Schooled in prison

A bit of insider advice: Don't eat the honey bun.

Those were among the words of wisdom passed down to the 5-foot-nothing Joe Jones by three inmates eager to share their knowledge.

If you find a honey bun on your bed, don't eat it, Lavoris Thomas told the 87-pound 14-year-old.

Whoever gave it to you will want the favor returned, the inmate said, and he will take it any way he can.

Mr. Thomas, wearing his white prison uniform with navy trim, wanted Joe to make good decisions.

The best decision he could make would be never to end up in prison, he told him.

Joe participated in Ounce of Prevention Services, which wrapped up its monthlong program with a tour of the Augusta State Medical Prison.

OOPS is one of a handful of community organizations relied on by the Richmond County Juvenile Court, which is charged with rehabilitating delinquent children.

Juvenile Court Judge Willie Saunders frequently jokes that he owes OOPS founder Henry Armstrong III a big steak dinner.

With its small operating budget, the courts depend heavily on community groups to steer juveniles in the right direction, Judge Saunders said.

He orders some of the truants in his courtroom to attend OOPS.

"This is no place to be," 18-year-old Antwan Jackson, who is serving a 15-year sentence, told the students. "Do something with your life. Don't do this. Please don't do this.

"Stay in school. That's my first request of y'all."

The brief experience at the prison changed the students.

"I know I don't want to be here just looking at it," said Kenneth Kelly Jr., 15. "Some of them are looking at you crazy like they want to rape you."

Jacob Manders was at a loss for words. The 12-year-old hadn't been going to school, but that will change, he said, shaken by comments from an inmate who wanted him in his cell.

Medical prison Warden Victor Walker said only 21 percent of Georgia inmates have a high school diploma, and that includes inmates who received their education behind bars. Less than 1 percent have any college experience.

"What does that data tell you?" Mr. Walker asked OOPS participants. "Dummies come to prison."

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.