Alfred Smith waited patiently on stage inside the auditorium at Woodrow Wilson High School to tell his life story of battling drugs and how his decision landed him in federal prison.

“I loved high school,” said Smith, an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution-Beckley. “The Friday night football games, hanging out with friends and all the parties. It was great.”

Smith said he was still in high school when he began making bad decisions.

“I got with some friends that thought it would be easy to break into cars and steal their stereo systems,” he said. “We would sell the stereo systems and use the money to buy marijuana and party.”

Smith told of his downfall, how he was eventually busted and brought to court to face a judge.

“The judge told me that if I didn’t start making better decisions that I would end up dead or in prison,” Smith recalled. “I felt like he was preaching at me and I didn’t listen to him.”

Smith got a slap on the wrist that time, but it wasn’t long before he was arrested again.

“This time I was arrested for possession with intent to deliver crack cocaine,” he said.

Smith, 22 at the time, had a large amount of crack cocaine and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

“I have served seven years and three months,” he said.

Smith told the Woodrow students that while in prison he came to realize it was his own decisions, many of them made while in high school, that put him behind bars and caused pain and suffering for his family.

“This is pain I still must deal with each day,” he said.

Smith was one of three federal inmates who volunteered to share their stories in the hope that it might help some young people avoid the mistakes they made.

“This presentation is sponsored by Hard Time for Gun Crime, Project Safe Neighborhoods, the Office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia and the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Beckley,” said John File, an assistant federal prosecutor in Beckley.

“Project Safe Neighborhoods is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Justice designed to prevent and fight crime through positive community involvement.”

File said the Hard Time for Gun Crime/Project Safe Neighborhoods group in Beckley consists of local citizens.

“The Beckley group meets the second Monday of every month at 6 p.m. at the community center at 200 Antonio Ave.,” he said. “The meetings are open to interested persons of all ages. You can call 253-6722 or 255-9148 for additional information about the group.”

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Thursday’s audience was filled with high school students, the majority of them ninth-graders.

“High school freshmen are our target audience,” File said, “although there are students from other grades as well.”

Woodrow principal Bob Maynard said although parents, teachers and law enforcement officials are constantly telling young people to make good decisions, the powerful message from the inmates cannot be duplicated.

“The students understand that these men have really lived a life of crime and have had to pay for their bad decisions,” he said. “Their words just seem to resonate with young people much more than from parents or teachers. We really appreciate them volunteering to share their experiences with our students.”

The audience grew quiet at the introductions of the inmates, who talked about their personal experiences with drug abuse, peer pressure and run-ins with the law.

Smith, whose hometown is Macon, Ga., and the two other inmates, Chris Hankins of Knoxville, Tenn., and Jason York of Evansville, Ind., were all charged with felony drug crimes.

York calmed the crowd by telling the students the inmates were from a low-security prison camp, which they had to earn by making good decisions while in jail.

York, 29, said he could have been a star football player in high school, but instead wanted the instant gratification of fast money from selling drugs.

“I just got caught up in the drugs,” York said. “Now I’m in prison and someone tells me when to work, eat, sleep, what to wear and eat, and how much I get to eat.”

York said he was shot four times while dealing drugs and lost his best friend when robbers killed him to get his drugs and money.

“My friend was shot in the head,” he said.

York was arrested while driving a shipment of drugs from Texas.

York said when he was sentenced to federal prison for more than seven years, he began to realize that every decision comes with a consequence.

Hankins, 30, used drugs and drank alcohol during his high school years.

“I wanted to be part of the ‘in’ crowd,” he said. “I had begun experimenting with sex, drugs and alcohol by the time I reached high school.”

Hankins said he came from a Christian home, but rebelled against it as a teenager.

“I ended up getting my girlfriend pregnant and became a father at an early age,” he said.

Hankins began selling drugs to support his young family. One day, he was pulled over by a police officer. He was ordered to the ground at gunpoint in the presence of his mother and child.

“It was horrible,” he said.

After the officer found drugs, Hankins was arrested.

“I worry when I get out that my son will not respect me,” Hankins said in an emotional voice. “I hope he will understand that I am sorry for everything that I have done to him and sorry for the pain I have caused my entire family. I hope to one day be able to make up for all of it.”

All three inmates told the students they got into trouble when they made “bad choices.”

“This is why I am here today,” York said. “If I can just reach one of you and get you to understand that the decisions you make in high school can shape the rest of your life ... ”

“I’m not telling this to you so I can gain any sympathy,” he added. “I’m telling this to you so you can see how drugs, sex, alcohol and bad decisions can affect your life and the people around you.”

These inmates say they want to get their lives back. They say they plan either to go to college or back into the workforce after they serve their sentences.

“I get out in 45 days,” Smith said. “I plan to have a new life, one in which I make good decisions.”

— E-mail: fpace@register-herald.com

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