In December 2014, Maurice Clarett spoke at a correctional facility in Marion, Ohio. There, the former Ohio State star running back sparked a relationship with Gary Mohr, the Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction over prison reform discourse.
On Wednesday at the Riffe Center in downtown Columbus, Clarett is one of four speakers — along with Mohr — as a part of the U.S. Justice Action Network’s discussion on Ohio’s options to improve public safety and overall effectiveness of its justice system, per the release.
“It opens the conversations to ‘Hey, not everybody needs prison,’” Clarett said. “When guys seem to get in trouble, it’s not like a one size fits all. It’s not like, ‘Hey, throw them in jail and everything will be repaired.’ It’s really setting that extra layer of offering some sort of deterrence and redirection.”
Clarett was a member of the 2002 OSU national championship team, then found himself in trouble and was eventually kicked out of the program. He spent three-and-a-half years behind bars at Toledo Correctional Institution on charges of aggravated robbery.
That’s where his life began to change.
Khellah Konteh, warden of Toledo at the time, was arguably the biggest influence on Clarett and the reason he was able to turn his life around. Konteh placed Clarett into programs where Clarett began to feel a purpose. Clarett said that Konteh told him that he believed in him and made him feel appreciated, which helped him to assimilate into a brotherhood through rehabilitation.
“He ran the prison right,” Clarett said. “If you want to look at the model example, you can look at Kellah Konteh. He was the warden of the year for a reason. Just the way he engaged with guys and tried to rejuvenate their lives and just so much stuff he did. I can go on and on and on, but the man changed my life.”
Once he was released from prison, Clarett began speaking to high school students, which evolved into larger groups of individuals and eventually sparked a cross-country tour in 2015 to football programs such as Florida State, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi State and TCU.
In June 2016, Clarett opened an intensive outpatient program known as The Red Zone, which offers alcohol and drug addiction treatments and mental health problems among other services. The Red Zone works with roughly 300 families, and houses 30 men and 15 women.
His speech on Wednesday serves as one of several steps toward a goal of community integration for people when their sentences end and a more centralized focus on rehabilitation for criminals.
In prison, if you don’t get it yourself, it’s not going to happen. And the prison doesn’t do a great job of creating circumstances for you to grow. I can speak to that from experience. – Maurice Clarett
When Clarett was released from prison, he said, there wasn’t anywhere for him to turn to except the same areas where he would continually get into trouble or areas that had a criminal mentality. That experience made Clarett realize that there are other circumstances at play. Some people who continue to go back to jail aren’t necessarily given a chance based on their circumstances. Without the appropriate resources, how can these people change and stay out of prison?
“Our society can be better and open to accepting more people who have felony convictions or different hindrances,” Clarett said. “There is a lot of laws that are in place — like MDO (major drug offender) — there’s a tremendous amount of laws and a tremendous amount of languaging that goes in place that shouldn’t necessarily be in place … There needs to be more professionals inside the system. There needs to be more social workers inside the system. It’s kind of insane to believe that the gentleman or the woman who happens to be the correctional officer, who happens to have the most contact with the inmates, happens to be the least educated.”
The Red Zone is located in Youngstown, Ohio — Clarett’s hometown. He splits his time between his roots and his current city of Columbus. A native of Canal Winchester, nearly 20 miles outside of the city, Clarett sees a lot of the same problems in Youngstown present in Columbus. In 2016, Columbus’ homicide rate was seventh highest in the country and the city has one of the nation’s largest opioid problems.
Among several social constructs that factor into criminal activity, Clarett said education is one that correlates to abusers of alcohol and drugs and those with mental health issues.
“Society is such in a way that if you don’t make it to college, you’re almost forgotten about. If you don’t make it to college, either community college or state college or university of some sorts, society just doesn’t have any resources for you,” he said. “Guys that have been left out that don’t have guidance, and they’re done with high school, they’re in between jobs, they don’t have a set of skills, and for whatever reason, things just break down and they just can’t piece this thing together … There are places to help you develop if you’re stuck in that rut. Prison often isn’t the best platform for guys to spring from. Prison is often one of the worst places to go to learn more about what you’ve learned before to get you into that space.”
Clarett doesn’t claim to be knowledgeable on the facts and the studies of prison rehabilitation. That’s where Mohr and Robert Alt, president of the Buckeye Institute, factor into the discussion. Clarett said what he can do is tell it like it is from his personal experiences inside and outside the system.
While Clarett continues to lecture on prison rehabilitation reform, he said he is working toward a degree at OSU.
“I’m working with an individual down there right now to finish my degree,” he said. “I’ll knock out some coursework at Columbus State this summer … I probably got two-and-a-half years left. I completed some work while I was in prison, but the ultimate goal is for me to come back and finish at Ohio State.”
Clarett said he does not have a set graduation date or a selected major at the moment. He is planning to take classes that cater to his skill set, such as business, social work, education and other subject matter.
Wednesday’s speech is one of many ways Clarett has impacted communities since his time in prison. He said he never thought he would turn out to become an inspirational speaker, but there come responsibilities with his platform as a recognizable athlete and someone who has witnessed the prison system in America from both sides.
He’s trying to do right by those opportunities.
“In prison, if you don’t get it yourself, it’s not going to happen. And the prison doesn’t do a great job of creating circumstances for you to grow. I can speak to that from experience,” he said. “Hopefully we can create a different platform or a different layer that can assist guys and getting out of prison and moving forward to allow them to not perpetuate the same things that have been going on for the past 20 to 30 years.”
The event is scheduled for 5-7 p.m.