By Lauren Jones
As of February 21, 2018, people of color comprised only 37% of the United States’ population, but were 67% of all prisoners. This staggering statistic has more to do with institutionalized racism, the impetus for the prison industrial complex (PIC), than the severity of the crimes committed. PIC is a term used to describe the interconnected interests of government and industry that utilize surveillance, policing and imprisonment as answers to economic and sociopolitical problems. The PIC promotes a social engineering agenda in media propaganda pandered to certain demographics to project a path of limited options.
At one time, Arthur Rambert subscribed to the program of substandard and limited mindsets prevalent in his community; despite pursuing higher education. Rambert grew up in The Bronx, receiving all of his compulsory schooling there before attending Virginia State University. While in college, the unthinkable happened. A friend was shot; Arthur retaliated and found himself convicted of robbery and murder in the first degree. He faced a life sentence and the continuous cycle of self-loathing from having taken a life. While incarcerated, he read 350 books which led him to become more enlightened and self-aware; he was eventually released after 25 years.
Rambert doesn’t want others to go through what he did and is now a champion for at-risk Black and Hispanic youth. “When I interact with young Black and Hispanic men, you know they don’t know that they’re great because they don’t see a lot of greatness. We seek happiness in other things. We become a savage in the pursuit of happiness, not knowing that happiness ensues instead of having to be pursued,” says Rambert. “Happiness should be long lived-in, not short-lived through material items. But that’s when you’re coming from an environment with nothing. You tend to place your value on material esteem instead of self-esteem.”
The formerly incarcerated African-American man is now a staunch advocate for prison reform and a magnetic mentoring force at the nonprofit organization Lead by Example Reverse the Trend, assisting disaffected Black and Hispanic youth, keeping them out of trouble and educating them about their self-worth. He helps detained men and women, and others on probation, to get the assistance they need during that tumultuous time. He participates in anti-gun seminars, effectively addresses street violence, and brings awareness to the police brutality disproportionately affecting the Black community.
“I had the opportunity to align myself with Antonio Hendrickson, who is the CEO and head founder of Lead by Example Reverse the Trend, and he started this organization in the federal prison system,” says Rambert. “It’s a cure violence program where he goes into the schools and he interacts… one-on-one and turns all schools back into a safe havens. Turns young boys into young men through training, through mentorship, through self-awareness, and community development.”
As Hendrickson helped him, Rambert is now paying it forward in his work. Hendrickson, Rambert and other mentors use their lived experience to provide a new way out of the insidious incarceration mechanizations that have their arms outstretched. Mentorship programs are a sophisticated counter to the power structure. They advocate for brighter futures and making better choices through one-on-one counseling. “[Hendrickson] afforded me an opportunity when I came home to give back. You know it is the best part because the best form of getting back is giving back,” says Rambert. “We do protective policing, which is interacting with the police department and the community. Getting the police aware of the community… [Hendrickson] built social capital, a social network, and he showed me how to do the same.”
The program operates at locations such the Horizon Detention Center in The Bronx under the guise of Friends of Island Academy. “I do one-hour workshops dealing with gunfights, offering young men all of the alternatives to gun violence, showing them a better way to channel their anger; basically more or less conflict resolution,” says Rambert. “How to downplay a situation instead of inviting a situation.” He also has volunteered for the Alliance of Families for Justice (AFJ), an organization founded by world-renowned actor Danny Glover and Soffiyah Elijah, a civil rights advocate and criminal defense attorney who became the first Black woman to serve as Executive Director of the Correctional Association of New York. AFJ understands that reforming the criminal justice system starts with individuals, families, and communities affected by of mass incarceration. New York state prisons alone have a population comprised of nearly 80 percent Black and Latino people.
Rambert understands that the media furthers the PIC by poisoning young minds to think they only have certain options, landing them in the same traps. This is because certain corporations want to reap the benefits of low-cost prison labor. The Netflix documentary 13TH exposes how the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, states that slavery is legal as a punishment for crime. Congress actually incentivizes private industries to get inmates to do labor. “People have their own agenda and big businesses and big companies get behind and market these agendas to the point where the small powers and the people are always going to be disruptors,” says Rambert. “That’s why oftentimes when you invest in people you’re making the most marketable investment ever, because people are the best asset on the stock market.”
Rambert wants to start his own mentorship program called Saving Lives Using Mentors. His unwavering dedication can be seen on Instagram, where he speaks from the heart in empowering videos. “I just offer ideas and techniques that will help them get to the root of this self-hate,” he says. “Self-hate is the root of a lot of problems for young men and women today. If they can just see the value in themselves… Antonio Hendrickson has told us how to share marketing skills, teach them business, offer them on-job training, showing them how to tie a tie. Just something as simple as that can bring young people into a better way of thinking.”
Rambert acknowledges that there is a lack of critical thinking being taught in schools, which can reinforce distorted views of self. Schools propagate ideologies that don’t reflect the needs and values of minorities, thus instilling the vicious cycle of self-hate and distrust of authority. This creates antisocial behavior because of institutionalized lack of cultural learning. “There’s some books in some of these schools that their uncles may have been taught out of,” says Rambert. “Update the information, so that we can be on a level playing field as well. Don’t teach me about my greatness just in February. Show me how I can be great every day.”
Rambert is also focused on financial empowerment and has a list of things that youth of color could use to improve their futures. “Economic opportunities or the options to see more people bring in more… trades, school, and opportunities. You have S.T.E.M., you have technology. What about the individual who may not know that this is readily accessible? Don’t write him off because he might have his pants down. Don’t write him off because he doesn’t speak properly or as correct as he should right now. Don’t write him off because in his mind he’s a genius.”
Police brutality is yet another issue Rambert confronts, an aspect of the PIC and an outgrowth of the military industrial complex where militarized police forces are often detrimental to the communities they’re supposed to serve and protect. “Well, you know when they’re in our areas they are trained differently and all they see is generally targets,” says Rambert. “There’s always probable cause. I can be in my car and bat my eyes and police can say that’s probable cause because you look nervous… That’s a natural response but that can be deemed probable cause for them to search your vehicle and give you a hard time.”
There is so much work to do, but Rambert is up to the task. “I came from the whole situation and to come back and be able to give back is a beautiful thing… Being successful means the ability to give of myself to others and share so much of who I am that I enrich others through my experience,” says Rambert. “So lead by example… Boots on the ground… We confront it head on because we shouldn’t have to be afraid of our own people and that’s what I want. To welcome our young men and young women… They’re our sons, they’re our daughters, they’re our nieces. Why be afraid of them?”