Omari Williams was only 19 when he was handed his first prison sentence. After his release at 21, he became part of a dauntingly high recidivism rate and returned to prison for a second time.

This summer, nearly two decades after he first entered the system, Omari once more found himself a free man after he was released from the Maryland Correctional Training Center (MCTC) in Hagerstown, Maryland. He is absolutely certain that he will not be returning for a third time, and one of the reasons is his involvement with AFSC’s Friend of a Friend project.

Omari would be the first to admit that, as a young man, he turned to the streets instead of looking for positive role models. He had limited goals – living only for the day-to-day. It was not until he became a mentee in the Friend of a Friend program that he realized his life experiences were not unique. Most of his fellow mentees had never known a father figure and did not have a positive support structure at home.

When he joined Friend of a Friend, a project of the Maryland Peace with Justice Program, Omari started learning new skills to help him deal with anger, express himself and communicate more effectively. He began to learn how to productively socialize with other men in a chaotic environment. And, perhaps most importantly, he began to deal with issues related to his family. Week after week, the mentors and mentees shared stories about the past. Mentors encouraged mentees to deal with their emotions – a new reality for young men who had been taught never to cry. Over time, though this intensive support system, a new “family” emerged among a group of men who shared common experiences and found strength in each other.

Eventually Omari graduated from the Friend of a Friend project and became a mentor. He became dedicated to teaching conflict resolution skills to other young men in order to minimize violence within MCTC. It was a delicate process, and Omari spent a lot of time trying to hone his techniques so that the young men he worked with, young men who had been through what he had been through, did not shut down and turn away from the group. It was hard, but it was also rewarding. As the mentors worked together to create “a model process for creating better men,” Omari recognized that the men’s creative force was “in itself a beautiful thing.”

Today Omar is tackling new obstacles as a part-time employee of the Maryland Peace with Justice Program. He is on a mission to prove through his own work that formerly incarcerated men constitute the effective workforce that our communities need in order to change the prison system for good. He is creating an extension of the Friend of a Friend project for the formerly incarcerated, focusing on young adults.

During the next few months Omari will be talking to young people throughout Baltimore City – recruiting them for his new project. When he goes to a new school or community center, the speech may change but the theme is always the same. He tells the youths, “I know you think no one wants to hear you, and that you don’t have a voice, but I am here to listen. If you are hanging with guys who don’t have your best interest in mind, I am here to help. Come, be a friend of a friend.”

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