hands or coddle inmates.
Moreover, while politicians and voters clamor for crime measures such as "Three Strikes and You're Out" and "Stop Turning Out Prisoners," New River staffers, through general education, vocational, life skills, drug rehabilitation and religious programs, work each day with some of the state's most dangerous criminals.
"The bottom line is that we give inmates the opportunity to improve themselves if they want to," Crosby said.
Later, I told Crosby about my concern for the young inmates who reacted to me with such contempt. "From a very selfish and practical standpoint," Crosby said, "we try to help these young men. Sooner or later, we'll be freeing them back into society to live among us."
Apparently, Crosby's uphill battle has impressed inmate Jason Madrid, who concludes the poem he wrote for black History Month with this insight:
There is a way to stop our children from living like this,
But they don't want the help being offered;
They choose to remain "youth at risk."
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Gainesville Sun.