Vance Johnson held up a bar of soap and a sock. With a little sleight of hand, the prison inmate turned the two ordinary items into a sledgehammer that he slammed against a plastic chair.
“I bet I have your attention now,” Johnson said to a group of nearly 20 Johnston County Teen Court participants. He meant his demonstration to show how volatile prison life can be.
Johnson snapped his fingers. “It’s so easy to get your life taken,” he said.
Johnson was one of several minimum-custody inmates who urged the teens to make better choices in the future so they don’t end up behind bars. The talk, titled “Choices,” was held at the Johnston County Workforce Development Center and is required for young people sentenced through the county’s Teen Court program.
Teen Court is a sentencing option for first-time misdemeanor offenders ages 11-17 who admit guilt and attend Johnston County schools. Instead of getting charged with a crime and appearing in court, the offender instead goes to Teen Court. A real judge oversees the court, but all of the lawyers, bailiffs and jurors are teens. Evidence is presented, and the jury chooses from a number of possible punishments.
Dr. Marlyn Lewis is a co-founder of Preparing to Soar, the Smithfield nonprofit that started Teen Court in 2012. She said the talk with inmates gives students a glimpse of prison life so they know what a continuing path of bad choices can lead to.
“Please, make a U-turn and turn your lives around,” Lewis said to the students. “If you want to change your ways, change your friendships. It’s not worth it.”
James Langston, a former superintendent of Wake Correctional Center, developed “Choices,” which uses both male and female inmates who volunteer and are trained in talking to teens. The inmates, both currently and formerly incarcerated, tell personal stories about how they ended up in prison and how violent, demeaning and lonely life can be behind bars.
Langston began the recent Johnston County program by moving the Teen Court participants to one side of the room, away from their parents and friends.
“When you are in prison, you don’t get to be next to your loved ones,” Langston said.
He introduced inmate Michael Holman, who told the teens to choose their friends wisely. He said they need to pick good role models, like their parents.
“All you have to do is make good grades and listen to your parents,” Holman said, before repeating the sentence over and over.
“There’s nothing wrong with being yourself,” Holman said. “Just be yourself.”
Teen Court participants eventually graduate from the program, which Lewis said is designed to slow rising juvenile crime rates. Preparing to Soar says fewer than 10 percent of students who go through the program will get arrested again.
For more information, call 919-938-2121 or visit Preparing to Soar’s office at 1329 N. Bright Leaf Blvd. in Smithfield.