Sam Lewis grew up in the 80’s in South Central Los Angeles, at a time when gang culture was at an all time high around that area. Sam was convicted of first degree murder at the age of 18 and was sentenced to 15 years to life. Sam was denied parole 8 times throughout his time in prison and eventually was released in 2012.
Growing up he recalls having his father around until he was 7 years old, at which time, he left him and his mom. Sam remembers his dad beating his mother and it impressed on him a belief that that was how one dealt with anger and fear.
His role models growing up were all in gangs, that was the life he was living. He looked up to those who taught him how to rob, fight, and sell drugs. By the time he was a teenager, he was completely immersed in the gang lifestyle. He was shot several times, had his house shot at, and was committed to criminality. At the age of 18, he committed murder in the midst of a gang rivalry.
A month after he was incarcerated his daughter was born, she never knew him outside of prison. Sam didn’t decide to change right away, he had a few instances of violence inside of prison, and wasn’t thinking about how much this affected him and the people around him.
There was a moment after his 7th year of incarceration, his mom came to visit him and she brought his daughter. This was the first time his daughter had seen him behind the glass. She was worried about him and asked why he was there and what he did wrong? That was a big moment for Sam, realizing how much it affected his daughter and everyone else in his life. He decided to make a change for himself and the people he loved in his life.
The first time he went in front of the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) was 10 years. He knew he was putting half effort towards his freedom. They denied him the first time for 4 years. It wasn’t until about 2 years into that denial, that he started joining self help rehabilitative groups and worked to facilitate actions to de escalate violent situations.
He joined the “We Care” program in 2005. We Care brought young kids into Soledad and gave them a chance to tell their stories. He and other leaders in the program would explain to them how they could handle difficult life situations and taught them how not to make the same mistakes they had made. Sam found his calling here and he really enjoyed helping the youth figure out how to get out of or make the best of bad situations.
Sam was denied seven more times at the parole board. He finally was released from prison on January 12th, 2012. He was a little overwhelmed at first, but finally got to spend time with his daughter, his mom, and the rest of his family.
Sam cut ties with all of the gang members he was associated with and although it was a hard decision, it was one he needed to make. He was a “ranking” member at that point and other members saw it as disrespectful and he thought they might kill him because of it.
Sam started to spread the message that he was once the problem that tore the neighborhood down, but now would build his community up stronger than ever. He was speaking at an event and a long time local reverend, Chip Murray, had a conversation with Sam and told him to never stop telling his story, he found it incredibly powerful and valuable to the community.
After his release, Sam quickly started volunteering at an organization called Shields for Families, that helped 16 to 25 year olds get out of difficult situations in tough neighborhoods. Sam was doing such good work with them that his volunteer role quickly turned into an unpaid internship. Eventually, he met someone from the Friends Outside program for a paid internship. Sam couldn’t believe he could get paid for something that he loved to do.
Eventually, through some mutual friends, Sam was introduced to a movie producer by the name of Scott Budnick. Scott asked Sam to come work with him at the Anti Recidivism Coalition (ARC). Sam quickly rose through the ranks and eventually became the Executive Director where he serves today. ARC has done tremendous work with the currently and formerly incarcerated. Since Sam’s arrival, they were able to pass Proposition 9 which gives the ability for juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole to go in front of the judge and demonstrate that they are worthy of a second chance leading to helping 350 young people.
As ARC’s Executive Director, he also started the Second Chance Bootcamp, where ARC takes recently incarcerated people and teaches them how to live and work in society. When they graduate the bootcamp they are offered a union job. The Second Chance Bootcamp has helped hundreds of people.
Today, Sam continues to fight for criminal justice reform, and is doing everything in his power to help the youth in California to understand they don’t need to continue down the path they are on. He wants people to know that change starts within and helping the people in our communities has a snowball effect for transformation on a macro level. To learn more about the Anti Recidivism Coalition and Sam visit their website at https://antirecidivism.org/