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Maurice Clarett shares personal experiences in push for Ohio criminal-justice reform

Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett talks about his experiences in prison as a part of the United State Justice Network’s panel Wednesday at the Riffe Center in Columbus on May 3. Credit: Sheridan Hendrix | Oller Reporter

Maurice Clarett’s story of college football superstar to convicted felon to inspirational advocate was told again on Wednesday night, but in a different context.

At the Davidson Theater inside the Riffe Center in downtown Columbus, Clarett — along with the Director of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Gary Mohr, President of the Buckeye Institute Robert Alt and moderator Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, which hosted the event — engaged in discourse on social justice reform in Ohio, specifically the Treatment Continuum Alternative Program (TCAP), which offers alternative sentencing to eligible offenders.

Clarett is normally the sole speaker in front of hundreds of students, athletes or incarcerated individuals. His journey began at the bottom of drug and alcohol addiction and more than three years of incarceration after winning a national championship as one of football’s premier running backs at Ohio State. He then turned his life around and has shared his experiences through his speeches, as was the case Wednesday evening. But his experiences were complemented by facts Mohr and Alt referenced on the current social justice practices in Ohio compared to practices that work elsewhere.

Clarett’s outpatient treatment organization, The Red Zone, supports the TCAP agenda Mohr and Ohio legislators are pushing in the state senate.

“It was making me proud to know that we are doing the thing (Mohr’s) trying to promote,” Clarett said. “He doesn’t even know all what I do, but he’s talking about supporting that space because he knows that space works, which let’s me know I’m doing the right thing because this guy has 43 years of experience and the depth of his knowledge is with merit.”

The event opened with members of the Inside Out choir from the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville pronouncing an uplifting message through its voice, which had a few members of the choir and the audience in tears. Republican state Sen. John Eklund and Republican state Majority Whip Robert McColley then spoke individually about efforts to pass Senate Bill 66, which addresses fourth- and fifth-degree felony sentencing and rehabilitation.

Eklund is one of the bill’s primary sponsors along with Democratic senator Charleta Tavares, who was in attendance.

Before Clarett, Mohr and Alt were called to the stage, a video played for the audience, showing highlights from the 2002 national championship game with Clarett’s 1,237 rushing yards flashed across the screen. Excerpts from the 2013 ESPN 30 for 30 film Youngstown Boys, which featured Clarett’s story, were shown with narration and the occasional interjection of Clarett or his coach at OSU, Jim Tressel.

“I can’t cry about it,” Clarett said in one of the excerpts. “I can only move on.”

The first question the moderator asked was to Clarett. It was simple: What went wrong?

Maurice Clarett (center) listens to Gary Mohr (left) discuss the TCAP program during the criminal justice reform panel on May 3 in Columbus. Credit: Sheridan Hendrix | Oller Reporter

He had told this story over 200 times before in other speaking events across the country, he estimated. As each of those past 200 times, Clarett spoke without a script or notes. He told the story of taking illegal benefits while a student-athlete at OSU, then becoming dependent on drugs and alcohol for two years and struggling with his mental health before receiving help from his warden at the Toledo Correctional Institute, Khellah Konteh.

Clarett said that when he first went into the correctional facility, it was an environment he wasn’t used to. As a boy growing up in Youngstown, he was used to being the toughest guy in his group, he admitted, but that wasn’t the case in prison.

Konteh taught a class that Clarett was enrolled in, and instructed the members of the class to read “Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah. It’s a memoir about a man in Sierra Leone — Konteh’s native country — who became violent through the nation’s civil war, but was rehabilitated and eventually spoke out on his personal experiences and the atrocities of war.

“After going through these classes every day, I was just tapping into something that I wasn’t tapping into before,” he said.

Konteh told him that in Sierra Leone, when men get in trouble, their village works to rehabilitate them and send them back out to do their work. In America, Konteh said, society takes the troubled individuals and throws them out. Clarett wrote in the Columbus Dispatch earlier this week that he knows what it’s like to be forgotten about, which is why he’s taking action in criminal-justice reform.

Mohr and Alt each said that many times with politicians, they look at numbers when contemplating criminal-justice reform rather than the faces of those incarcerated. Clarett is a rare case of someone who lost everything and was able to gain part of that back and give back much more to the community than he would have been able to give as an athlete. Clarett and the people of the women’s reformatory choir are the faces that Mohr, Alt and all legislators supporting Senate Bill 66 and TCAP want the public to see when considering prison reform.

“Maurice has lived it in his almost four years of incarceration. He understands,” Mohr said. “He is more influential than any politician because he has lived it and he’s real. He doesn’t have some facade. He’s real. Quite frankly, I think it’s much more effective than being a politician because I think Maurice’s story is credible.”

Mohr was appointed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich to the position of director in January 2011, and said Kasich told him that one of Mohr’s first tasks was to reform the Ohio prison system. Wednesday, Mohr spoke about giving communities the proper resources to monitor former nonviolent felons and develop job skills for future success.

“If we’re going to correct a problem, why would we invest the highest degree of dollars at the end of the problem? Don’t we want to intervene at some place where we can be more effective?” Mohr said.

Mohr added that the TCAP program would fall within a $60 million bi-annual budget that gives communities resources to find effective drug addiction treatments and develop job skills for roughly 3,400 families.

“It’s a win-win,” he said. “And think about it, the public and the communities become safer because we break the addiction cycle more effectively.”

Maurice Clarett continues the discussion of prison reform based on what he experienced while incarcerated for nearly four years. Credit: Sheridan Hendrix | Oller Reporter

Clarett said he’s not a political person — one that doesn’t take sides in an argument. He doesn’t align himself with a political party, not even as an independent. He speaks from his substantial personal experiences, which is why all of his speeches are unscripted. He said he’s able to connect with people on a more genuine level if they know he’s speaking as a human and not just someone pushing an agenda.

Yet, Clarett participates in these politically-motivated events because he believes in the cause from experience, not from data. He said he believes in the people, like the women of the Inside Out choir, because he was once that person needing to believe in himself.

During the Q&A session at the end of the event, a man, who was holding back tears as he identified himself as a formerly incarcerated man, felt inclined to get up from his seat to acknowledge Clarett and thank him for what he’s doing.

“It rejuvenates you because that’s why you do it. You do it to connect with people,” Clarett said. “You could go anywhere around the world, but that person will always talk about that experience you had with him. It’s a humbling thing.”

When formerly introduced as the “former Ohio State star football player,” Clarett is reminded of a time before things became bad, before circumstances spiraled downward with no end in sight. As much as he might want to put that time in the past, it has defined him. Not just in Columbus, but it has defined his platform and enabled his career to take off. As much as he just wants to be known as Maurice Clarett the entrepreneur, the philanthropist, his mistakes and shortcomings when he was known as a football player have allowed him to become the entrepreneur and the philanthropist. The man who thanked Clarett continued to tell the modern-day Ishmael Beah that better days were ahead for him.

Indeed they are.

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