AFSC intern Wahid speaks with a program participant at the Eddie Conway Freedom School.
Photo: Bryan Vana
As with many participants, self growth was not the first thing on Wahid’s mind when he decided to participate in Friend of a Friend. He was an 18-year-old kid who, after being picked off the streets of Baltimore at the age of 16, was interested in little more than qualifying for parole. However, he quickly discovered that AFSC’s conflict resolution program had more to offer than a certificate of completion. Now, two years later, the program that he described as one of “the most progressive programs…dedicated to change” remains an enduring presence in his life.
Currently active in five Maryland correctional facilities, Friend of a Friend was conceived as a means of combating the prevalence of institutional violence in Maryland state prisons and aims to reduce it by providing inmates with tools that build healthy relationships, create support structures, and develop effective communication skills. Weekly discussion sessions are central to its implementation and act as open forums through which inmates engage with one another and receive conflict resolution training. Mentors are responsible for directing these sessions and seeing the curriculum come to fruition through what is a predominantly by-inmate, for-inmate approach.
After graduating from his first 6-month mentee cycle, Wahid seized the opportunity to become a mentor himself. He undertook new responsibilities—including mentee recruitment and training administration—and could do so without establishing a hierarchy amongst his peers. “I know this mentorship thing sounds as if I’m the big guy and you’re the little guy, but it don’t work like that,” he said. Instead, mentors and mentees see themselves as one in the same.
As a mentor, Wahid was key in realizing the program’s potential to overcome the barriers that inhibit peaceful conflict resolution in ordinary prison discourse. “Coming from the streets you have a segregated mind frame and prison only enhances it,” he said, adding that this prevents many groups from hearing what others have to say. Discussion sessions bring inmates from all backgrounds together to discuss anger management and conflict, communication, and coping skills in an intimate setting. This equips them with insight into the perspectives of others.
Wahid has since earned his freedom but is not quite done with Friend of a Friend. He is involved with the Eddie Conway Freedom School through the component of the program that supports graduates as they confront tensions at home or in seeking employment following release. This serves the dual purpose of providing at-risk youths with a positive role model and compensating for the gap in employment resulting from incarceration. While challenging, Wahid cherishes this new line of work Friend of a Friend has been presenting him with as he believes, “when you stop being challenged, you stop growing.”
Four years ago, Wahid’s biggest test was the streets of Baltimore. Today, it is realizing his full potential.
- AFSC intern Michael Lofthus