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In one Tennessee prison, inmates serving life sentences show a better path forward

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

People serving life sentences in prison often have a lot of sway over the culture there. And at one Tennessee prison, about an hour southwest of Nashville, men with life sentences are trying to use that influence for good. From member station WPLN, Paige Pfleger reports, they want to help first-timers navigate life behind bars and once they're out how to stay out.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: A group of young men are gathered in a circle around David Richardson.

DAVID RICHARDSON: We're going to look at some, I'm assuming, bad labels.

PFLEGER: He wears round gold-rimmed glasses and has quiet command over the group. He asks them each to pick up a scrap of paper and read the words written on them.

RICHARDSON: I got felon and you will never be anything in life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I got jailbird, lost cause.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mine says you're nothing.

PFLEGER: And another - I won't live to see 21. These labels are the ways these incarcerated men feel society sees them. But 26-year-old Tyrin Cherry says those labels don't need to dictate the ways he lives his life.

TYRIN CHERRY: We're labeled felons, but look what we're doing. We're actually trying to change and all that. It doesn't really - you know, it's just what you make of it.

PFLEGER: And Cherry is trying to make the most of it. He's up for parole next year, whereas Richardson is serving a life sentence. Their conversation is part of a new mentorship program inside the Turney Center Industrial Complex that pairs lifers like Richardson with first-timers like Cherry.

GILDOR SIMPLICE: The older guys have been in prison so long there's pitfalls that they can help them to not fall in.

PFLEGER: Prison counselor Gildor Simplice helped connect these two groups who normally wouldn't have much contact with each other.

SIMPLICE: Usually a lot of them come very young, and they're like, you know, if I had a big brother, prison life would have been a little easier for me. And so we started working on how to start one. And here we are.

PFLEGER: The program is the first of its kind in the state, and David Richardson knew he wanted to be part of it. He was just 20 when he came to prison, and there was a group of older guys who helped him avoid joining gangs or getting into more trouble. Now he wants to pay it forward.

RICHARDSON: They got the world at their fingertips, and I just want to help them see that.

PFLEGER: And that means being vulnerable with the younger guys about how he ended up with a life sentence for murder.

RICHARDSON: Like, I didn't have any prospects of going to college, of doing anything with my life. I knew that this is where I was coming. And it's so unfortunate that I think a lot of the young guys that we deal with and a lot of them that weren't here today, you know, have this same expectation.

PFLEGER: He says it's hard to see himself as someone to look up to. He's made mistakes, and he's only 32 years old. But his openness about his experiences is why younger guys like Tyrin Cherry admire him so much.

CHERRY: 'Cause I didn't have a father growing up, so he's someone I can look up to.

PFLEGER: Cherry says this group and having a role model like Richardson is kind of like therapy to him. This type of mentorship and education has proven to make a big difference with his age group.

CHERRY: Like I said, I don't want to be labeled another statistic who just comes back to jail and keeps coming back to jail because next time it might be for a life sentence, you know?

PFLEGER: The program is too new to know what kind of long-term effect it will have. But Cherry says it's set him on a new path, and that path does not lead back to prison.

For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger at the Turney Center Industrial Complex.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paige Pfleger