A group of young men from an at-risk Toronto neighbourhood travelled to a Kingston, Ont. prison this week, not to be punished for breaking the law, but to get an education about the consequences of choosing a life of crime.
Strict prison rules meant they couldn't video tape or take pictures, but they performed a play side-by-side with men convicted of serious crimes, including murder.
The young people who went inside the prison walls are aged 18 to 24 and from the Rexdale area in Toronto's northwest. The visit — arranged along with four others as part of Black History Month — was organized by Ziya Brown, a youth worker who has created an organization called Think 2wice.
The message behind the play, called Kings to Kingz, is about the consequences of bad choices. It's designed to empower the young people to take another road, using convicts as unlikely role models.
James Smith, 19, rapped his spoken-word poem during the prison visit. Performers took the play and other musical numbers to five different Ontario prisons in February for Black History Month.
Smith's lyrics are personal, the rhythm catchy.
"Daddy wasn't here so my mom had to hustle. No time for playin', mama worked double-double," he rhymed, reprising his role during the play. "Double shift. Hard life but I'm lovin' it," he continues, in a poem that tells a story of struggle, observing others carrying guns.
Smith works part-time working retail in a mall and says life outside work can be a challenge.
"I can't even go hang out with friends, because there are guys [who] are very aggressive and they want to hurt people for no reason."
Still, being inside a prison was far from his reality. "I was sitting in the front row and I kept looking back because I was very nervous," he said.
Zya Brown visits prisons every few weeks as a volunteer and started Think 2wice to keep young people from ending up behind bars. She wrote the play they performed, which features three main characters: one who built his life from drug money, another from guns, while a third stayed within the law.
The words "In God I trust" are scrawled across her neck, tattooed in blue ink.
Brown is blunt about why she wants young men from rough neighbourhoods meeting men in prison.
"There are no older males in the community and that's the problem," she says. "All the older males are either dead or they're in jail or in prison."
But she differentiates between her program and one started in the 1970 in the United States, called Scared Straight. She doesn't capitalize on fear, she says, but instead uses love, mentorship and the arts.
'It doesn't have to be too late for them'
CBC Toronto spoke to a 33-year-old prisoner serving time for first-degree murder who's part of the program. He's originally from Scarborough but has been behind bars for 11 years.
"It may be a little too late for me, but it doesn't have to be too late for them," said the inmate, who did not want to be identified.
During the visit, he sang a song he wrote for his mother, which he later sang for CBC Toronto over the crackly phone line.
He says serving as an example to young people is his contribution to society from behind bars.
"If I can touch any one of these youths to make them see and feel my pain and feel the pain of my mother, show them they don't want their mother to feel that pain," he explained. "They're much bigger and better than prison.
Dwayne Lambert-Cadore, 18, was also part of the tour and says it taught him an important lesson, after meeting prisoners now looking for a second chance.
"Take full advantage of your first chance."
Lambert-Cadore takes away some practical advice after listening to the prisoners, including to trust his intuition. "If you feel something in your gut, like a party you want to go to, [but] ... you feel like something's going to happen, you just stay home."