DATE February 11, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Andre "Redd" Vaughn discuss his life of crime, spending
time in prison and working for Friends of the Island Academy
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Rikers Island is the biggest jail in North America. My guest, Andre "Redd"
Vaughn, has done time there twice. He's 21, and like many of the young
who have done time there, he's from a poor, inner-city New York
But he appears to be one of the lucky ones. After his second stint at
he found work that matters to him. He works with the group that helped him
turn his life around, Friends of the Island Academy. It provides
support to young people who have just been released from Rikers. It was
founded by the first principal of the prison high school, and is devoted to
breaking the cycle of crime and incarceration.
We found out about Vaughn through Youth Portraits, a project that gives
to young people who have gotten out of Rikers by helping them tell their own
stories in short audio documentaries. Here's an excerpt of Vaughn's piece,
which was co-produced by Youth Portraits directors Stacy Abramson and David
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. VAUGHN: What's up, you-all? This is Andre Vaughn, but most people call
me Redd because I have red hair. Actually, I've had a lot of names in my
life. This is the story of how I got those names and how I gave them up.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. VAUGHN: I grew up in the Bronx. I didn't know my father at all, but my
mom's just like my best friend. She had her own name for me, Carrot Top.
were poor, but we had a close family until I turned nine. That's when my
got addicted to drugs. My older sister, Doe(ph), was 14 years old when she
figured it out. She walked in on my mom smoking crack.
DOE (Andre's Sister): She was in her bedroom. You know, when you're doing
things you don't hear a person coming, so I just opened the door and I saw
smoking a pipe. I stood there and she dropped it and she closed the door in
my face. After that it got worse. You get addicted to the drugs and you
can't stop. So as much as she got addicted to the drugs, she forgot about
Mr. VAUGHN: She used to be out all the time, and we would literally have to
go around in the building to try to get somebody to give us food or
like that. I went to my uncle and told him. Instead of him giving me the
money, he took me on a robbery with him.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. VAUGHN: It all started out with a phone call. He was there listening.
`I've got something for you-all down on 115th Street. It's a numbered
and we just left the house. It was like real work. Someone called us for
something and we went to work.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. VAUGHN: We walked in. We never wore masks because if you wear a mask
you look like you're about to do something. So he turned around and pulled
out the gun and started patting the people down that was in there. So I
in, went under the desk. The money was stacked, so when I went to grab it
fell over. So I'm in there picking up every dollar. So when we came out of
the building, I was standing there with my uncle--we never ran from a
so we were walking. And a group of people was looking at us, and they was
coming after me. And I wasn't going to let them get me, so I just shot into
the crowd and ran.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. VAUGHN: The first thing my uncle said to me--he talked to me like I
speak to my bosses now whenever I do something right. He was like, `Yo,
you handled yourself well. That's good. That's going to take you places.'
And I made a career out of it after that.
GROSS: An excerpt of Andre "Redd" Vaughn's Youth Portraits documentary.
Youth Portraits is part of Sound Portraits Productions, whose work is often
heard on NPR.
We invited Vaughn to talk with us about his story.
What did having a gun mean to you?
Mr. VAUGHN: Everything. Because if anybody ever owned a gun or walked the
streets with a gun, you know that it gives you, like, this kind of power,
where you feel like you--You know what I'm saying--you feel like you're more
powerful than anybody. And in some sense, you are because you have a gun
most people don't walk the streets with guns. So, you know, it gave me this
kind of power, especially, like, if I pulled it out on somebody or, you
know--like I said, I used to rob, like, you know, these big-time guys. And
for me to pull out a gun and see these dudes cower, you know, and, you know,
they just, you know, go into like this little shell, it gave me, like, this
kind of rush. So, you know, to carry a gun was a big thing for you. It was
important. I didn't leave the house without it.
GROSS: Where would you keep it when you were walking the streets?
Mr. VAUGHN: I had a holster, but then I lost the holster. So I used to
keep it in my waistband, in the front or in the back.
GROSS: Did all your friends know what you were doing, that you were doing
robberies, that you had a gun? And what did they think of it?
Mr. VAUGHN: I didn't have any friends.
GROSS: You didn't have any friends.
Mr. VAUGHN: No. I just had my uncle. That was my friend.
GROSS: You weren't even in a gang or anything.
Mr. VAUGHN: The first time I was incarcerated, I was in a gang. The second
time I came home I was not in a gang. But when I was in a gang, you know, I
didn't consider them as my friends, either. In some weird kind of way, they
was like my backup.
Mr. VAUGHN: And, you know, I was doing more for them than they was doing
GROSS: In the tape that you made, the tape of your own story, you said that
you knew you'd eventually get caught, or that someone would eventually shoot
you and you didn't expect to live long. How did you feel about the
probability of dying young?
Mr. VAUGHN: I mean, with the life I was living, I knew it was going to
happen. So, you know, it was just a matter of time for when it was going to
happen. You know, I really didn't think too much about it, but I knew it
going to happen eventually.
GROSS: And you just accepted that?
Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah. Because I wanted to live the life, so I accepted it.
GROSS: Did you have friends who died when they were young while you were
still living that life?
Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah. I mean--like I said, I didn't have too many friends, but
there was a lot of guys that I knew.
Mr. VAUGHN: And actually, people that was friends before I started doing
these things that were, you know, killed. A lot of the guys I knew was
were actually doing the same things I did, and, you know, it didn't change
way I was thinking. Actually, I learned from their mistakes.
GROSS: What kind of robberies were you convicted of?
Mr. VAUGHN: Well, I wasn't convicted of a robbery.
Mr. VAUGHN: I never was caught for no robbery.
GROSS: Oh. What were you caught for?
Mr. VAUGHN: I was convicted of a gun charge. I got caught with a gun
actually going to a robbery.
GROSS: I see. What was your first time in prison?
Mr. VAUGHN: My first--well, my first real--I did--you know, when I was
like 13, 14, I used to do, like, living 90 days here, 30 days here for,
petty larceny and stealing and things like that. But my first real long
was I did a year in Rikers, and that was the gun charge.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Rikers Island is a penitentiary just off the coast of
Manhattan--or off the coast of Queens, I guess, I should say.
Mr. VAUGHN: Yes. It's in East Elmhurst, Queens.
GROSS: Yeah. Would you describe your first reaction that first time you
walked in to Rikers Island?
Mr. VAUGHN: I was scared.
Mr. VAUGHN: I was scared because it was--I was out of my element. I mean,
in all actuality, I was surrounded by people who were just like me, but I
out of my element, because, you know, in the street I had this--like, people
who feared me, people was scared. You know, actually I thought it was
respect. And once I got to jail, you know, everybody there was there for
doing the same things I did. So, you know, I was just a regular guy again,
and that's actually what I was scared of.
GROSS: And--how much fighting was there within Rikers Island when you were
Mr. VAUGHN: Man, a lot. I mean, a lot. I'd say I fought almost--if not
every day, almost every other day, because it's regular things, everyday
things that you fight over.
GROSS: Like what?
Mr. VAUGHN: Like, how right now--like how this morning when I went to get
and brush my teeth, I just went in the bathroom and brushed my teeth. On
Rikers Island, you got to get up, and if someone--you know, your toothbrush
might not even be there; someone else would take your toothbrush and, you
know, sharpen it and turn it into a weapon. Or someone would take your
deodorant, you know. It's little things like that, that you do on an
basis out here is something you have to fight over on Rikers Island.
GROSS: And was each time somebody took your toothbrush or something like
that, was that like a challenge, and unless you kind of confronted the
you'd be seen as weak?
Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah. Because, you know--I mean, it's just like out here, man.
They'll start with the little things, you know, and then it'll turn into big
things, because they'll be stealing your toothbrush one morning or your
deodorant, and the next day they'll be stealing your clothes, and the next
it'll be your phone time and then it's your commissary. So if you don't nip
it in the bud when it first starts happening, then it's going to happen.
going to continue to happen.
GROSS: Is there anybody who could prevent that from happening?
Mr. VAUGHN: I mean, the COs can prevent it from happening, but, you know,
they're not too enthusiastic about doing that.
GROSS: So what was the worst thing that happened to you in terms of one of
these fights or one of these challenges?
Mr. VAUGHN: I was cut in my back and I was cut in my arm.
Mr. VAUGHN: I was coming out of the commissary and someone--'cause,
actually, this was when I joined a gang and I was Blood. And at--Bloods
(unintelligible) Crips, Latin Kings and, you know, mostly all other gangs.
And a Latin King had asked me for my commissary when I came out the
room, and I told him, `No.' And he went to snatch the bag and I backed up
from him, and, actually, I pulled out a razor first. And he spit a razor
his mouth and then he swung the razor. I put my arm up to block it and he
me in my arm. I swung the razor back, I cut him in his face. And that's
the COs started rushing out. And when the COs started rushing out, I ran
one of the guys he was with cut me as I was running in the back.
GROSS: After the fight, were you supposed to tell the authorities exactly
what happened, and were there times when you did or times when you didn't
Mr. VAUGHN: I mean, you never could tell. You never could tell, because--I
mean, on Rikers Island, if you get known as a snitch and you're not going
anyplace, so, you know, that just makes your time even harder.
Mr. VAUGHN: So either you handle it yourself, or don't handle it at all.
GROSS: Tell me what it was like when you got out? Like, where did you go
after you were there for--What?--a year?
Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah. And I went back to my sister's house. My sister was
actually in a shelter. And I went to live with my uncle. The guy that had
originally gave me the gun, I went to live with him. And we did do the
robberies a little bit more, but then I was just, like, you know, `I don't
want to do this any more,' because I didn't want to go back to jail.
And my sister had moved out the shelter into an apartment, and I went to
with her. And she had her and a couple of my cousins and friends had told
about the mall upstate. I went up there and I had got a job at the store.
And I was getting paid about $6.50 an hour and I got paid like every two
weeks. Every two weeks, I brought home, like, $300. And, you know, it just
wasn't me. I wasn't used to it, you know. In some weird way, I still had
that criminal mentality.
So what I started doing was I started taking credit card numbers, account
numbers off people's credit cards, and taking them and--another machine you
have, you're just taking a copy of everything through this machine and you
make a brand-new credit card identical to the one that you had, or identical
to the one that you took the information off of, and you can use it. So I
started doing that with a female up there. And I did that for a while, and
actually got caught for that, too.
GROSS: And you went back to prison for that?
Mr. VAUGHN: Yes, I did.
GROSS: How much time?
Mr. VAUGHN: They gave me another year.
GROSS: At Rikers?
Mr. VAUGHN: No. I was upstate. Actually, I thought I wanted to go back to
Rikers, because this is the place I was used to and it was close to my home,
but they didn't agree. They said if I did the crime up here, I had to do
time up here.
GROSS: Was it different being in a prison outside of the inner city?
Mr. VAUGHN: Yes, it was.
GROSS: What was different?
Mr. VAUGHN: Well, actually--well, for one, you know, the city guys was kind
of like the enemy up there. So it was like I had, like, the whole jail
against me, and there wasn't too many city guys in there. And I just, like,
was out of my element. I didn't know--you know, I didn't know what was
on around me. I didn't know nobody up there. My family, my friends is, you
know, about an hour and a half away. It was just--you know, everything was
just too different for me.
GROSS: And I think you were arrested--you served time a total of three
Is that right?
Mr. VAUGHN: Altogether, if you add up all the time I ever did, it equals up
to three years.
GROSS: Did you end up back at Rikers again?
Mr. VAUGHN: Yes, I did. After I came home from the second bit, I ended up
GROSS: My guest is Andre "Redd" Vaughn. We'll talk more after a break.
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Andre "Redd" Vaughn. After being incarcerated twice on
Rikers Island, he's now working with Friends of the Island Academy, a group
that provides transitional support to young people who have been released
Can you figure out what it is that changed, that made you want to stop
stealing and stop carrying a gun?
Mr. VAUGHN: Over the time that I was incarcerated, I had, like, missed,
like, so many things. I missed my nephew's birth, my sister was going
a lot of problems without me there, my mother had passed away. And, like I
said, I had met this girl named Ebony, and I really missed her. I wanted to
be home with her. So when I got home, you know, I put all these things into
And my sister was, like, you know, `We need you around the house. You know,
you can't leave like that. You know, you keep going to jail, you're not
helping at all. You're making things worse.'
When I came home, I just laid in the house for about a year--man, actually,
months I laid in the house. You know, I didn't do anything. I just was
GROSS: And then?
Mr. VAUGHN: I went to, like, all of these different programs. You know,
everybody telling me, `Stay out of trouble or you're going to be dead or in
jail.' And these are things I already knew, so I felt I didn't need the
And, Ebony, my girlfriend, went to this guy in her church and spoke to him,
and he invited me down to a program. And I went down to this program and
was, like, the total opposite of all the programs I'd ever been in. The
atmosphere was different and, you know, I felt it once I first, like, walked
in there, because the guy that I met--and his name's Mark
I was expecting some guy to come in with a suit on, you know, telling me
what college he went to and why he went there and was going. And, you know,
it didn't work out like that, because he came out and, you know, he was
dressed like me. He had braids. You know, he gave me a pal(ph). And, you
know, I was, like, `You know, this is different.' You know, he wasn't too
young. He was only, like, 25. So, you know, it was different. I saw
in him, you know. I was able to relate to him more than I would relate to
GROSS: You mentioned at the beginning of your tape that you had been very
close to your mother until she became a crack addict. Now I know she's
died. What happened? Did she die of an overdose?
Mr. VAUGHN: No. I would--even when my mother was a crack head, I was still
close to my mother. I was always close to my mother.
GROSS: I see.
Mr. VAUGHN: And she didn't die of an overdose. Dealing with the drugs had
affected her kidneys, and actually she lost one. She was on dialysis. And
knew that it was going to happen, anyway, because the doctor didn't give her
long. And, you know, we begged her to stop. You know, she tried, she
but she kept going back. And then finally, she stopped, you know. She got,
you know--we became family again. She started coming back into our lives.
She met my nephews and everything. But it was, you know, too late because
drugs had already took a toll on her body.
GROSS: Were you ever angry with your mother because she hadn't been able to
take of you when she became an addict?
Mr. VAUGHN: I never was angry with my mother. My brothers and sisters had
animosity towards her. They felt that, you know, it was her job. She
doing her job, and she's doing this. But I never felt anger toward my
even when she was doing it.
GROSS: How come you didn't?
Mr. VAUGHN: Because that was my mother. I don't see how anybody could ever
be--you know, be angry toward their mother or have any kind of animosity
toward their mother. I never did. I always loved my mother, even when she
was on drugs.
GROSS: Did you ever do crack yourself?
Mr. VAUGHN: Never. I used to feel that--at some point in time when my
mother was doing it, I used to feel like something was wrong with me. I
to feel like something was wrong with me and everybody else that didn't do
because my mother was doing it. My mother was like this angel. She
do no wrong in my eyes. So she did something and everybody didn't do it, I
felt they was wrong. I used to feel, `What's wrong with me? Why am I not
doing it?' But it never got to the point where I did it. And actually,
she died, I vowed to never, you know, touch it, sell it, anything.
GROSS: So it was OK for you to carry a gun, but you wouldn't go to crack?
Mr. VAUGHN: I mean, it sounds crazy, but yeah. I vowed to myself never to
sell crack, to touch it, to have any dealings with it. But it was OK for me
to carry a gun.
GROSS: Do you live in the same neighborhood now that you grew up in?
Mr. VAUGHN: I still live in the Bronx. I don't live in the same
I grew up in, though.
GROSS: Do you live in the same neighborhood now that you were living in
you started robbing?
Mr. VAUGHN: No. I mean, I pass through there, I see people from there and
sometimes I go visit, but I don't live there anymore.
GROSS: Is it good to be living in a different neighborhood so that you're
involved with the same people and that don't have certain expectations of
Mr. VAUGHN: I mean, it really doesn't matter where I move, because there's
people doing what I do everywhere. It just matters now that I have to stay
away from it. Even where I live now, I still see some of the people I did
these things with. I've run into people that I've did these things to, but
it's just, you know, how I distance myself from them.
GROSS: Do any people from the old neighborhood make fun of you for going
Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah, all the time. They call me `Angel.' They ask my why.
They call me `Angel.' They ask my why I'm not out there getting money
anymore, they say I've changed. But, I mean, it doesn't matter now. I set
GROSS: Well, let me ask you about money. I'm sure you were making a lot
when you were robbing than you are now.
Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah, definitely.
GROSS: Give us a comparison of what you made then and what you're making
Mr. VAUGHN: Well, back then, I was--OK, let's just say, you know, one
in three minutes, I could get $3,000 to $5,000. And now I have to save up
get that kind of money.
GROSS: What's the hardest part about living on your salary?
Mr. VAUGHN: It's not really hard. It's just like sometimes--it's not
really, like, my salary, it's just like being on my own, like without doing
the crime now. You know, sometimes it gets harder, like I might get backed
in a bill or something, or I might not have money to do what I want or, you
know, get certain things. But, you know, some of the stresses of the
life is gone. Like, you know, if the cops stop me, I can pull out my job ID
and tell them where I got the money from. You know, I don't have to worry
about them watching me. I don't have to worry about guys I've robbed or
anything coming back after me and wanting revenge. It's just, like, so many
different things that I don't have to go through now, which makes this life
GROSS: How do you feel about the police? Do you have strong feelings about
the police one way or another? Do you ever feel like they're your
Mr. VAUGHN: I never felt like the police wanted to protect us, because
every time I seen the police, they was doing something to me.
Mr. VAUGHN: Any contact I ever had with the police they was doing something
GROSS: Of course, you were doing a lot of illegal things...
Mr. VAUGHN: Exactly.
GROSS: ...and they were doing their job and doing something to you, in a
at least some of the time.
Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah, some of the time; some of the time it wasn't. It's just,
you know, I don't have any feelings towards the cops. I actually feel like
they're the biggest gang in New York.
GROSS: And you still feel that way.
Mr. VAUGHN: Yes, I do.
GROSS: Is it hard for you to stay out of trouble now?
Mr. VAUGHN: No. No, it's not. When I first got with this program, it was
kind of hard because I was still--like I said, I was in the neighborhood,
when the guys teased me and things like that, I felt bad or I felt like, you
know, in some weird way, I was turning my back on them. But it's different
now. You know, I don't feel that way now. I didn't turn my back on them.
turned my back on the gang; it's just that they still in it.
GROSS: Andre "Redd" Vaughn is now a peer educator with Friends of the
Academy, and a teaching assistant for Youth Portraits project. He'll be
in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Andre "Redd" Vaughn.
we meet Clinton Lacey, associate executive director of Friends of the Island
Academy, the mentoring program that helped Vaughn after he was released from
Also, language commentator Geoff Nunberg reflects on President Bush's use of
the word `evil.'
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Andre "Redd" Vaughn.
He served two sentences in New York's Rikers Island, the biggest jail in
America. Now at the age of 21, he works with the group that helped him when
he was released, Friends of the Island Academy. It provides transitional
support to young people who have just been released from Rikers.
Now I know you're working for Friends of the Island, the program that is for
young people who've gotten out of Rikers Island Penitentiary. Have you had
other jobs since you went straight?
Mr. VAUGHN: No, I haven't.
GROSS: If the point comes when you're looking for another job, are there
things that you're worried about because you have a record? You know, are
worried that you'd be--that no one will want to hire you?
Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah. Actually, I've been on some numerous interviews where I
see them read down my application, and everything is cool until they get to
the part where it asks if I was ever convicted of a felony. And, like,
whole facial expression just changed. These are things like I used to
on the interview. And sometimes I'm afraid that if Friends wasn't there, I
don't know what I'd be doing now...
Mr. VAUGHN: ...because I have two felonies. And before Friends, I didn't
know anything about a job, keeping one or anything. Like I said, the
jobs that I did have people got for me, and I wasn't able to handle it. So
don't know, you know, where I would be without Friends.
GROSS: What kind of work do you think you'd want to do? I mean, do you
to keep what you're doing, the kind of counseling of young people who are in
Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Because I feel like I have to
give back. I mean, it's just the right thing to do. I mean, sometimes, you
know, you know this is the wrong thing, this is the right thing. You know,
may not be what you always wanted to be in life, but it's the right thing to
do. I'm giving back. I took from the community. I was, you know, this
monster in the community doing all of these things, taking away from my
people, and it's like I got a chance to give back now. So why not give
GROSS: You know, I think for everyone who's been a victim of a crime, you
yourself, `How can someone have done this to me and they don't even care?
Like, it doesn't bother them that they hurt me, it doesn't bother them that
the stole the money that I worked so hard for and that I really need. They
don't care. How can they not care?' Can you answer that question?
Mr. VAUGHN: Well, first of all, anyone who does crime or who gets in that
kind of life, you know what you're doing wrong. So what you have to do is
kind of like you block it all out. It's kind of like you just make yourself
numb to all feelings, because emotions and feelings is a weakness, you know,
'cause you can't--How could you sell drugs to somebody if you feel bad about
it, if you feel bad for it? How could you rob somebody and take money from
them if you're going to feel bad later? So it's kind of like just give
yourself this numb feeling and not care what goes on.
GROSS: So now that you're not robbing and you're not carrying a gun, do you
still do that numbness thing?
Mr. VAUGHN: Actually, I still get that rush and I still have that numb
feeling, but it's like a total opposite now. The numb feeling I have is
towards the people who still do it. And the rush I get now is from--like,
I do a presentation and the little kids comes up to me and, like, you know,
`Here's my number. Can you call me or can I talk to you?' and things like
that, it's kind of like the same rush, the same rush I used to get from
pulling out a gun on somebody.
GROSS: Wow. So it just sounds like such a complete difference to see
emotions as being really weak, emotions as a sign of weakness. It just
like, be a really different life or change you a lot to, like, let in some
those emotions you had to block out.
Mr. VAUGHN: Well, actually, last year I was on the other side, 'cause last
year, I was mugged. I was robbed.
GROSS: Oh, really?
Mr. VAUGHN: And it kind of bugged me out because, like you said, I was on
other side of it. And I was like--you know, I had just gotten my paycheck.
I just have had my money, and it was like these guys just came up to me and,
you know, they pulled out their gun. And I'm looking--they was young, so
looking at them like, you know, like `Get out of here, get out of my face.
You know, I did this, you know, way before you guys' time.' And it's
you know, they was like me. They was persistent. They was not trying to
me not giving them the money. So they approached me with the guns, and I
what people used to do when I approached them: I gave them the money, you
And it was hard for me to handle because, you know, the feeling I had was,
know, `OK, I changed my life around. I'm not going to be this person
I'm not going to be that person anymore. But I'm not going to be a victim
neither.' And, you know, I realized that when you're a victim, you know,
you're a victim. There's nothing you can do.
GROSS: What did you do afterwards? Did you report it to the police? Did
try to go after them?
Mr. VAUGHN: No. I mean, I don't deal with the police in any way. So, you
know, I didn't call the police. The police saw--they didn't see what
happened, but they seen me and they seen those guys, so they have to figure
that something happened. But they didn't go back for those guys; they came
after me. And, you know, they asked me if I had ID; I didn't have any ID
because the guys took my wallet. And, you know, they was kind of like--they
was beefing with me; they had problems with me because I didn't have any ID,
you know. And they was like, you know, `What happened?' They thought it was
fight or something, and it wasn't.
GROSS: So it was interesting to be on the other end, huh?
Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah.
GROSS: To be on the victim end instead of the robbing end.
Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah. I just can't handle it.
GROSS: You can't handle it? Is that what you said?
Mr. VAUGHN: No, I can't--I mean, I handled it and I had to. But, you know,
God, I pray that that never happens again because I can't handle it.
GROSS: Well, one of the things you've done recently is a fellowship with
Sound Portraits, which is a group that does real terrific stuff for public
radio. And you've done, like, a mini documentary about your own story.
like a narrative of your story. And you've interviewed some of the people
your life, like your sister and your girlfriend, for this tape. Just tell
a little bit about the process of actually reflecting on your life,
after this long period of being numb, of not wanting to think too much, now
having to go back and really reflect on your life and think about it, tell
story of it. What was that process like, and what do you feel like you
learned from it?
Mr. VAUGHN: Well, I learned a lot. Besides, like, the technical stuff on
to edit and things like that, I learned a lot. I learned a lot from, like,
family because, you know, when I had the microphone, I put the microphone
you know, my friends, my family and my girlfriend and things like that.
told more to the mic, you know, than they told me.
GROSS: That's a really interesting phenomenon, isn't it?
Mr. VAUGHN: I mean, it is, but it's true. You know, they told--like I
out how my sister really felt about my mother when she was on the drugs.
know, I found out how my brother really felt. I found out how Ebony felt
I was locked up, you know. She told me more about how her parents felt when
was locked up. You know, I just found out, like, so many different things.
And it was a good experience for me because a lot of these things I didn't
know, and if I wasn't doing this project, I probably wouldn't have never
out; they probably wouldn't have never brought up.
GROSS: Well, Andre Vaughn, I really want to thank you a lot for talking
Mr. VAUGHN: No problem.
GROSS: Good luck to you.
Mr. VAUGHN: Thank you.
GROSS: Andre "Redd" Vaughn is now a peer educator with Friends of the
Academy. We'll meet the assistant executive director after a break. If
like to hear more of Vaughn's audio documentary about his life and the audio
documentaries of other young people who have been incarcerated on Rikers
Island, you can listen on the Web site youthportraits.org.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Clinton Lacy discusses how Friends of the Island
Academy works with young people just released from Rikers Island
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Clinton Lacey works with young people who have just gotten out of
Rikers Island, trying to help them break the cycle of crime and
Lacey is the assistant executive director of Friends of the Island Academy.
was founded by the first principal of the Rikers Island High School(ph) and
provides transitional support for young people who have just been released
from jail. Lacey has worked with the program since 1992. I asked him where
he begins with a young person who has just entered the program.
Mr. CLINTON LACEY (Assistant Executive Director, Friends of the Island
Academy): We begin to have a conversation with them about, yes, looking at
their communities, looking at the pathology, you know, the long list of
that they face in their communities, that their families face and actually
acknowledge that that's where most of them are going to return. So
we also will spend some time talking about putting that in some kind of
historical context, trying to find some cause for that.
But at the end of the day, once that understanding is achieved, you know, we
still needed to do something to empower them to survive it, to somehow
negotiate through that. And so that really points to them changing
themselves, changing the way they view themselves. So instead of becoming
victimized or instead of being part of the problem, instead of cooperating
the cycle of incarceration and the cycle of substance abuse and what have
that they could begin to make alternative choices, begin to make different
GROSS: One of the things that Andre said in the interview was that it was
really exciting when he first got a gun, and it got him respect. Do you
to work a lot with young people, when they get out of jail in Rikers Island,
to help them find other ways that they can get respect without carrying a
Mr. LACEY: Yes, that's one of the most important issues for them and for
this concept of respect. And so we do something when we go out to Rikers
other places. There's an exercise called `two sides of the street.' And
we do is we basically ask the young people to help us describe one side of
street, the side that they're really quite experts in, and they can talk
what is respect on the side of the street where there's violence and drugs
what have you, and not just describing what respect is, but describing what
And so we start listing issues on their side of the street, such as carrying
weapons, selling drugs. You know, how do you resolve conflicts on that side
of the street? You know, nine times out of 10, violently. What takes place
on that side of the street? What are relationships characterized by? You
know, lack of trust and always looking over your shoulder for danger,
from the police, the threat of death and violence and incarceration.
And then what we begin to do is--and after we've really exhausted that list
and listened to them, we begin to construct another side of the street and
describe what's over there. So while on one side of the street there's fast
money, quick money, illegal money, we describe on the other side of the
what we call steady flow or the idea of getting paid every two weeks and
discussing what is credit and what is financing.
And so we start to transition from what exists on one side of the street and
start to show what can exist on the other. So in terms of respect, on one
side, you need to carry a weapon or you need to have people fear you. But
the other side of the street, respect is really based on something else,
admiration and love and camaraderie. And so we begin to help them make that
GROSS: Now Andre was telling us that the first time he got out of Rikers
Island, he got a job in a shopping mall in a store, and he started forging
credit cards. He stole credit card numbers from customers and then managed
Mr. LACEY: Right.
GROSS: He went back to prison for that, and it was only subsequent to that
that he decided to seriously go straight. I imagine that happens with a lot
of people who ultimately succeed, but it takes a while, just like stopping
smoking takes a while...
Mr. LACEY: Right.
GROSS: ...to really give it up. So I'm wondering, when you try to help
people who have gotten out of jail, help them land a job, what do you tell
potential employers? Because they would have every right to be worried that
there might be some slip-ups.
Mr. LACEY: Yeah. If I could just back up one moment to the first part of
question was just about that issue of it took, like, an intervention like
jail, you know, for people to, you know, finally wake up or finally make
changes. It's something that--a story that we use a lot in our work is the
story of Malcolm X and how it was in jail that he began to transform
and he read the dictionary and began to educate himself. And he said that
he hadn't have been arrested, he was surely headed to get himself killed in
the street. And a lot of the young people talk about that; that they were
a path. And not to say that it's a good thing that they were arrested, but
also speaks to the lack of other interventions that are out there to prevent
them in the first place. So, yes, for a lot of them, it was after their
first, second or third incarceration that they finally say, `OK, something
But then back to where that question led in terms of employment, it's a
struggle. I mean, there are certain employers who, as soon as it is, you
know, shared or revealed that the person has a criminal background and
particularly a felony, then it's just a closed door. What we've done is
a lot of time going out, hitting the pavement, forming relationships with
employers, talking to them, trying to build the relationship where they
give young people a chance and also guaranteeing them that they've gone
through a pretty extensive workshop, where they, you know, have everything
from interviewing skills to, you know, punctuality and working with others.
Most recently, we're getting ready to begin to get our young people bonded,
which would be a really--which is a great incentive for employers in terms
worrying about theft and things like that.
GROSS: What do you do when you and the people you work with have worked
hard to get one of the young people placed in a job--and we're talking about
young person who's recently out of jail--you get them the job, and they
up, they steal or they stop showing up? And I'm sure you feel very
responsible to the employer because you've maybe given your word that you
worked closely with this person, you have faith in them, and they've let you
down. How do you deal with them afterwards?
Mr. LACEY: Well, it's something that we've had to deal with a lot. More
stealing as such, much more prevalent has been just leaving the job, you
lack of retention; that they've either--you know, being late or not showing
or dealing with conflicts on the job, taking directions from supervisors.
so, yeah, it really is a struggle to work with the young people and also to
maintain an open door and an opportunity to place more people on certain
When they do fall down on the path, when they do lose jobs, it's not the end
of the road for them. You know, we help pick them back up, dust them off
get back at it again.
GROSS: When you do pick them up after somebody has let you down, what's
attitude in terms of being very understanding or being very tough about not
allowing that to happen again?
Mr. LACEY: Well, the toughness is in the standards, OK? So we set high
standards for them. And so the toughness is in the consistency and the
clarity of what's expected. But the love and the compassion is in that we
keep coming back to the table. It's like, `OK, look, this is where you made
mistake; now this is what you have to do.' And so you have another chance.
For us to, you know, close the door on somebody, for us to say, `All right,
that's it, this is it, we're not working with you anymore,' which has only
happened in, really, a couple of extreme cases, means that we were the last
stop for them.
You know, the youth that come to our program, most of them, they're not
accepted back into their high schools; they're not accepted back into other
institutions that they may have been affiliated with, if they were indeed
aligned with any other institutions. And so then we become not just the
program, but we become, in many senses, the community and sometimes the
family. And so it's the kind of attitude that you could imagine that a
would have with their child or with one of their loved ones who continues to
fall on the path, continues to get in trouble. They continue to try to work
and find solutions to those issues.
GROSS: You're working with young people who are from poor backgrounds, who
come from violent neighborhoods. Are you from a neighborhood like that
yourself, or are you from a different kind of background and had to, in a
learn the language that the young people you work with speak?
Mr. LACEY: Right. I was very fortunate to have had, you know, both parents
my home growing up, and I am the son of two educators. And so they were
to provide for us both, you know, a relatively comfortable, you know,
existence, you know, certainly--you know, nowhere near wealthy or anything
like that, but, you know, comfortable--not worrying about when we're going
eat or getting clothing and certainly not living under the constant threat
violence and what have you that characterizes the young folks that we're
talking about now and the communities that they come from.
So, no, I didn't grow in a community like that. I didn't grow up having to
face the things that they faced. I was able to have a childhood unlike
young folks. So that, though--as far as I'm concerned, I've never seen that
as a barrier to working with young people
The language, the culture is not something alien to me because the
of black folks in this country, the experience of black and Latino folks, I
think, is somewhat of a family affair, you know. And so, you know, there
not really slang that was alien to me. And there certainly was a cultural
gap. Certainly the first day walking into Rikers Island for me back in
I didn't know what to expect. And I knew that, no, I had never spent time
Rikers Island. And so, you know, I certainly was questioning my ability to
So I've always set limits; I've always, I think, you know, received respect.
And I have rarely ever been accused of being soft or not knowing what's
happening or anything like that, you know, because that's just a perception
some people who haven't seen other types of people, you know. So if all
they've seen is television or if all they know is what they've heard about
people who aren't from the hood--Right?--or whatever, then there's
perceptions, the same way people outside of the hood have a whole set of
perceptions about people in it.
So I think it's through the experience of actually working with people,
interacting with people, where they say, `Hey, there's different types of
people out here.' There's something called balance, you know. And so you
don't have to be a sellout. You know, the two extremes, it's not either
a sellout or being a thug--Right?--a so-called thug or a so-called sellout.
You know, there's something in between those extremes that's a healthy way
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. LACEY: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Clinton Lacey is the assistant executive director of the Friends of
Island Academy, which provides transitional support for young people who
just been released from Rikers Island.
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on President Bush's use of the word
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Word `evil' doesn't mean what it used to
TERRY GROSS, host:
`The Evil One,' `axis of evil'--President Bush has been using the word
to explain his foreign policy. To many observers, it sounds like a return
using old-fashioned moral language. But linguist Geoff Nunberg points out
that evil doesn't mean what it used to.
This may be simply a sign of what a protected life I've led, but I don't
I've ever known anybody who was out-and-out evil. Well, actually, I knew an
evil cat once, but that makes my point: Evil isn't something we ascribe to
things in the familiar circle of our own experience. Evil has to be
unfathomable, or it isn't evil. That's why a cat can be evil and a dog can
only be mean, because cats can be incomprehensible, whereas dogs wear their
motivations on their collars.
And that's why we tend to reserve the word `evil' for people who seem to
no rational motive for what they do, apart from a malignant pleasure in
causing pain, somebody like Ted Kaczynski, who holes up in a Montana cabin
build bombs and torture the local dogs. But when we can understand
motivation, we tend to use other words. Those Enron executives who ripped
the company and its employees out of simple greed have been called immoral,
corrupt, dishonest or just plain sleazy, but nobody's thought to describe
When you think about it, in fact, it's odd that we should say that the love
money is the root of all evil since we tend to assume that truly evil people
aren't motivated by greed alone. But then when that verse was inserted in
King James Bible, evil had a much broader meaning. It could refer to just
about anything that was wrong, harmful, wretched, disagreeable or merely
unfortunate or defective. We may think of evil as a biblical word, but its
meaning is a lot narrower for us than it was in the Bible itself and
than most traditional theologians would have recognized.
In fact, evil has become such a recondite notion for us that there are only
handful of modern contexts where we use the word at all. There's Nazi
Germany, the model for evil in our time. And there are the fictional worlds
of comic books, James Bond stories and Gothic movies like "The Exorcist" and
"The Omen." A lot of the time, in fact, the word has a decidedly campy
When I hear somebody use it, I can't help thinking of Richard Burton in "The
Exorcist" saying, `We're in the presence of evil.'
Those echoes can be hard to escape even when somebody's trying to use the
in deadly earnest. President Bush has done everything he could to tie the
word to bin Laden, to the point where he uses `the Evil One' almost as a
of pronoun. But if the label sticks, it's because bin Laden is a
personification of evil right out of central casting, this creepy, exotic
character who looks like he could have stepped out of a James Bond or Flash
You can hear the same campy resonances in the phrase `axis of evil' that
used in his State of the Union speech to refer to Iraq, Iran and North
Ari Fleischer said afterwards that Bush didn't intend any literal comparison
to the Axis powers in World War II. I'll take Fleischer at his word on
not just because the comparison is far-fetched, but because I suspect that
most listeners that `axis of evil' phrase didn't evoke Churchillian echoes
much as a league of comic-book supervillains.
I can see the usefulness of the word `evil.' It's a tonic for the excesses
moral relativism. It cleaves neatly between `us' and `them.' And it
simplifies the business of explaining why we fight. But as various
commentators have observed, an absolute term like `evil' can be hard to
with the gradations and relativities that foreign policy is built around.
That might not be much of an issue in the case of bin Laden himself, but
you try to extend the principle, you get into a situation where Colin Powell
and Madeleine Albright are having public disagreements over whether North
Korea should be classified as evil, as opposed to merely awfully bad.
Then, too, the Bush approach runs the risk of administering the coup de
to the notion of evil itself, at least as a serious concept in American
life. Bush is obviously trying to turn the word into a catchphrase for his
presidency. He used it five times in the State of the Union message and 10
times in a speech the following day in Florida. And in a speech in
Winston-Salem, he expanded the war on evil to include parts of his domestic
program, like the AmeriCorps volunteer initiatives. `If you want to fight
evil,' he said, `we've figured out a way to do so militarily. But at home,
you fight evil by doing something to help somebody.' Nobody's about to
question the value of home building and literacy tutoring, but that isn't
people generally have in mind when they talk about fighting evil, and a
certain cynicism is likely to creep in.
Buzzwords and catchphrases have a short half-life in American politics, and
sooner or later the war on evil will go the way of other political slogans,
from `a kindler, gentler nation' to `compassionate conservatism.' This
be the end of evil as we know it, at least in American public life.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is the author of "The Way We Talk Now."
I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a song by Dave Van Ronk, who was one of
leading figures of the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the '60s. He
colon cancer and died yesterday at the age of 65. Here's his 1963 recording
of his song "He Was a Friend of Mine."
(Soundbite of Dave Van Ronk performing "He Was a Friend of Mine")
Mr. DAVE VAN RONK: (Singing) He was a friend of mine. He was a friend of
mine. Never had no money paid for his fine. He was a friend of mine. He
died on the road. He died on the road. Never had no money paid for his
board. He was a friend of mine. He...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.