Steele uses the graphic images of the 12 years he spent at the most violent adolescent jail in the nation to show inner-city students the truth about incarceration.
“I’ve seen thousands of slashings, I’ve seen 14 year olds come through the receiving room door and within minutes someone takes their sneakers or pants, that’s when reality sets in,” Steele said. “I’m trying to get to the others before it’s too late.”
His message is a denunciation of many of the things teens idolize: rap music, violent video games and movies. The first few minutes of his presentation can elicit giggles and murmurs from the school-age audience.
But Steele quickly turns the students’ discomfort into fear and respect.
“This guy here, they cut him so deep he can stick his tongue through his cheek, they cut him all the way to his teeth,” Steele said, pointing to a photograph he took of a wounded inmate. “I want young people to know if they’re thinking about joining a gang, they should think about these things that are waiting them.”
Since Steele founded the Future Leaders Program he has worked with teachers, parents and students in nearly 25 schools in Jamaica, Far Rockaway and Brooklyn, some over the course of a year, others for hour-long presentations or workshops. The workshops are specifically tailored to the audience, which ranges from elementary school to college.
Sometimes he delivers presentations with a former prisoner, who is a friend.
There is also a traveling photo exhibition, “Behind These Prison Walls,” which Steele brings to housing developments. In addition, he created two documentaries about prison life, “Scarface 4 Life 1” and “Scarface 4 Life 2,” which are for sale on his website.
He’ll even meet parents and at-risk young people in their homes for counseling sessions.
Last year, the schools he worked in for long-term assignments reported fewer incidents of bullying and suspensions.
“I was out of control, I was going down a dangerous path,” said Shaheem Smith, a seventh grader in Jamaica. “What he told me made me change my ways.”
Growing up in Cambria Heights, Steele had an interest in photography, so when he became a corrections officer he got permission to bring his camera to special events like retirement parties. Once he had the camera at work he was also able to take pictures of the violence he encountered.
Eventually, the stress of his job began to take a toll. One Sunday about eight years ago, when a pastor at his church told the congregants to release any burden in their hearts, Steele decided to resign and begin working with young people.
“I’m a very spiritual person,” he said. “I feel my assignment from God is to help adolescents, to educate young people who really don’t know what goes on behind those walls.”
Along with photographs and stories, Steele presents the grim statistics: the disproportionate number of minorities in prison, the fact that the United States has the largest prison population in the world and the long- term consequences of incarceration.
Besides his former work as a corrections officer, something else that motivates Steele is that his own son served time on Rikers Island for a felony. Things for the family started to go downhill after Steele left the boy’s mother.
“I know the feeling when that phone rings, you don’t know if your child is living or if he’s dead,” he said. “I tell the parents, you’ve got to get up to the school, to stay in the house to support your family.”
When he works with teachers he counsels them to reduce fighting and bullying by listening and observing.
“As a corrections officer, if you didn’t master those two skills, someone is getting hurt or someone is getting killed,” he said.
During the coming school year, Steele will be booked nearly every day. To expand his business he is beginning to recruit and train other retired corrections officers.
“My vision is to get my message to every inner city child in America,” he said.