The murderer hurried down the prison's crowded corridor. He looked in classrooms lining his path, studying the faces of junior high students who yawned and slumped in their seats. "I want to find a room with a lot of young black children," Anthony Kerns said sternly. "I got plenty to say."
Kerns, locked inside the Lorton Reformatory six years ago for fatally stabbing a man in the chest, soon decided to join four other prisoners in a room at the end of the hall. The students sat and waited. He stood and stared.
"I was your age when I started stealing money out of my momma's pocket," Kerns, 26, shouted, tucking a book on composition writing beneath his coat as he began to speak.
"And I kept on stealing. And every time I did something wrong and got paid for doing it, all I got was slaps on the back. Nobody ever kicked my butt. I didn't think I'd ever get caught. I was too 'bad,' right? Well, when I got in here, I knew exactly what I was: a sucker, a chump."
Kerns' harsh self-examination continued for 30 minutes yesterday morning, and strongly resembled the messages that dozens of other Lorton inmates delivered to District students who, for the first time, participated in "rap sessions" during the 12th annual Criminal Justice Conference at the prison.
More than 100 prisoners met with nearly 300 students. They issued you-don't-want-to-be-me pleas, articulated the anguish of life behind bars, and struggled to motivate the young crowd to resist the peer pressures that lure juveniles to crime.
Some of the students whispered and joked and sank in their seats as some of the prisoners spoke, hardly intimidated by the surroundings. Earlier in the conference, one speaker asked all the students to raise their hands if a family member, relative or friend has been, or still is, imprisoned. Half of them did.
"Are they boring you?" a frustrated teacher asked a student sitting beside her, his eyes half shut. He said no, and sat up straight.
"Some of us haven't seen the streets in 10 years," inmate Peter Bliss told students in another room. "And some of us won't be out of here for another 10 years. Do you understand what that means? We're talking about serving time. Come here, and your life is gone."
The inmates, all of whom participate in the University of the District of Columbia's Lorton Prison College Program, expressed regret for not having the courage and self-esteem necessary to have overcome the temptation to sell drugs or steal. The rewards bring deadly consequences, they stressed.
"I wanted to be part of the crowd, to be accepted," Wellington Waters, jailed for the past nine years for armed robbery, told a few dozen students gathered in one of the rooms. "And I had jewelry, and I had women, and I thought I had everything. Well, now I ain't got nothing. I'm here."
Kerns challenged the students to define what "being bad" meant. None responded. Later, as another prisoner was speaking, Kerns walked around the room and whispered to the other three prisoners: "Ask them more questions. We got to put them on the spot. They got to know what this is really like."
"What's the food like?" a student asked from the back of the room.
"Garbage," a prisoner yelled back.
"Can you get a job after you get out?" another student asked.
"It's a tough stigma you can't erase," a prisoner replied. "It's like you can't be trusted at all."
"What if you sell drugs to help your family if they're poor?" another student asked.
"You can make bad excuses for anything," Kerns replied. "There're plenty other ways to help your family . . . . All them drug dealers running around out there, with all their gold and their cars, they're going to be wearing blue jumpsuits inside here, sooner or later."
"The prisoners were saying exactly what needed to be said," said Brenda Hallums, a teacher at Washington Highlands Comunity School. "I just fear that my students didn't really hear it. They never feel any of this is ever going to happen to them."
Some students, however, acknowledged the conversation with the prisoners was startling. "When you see them living like this, it makes you feel sad for them," said 14-year-old Antoine Fenner of Terrell Junior High School in Northwest Washington. "They said they always have to keep flies off their food. Who wants that, plus everything else here?"
"I thought it was real good," added 13-year-old Steven Garvin, also a Terrell student. "So many kids get on the wrong track because of their friends or because of where they live. Maybe this put some of them back on the right track."