Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Officer Scott Riner verbally disciplines Joaquin Garcia, left, and Harry Nguyen, right, in a maximum security unit jail cell during the Prison Awareness program at the Gwinnett County Comprehensive Correctional Complex in Lawrenceville on June 13. The goal of the Prison Awareness program is to expose troubled teens to prison life and to educate them about making better choices, in hopes to prevent future jail time.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- It's 5:50 p.m. in the prison lobby. One kid has shown up with his pants sagging, exposing a crumbled bouquet of boxer shorts. In the eyes of Officer Eugene Hollis, a towering stack of discipline in paramilitary garb and elbow pads, the kid has committed a faux pas that inmates will misconstrue as an invitation. "Pull your pants up," Hollis says in an imposing baritone. "I shouldn't be looking at your drawers."
Hollis orders the kid, 15-year-old probationer Miles Holt of Lawrenceville, outside the lobby of the Gwinnett County Comprehensive Correctional Complex, where he files in with nine other youths. Each has run afoul of the law or their parents' patience. Another kid, an accused marijuana dealer in a black T-shirt, smirks. Bad idea. Hollis loathes smirking.
Gwinnett's Prison Awareness Program
A look at the Prison Awareness Program at the Gwinnett County Comprehensive Correctional Complex in Lawrenceville. **WARNING** This video contains subject matter and language that may be disturbing to some viewers.**
"You hard-headed?" Hollis says. At nearly 6 feet, 5 inches and 310 pounds, he played offensive line at Albany State University before a bum ankle sidetracked his NFL ambitions. Beside him, the teen is miniscule. The smirking ceases.
"This right here is prison, man," Hollis says, frisking their pockets with gloved hands, breaking a sweat. "There's cats in here that like little boys -- you know that?"
Thus begins a typical evening at Gwinnett's Prison Awareness Program, an unflinching glimpse at prison life for miscreants under age 18 that leaders say is unique in metro Atlanta. Held the first three Wednesdays of each month -- and every three months for girls -- the two-hour program is intense and intimidating, and while the participants' safety is never jeopardized, volunteers like Hollis are adept at making them think it is. Since the early 1990s, the program has been a crash course in things like shower shankings, weapons made of socks and rocks and brutal fights over $1 Honey Buns.
For his volunteer efforts, Hollis, the program's coordinator since 2008, was awarded the Medal of Merit earlier this year, a Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce honor for law enforcement officers who show commitment outside the regular scope of duty.
Last year, 314 boys and 89 girls endured the program as part of the disposition of their cases, said Jesse Lawler, Gwinnett Juvenile Court administrator. Local recidivism data is hard to come by, but Lawler said juvenile probation officers report "positive results" from most participants.
"This program gets (their) attention," Lawler said. "(It) gives them insight into the consequences of their actions, and the reality of the path they may be headed down."
At the state level, the Georgia Department of Corrections offers no formal programs like Gwinnett's for troubled youths at its 34 facilities, though some prisons provide tours and a program called Choose Freedom for youths in areas with high rates of convicts, said spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan.
Hollis estimates 80 percent of participants are on probation, while others are troublemakers at Boys and Girls Clubs or hellions at home. One recent evening, a couple from Duluth brings in their diminutive 13-year-old son -- who, on the inside, will quickly earn the nickname "Pip Squeak" -- because he'd been rebelling.
"To put it succinctly," says the teen's father, "he's been grounded for the last year straight."
Pip Squeak falls in line with a motley bunch that includes Holt, the smirker, a repeat runaway and a shaggy haired kid facing battery charges for beating up "random people" at Norcross High School. After another verbal lashing -- "The streets don't give a (expletive) about you!" -- from Hollis' counterpart, Sgt. C. George, all the kids go to prison.
Education vs. trauma
Deeper into the 800-bed compound, three inmates in white jumpsuits -- a burglar, thief and brawler -- berate the teens in a classroom. Without parents around, the language gets more raw, and the decibels rise into a cacophony of interrogatory threats. "You like to fight?" an Atlanta man convicted of aggravated assault asks the battery suspect. "I know how to fight good."
One kid winces, head down.
"Ain't no crying in here," Hollis says. "Crying ain't gonna fix it."
For all the fear-mongering, program leaders say their emphasis remains on education and steering the teens toward law-abiding positivity, not breaking them down and spitting them out.
"The 'Scared Straight' method doesn't work in my mind," said Deputy Warden Darrell Johnson, referring to the 1978 Oscar-winning documentary whose title was adopted for reality television. He isn't the only one critical of the more hard-line approach.
Joe Vignati, a program leader at the Governor's Office for Children and Families in Georgia, acknowledges that programs meant to traumatize youths succeed in getting their attention, but he argues those results are fleeting.
"The research is clear," Vignati wrote last year, "once the trauma of 'Scared Straight' has worn off, meta-analysis shows that this intervention actually increases the odds of offending."
A father of three, Hollis, 37, says he's a teacher at heart. He coaches youth softball and football when he's not fishing for crappie or taking his kids to the movies. He expanded the program's reach beyond the Gwinnett courts system in 2011 to include the Lawrenceville Boys and Girls Club and courts in DeKalb County. He volunteered for more than 300 hours.
"This is serious business right here," he says. "They're getting younger and younger by the day."
In winning the Medal of Merit, Hollis bested a seasoned Snellville detective who directs a citizens police academy and a Gwinnett police officer responsible for the C.O.P.S. Festival at Coolray Field last year. Jim Maran, Gwinnett Chamber president and CEO, said Hollis' "valiant efforts and service to the community" distinguished him.
Johnson, the deputy warden, links Hollis' effectiveness to his bulk -- and heart.
"His eyes light up when he sees a kid headed down the wrong path," Johnson said. "It's just something about his demeanor, he seems to connect with kids."
Hollis herds the teens into the "max unit," a stark, two-story wall of isolation cells. Inmates' shouts rain down. Pip Squeak tells a man through a meal slot in his door that he's in prison for "lying to my mom," which earns him the antithesis of tough-guy cred.
The Atlanta inmate, a natural and nasty drill sergeant, screams orders for the teens to lay on a steel bed, their heads near the toilet. He nicknames another high-school pugilist "Thumper."
In G-dorm, the teens are lined against the wall of the showers. Hollis and company make clear that a guard won't always be watching, and that sneak attacks from behind are possible.
As the tour wraps, Pip Squeak is led alone into a dorm teaming with inmates, who scream "Fresh meat!" and "Let me take him to the showers!" A look of deer-in-headlights terror overtakes the boy.
Back in the lobby, parents swarm Hollis and ask how their kids performed. Holt, whose pants are decidedly over his hips, says the experience was impacting.
"The fighting, the killing in there ... that one guy scared me to death," he says.
Hearing this, Holt's mother says she's making a return trip the next week, with his 12-year-old brother.
"It's going to be a field trip," she says.
Hollis, surveying the crew, feels the evening was a success.
"I hope they all leave changed," he says. "That one in the black T-shirt ... I don't know."