Youth offenders at the Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services' Inside-Out program participate in a class that will be taught by actor and comedian Nick Cannon. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
Youth offenders at the Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services' Inside-Out program participate in a class that will be taught by actor and comedian Nick Cannon. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

Earlier this month, Allen H., an aspiring anesthesiologist and one of several youth offenders brought to the Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), returned to the social services agency he’s unsuccessfully tried to avoid several times over the course of his adolescence.

Allen’s latest stint on Mt. Olivet Road in Northeast, however, would provide him an opportunity to engage in dialogue with local college students and gain a sense of the societal pressures that have compelled his and his peers’ run-ins with the criminal justice system so early in life.

“Young people are scared to be themselves and they fall into [the trap of] their environment,” Allen said. They go to friends who they think love them and won’t change their thought process.”

On Tuesday, Allen counted among several DYRS youth who participated in the Inside-Out program, a 10-week arts and social justice course sponsored by DYRS and the Howard University Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

Bahiyyah Muhammad, an associate professor at Howard, and Nick Cannon, an actor and comedian in his final year at the historically Black university, faciliated the class.

For more than a month, DYRS youth and Howard students will read and reflect on a variety of texts, including bell hooks’ “Teaching Community: A Pedegogy of Hope” and “Theatre for Community Conflict and Dialogue” by Michael Bond.

“We can connect more,” said Allen, wearing a yellow, short-sleeved collar shirt over a white long-sleeved shirt, khakis and black rubber slippers.

Several feet away, his peers on the indoor court sat in a circle with HU students and DYRS Director Clinton Lacey as Lacey conducted several group-building activities.

“I have to go to college to become an anesthesiologist, so [now] I can get a view of the obstacles [Howard students] face and how they push themselves to better,” Allen said. “They can also learn about my struggle.”

The Inside-Out Program’s launch comes amid discussion about whether the District will secure the early release of more than 500 offenders who committed violent crimes as youth. Earlier this year, Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) introduced legislation that, if passed, would allow those fitting the profile to leave prison early without a judge’s consideration of the crime committed.

The bill, titled the Second Look Amendment Act, drew the ire of U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu and some D.C. residents.

Proponents of the Second Look Amendment Act cite research about youth brain development and a decrease in violent crime among people aged 25 years or older. While she didn’t mention the legislation during a recent gathering of DYRS youths and city leaders, Mayor Bowser (D) evoked the memory of the late Mayor Marion Barry in her appeal to the program participants to learn as much as possible.

“None of us is the summation of our worst mistake — we have a life of possibilities as long as we’re living and breathing,” Bowser, standing before dozens of people on the second-floor basketball court of DYRS, said on Sept. 17.

“We want to make sure that every person and D.C. resident has a second chance,” she said. “Our job is to level it out so everyone can overcome a mistake. I’m glad that this class will show what love looks like.”

DYRS detains people younger than 21 who have committed delinquent acts in the District. The Inside-Out Program counts among a bevy of comprehensive support resources for youth transitioning out of the juvenile justice system.

Muhammad brought the course to DYRS in 2014 as a means of diversifying the educational options.

Cannon, one of her students, explained what he believed to be the significance of this experience.

“This is about art and justice and, ultimately, the idea of self-expression and artistry as it gets to the frustration at our justice system and how we interact with one another in incarceration,” he told The Informer.

“Our system is flawed, and you have to operate within it to correct it,” Cannon said. “It’s hard to correct our wrongs without judgment. Malcolm X would’ve still been [Detroit Red]. Instead, he became one of the strongest voices in our community.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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