BM2 (SW) Jeremiah Dwayne Harris gives prisoners hope

Story and photo by MC2 (SW) Mark Logico

Navy Region Hawaii Public Affairs

When Sailors participate in community out-reach programs, they donate blood, are ambassadors to the environment, or participate in projects like Habitat for Humanity. One Hawaii-based Sailor is doing something else: he counsels prisoners at local correctional facilities.

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class (SW) Jeremiah Dwayne Harris, assigned to USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93), regularly meets with prisoners suffering from alcoholism and other addictions. To protect his counselees, Harris declined mentioning specific details such as locations and people from these correctional facilities.

“I’m not saying I’m a licensed counselor or anything like that, but I’ve been there, done that,” said Harris. “I give them a lot of food for thought, and I help them get established. I also try and help out with employment.”

During one of Harris’ first outreach efforts in 2007, he connected with a prisoner who was about to be released. The man, Harris said, was full of fear about getting a job in the outside world.

“In my visits, I found that it was a common thing with a lot of these guys in prisons and correctional facilities-validation at home,” said Harris. “Mother, father weren’t there or mom was drugged out, dad was drugged out. A lot of them had that common background.”

Harris said the prisoner he counseled was also never validated at home. He told Harris he didn’t feel like he fit anywhere and that’s why he joined the gangs and committed crimes. He thought he didn’t amount to anything until somebody else validated him after he did something bad.

Harris told the prisoner he would try something for him. Harris personally went to several places around town that were hiring and collected applications for the prisoner.

“After I got applications together, I brought them back to the corrections facility,” said Harris. “He filled them out. I then dropped them off to the managers and talked to them and tried to encourage them-this guy is a hard worker.”

Harris said he advised the prisoner to come up with a resume, a list of things he did with all the hours he worked while he was in prison.

“I told him to break down the hours, things that you did, things that you’re good at,” said Harris. “He wrote that down. He wrote it like a Navy evaluation. I helped him incorporate that and it worked.”

Through Harris’ suggestion, the prisoner discovered that he had more talent than he thought he ever had in prison. Harris said the employer received the resume and saw the hours the prisoner worked while in prison. The employer knew he was a hard worker, and looked past the fact that the prisoner was in a corrections facility. When the man was released in May 2008, the employer hired him.

“He is on his way, and I saw that it worked and that encouraged me to do more,” said Harris. Since 2007, Harris has continued to reach out to prisoners, counseling them on alcoholism and addiction. Harris sympathizes because he said he suffered from alcohol addiction as well.

Growing up in Columbia Ala., Harris began working at an early age out in the farmland to help pay the rent. At age 12, Harris drank his first beer.

“It tasted nasty,” said Harris. “It tasted like club soda and anti-freeze, but for some reason, the aftereffect attracted me. It gave me a different feeling. I wanted more of that feeling because I wasn’t getting t h a t feeling at home. D e e p down, that’s really why I started drinking. It gave me an escape. It put me in a different place,” he explained.

At age 16, Harris left his home to live on his own, sharing rent with several older men.

“I made enough to hold my share of the rent,” said Harris. “I lived there for a while, and I graduated high school, May of 2000, and two months after that, the place where I was working for went bankrupt so I got laid off.”

Unable to keep paying rent, Harris was kicked out by his roommates and he was forced to live in his own car.

“I had the brilliant idea of living in my car,” said Harris. “I was not going to go back and live with my mother. I had it all worked out. I would do odd jobs here and there, busing tables, things like that.

“At one moment, I thought I was going to die in my car. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I was wondering where to go,” Harris explained.

One day Harris needed to use a bathroom to get some water and clean up so he could go to another place to get a job application when he happened to come across a Navy recruiting office.

“I just happened to be at the right place and at the right time,” Harris said. Before long, Harris asked about the Navy and was surprised at what the Navy had to offer him.

“I asked, ‘What are the benefits,’ and they told me, ‘Well, you get a check, you get medical benefits, you get well taken care of,’ ” said Harris.

“‘You do get to eat. You get to shower. You get clothes on your back.’ ‘All I got to do is sign here and I get all that? I don’t have to work for like six years and hope that the pay comes up a little bit to get there?’ ‘No, all you have to do is join.'”

“Let me see what I can do here,” he said. “I used to sing for R&B and gospel. That wasn’t working out. Nobody wants to hear a song from a bum. That’s pretty much what one guy told me. So I cut my losses. And I told myself: let’s go ahead and do this.”

On May 31, 2001, Harris enlisted in the U.S. Navy and in the meantime, he was still co-dependent on alcohol. In October 2005, while assigned to USS Cole (DDG 67), Harris got in trouble due to alcohol abuse.

“That’s what pushed me to realize that something was wrong here,” said Harris. “I reached out to the command and they sent me to substance abuse rehabilitation program, and that program gave me more of an insight of what is really going on. When I first stopped drinking, which was Dec. 24, 2005, I thought I had a drinking problem, but, little did I know, I had a thinking problem. Alcohol was a symptom. I turned to alcohol, because in my mind drinking gave me peace.”

Harris continued to attend the rehabilitation program, when a friend in the program suggested doing outreach in a correctional facility.

“I went to a correctional facility and I saw the effects of prison and talking to them and how it helped them out,” said Harris. “I met people who were there for 20, 25 years, 30 years, and all they could do was take it one day at a time. For us to talk to them, not only did it give them inspiration, they gave me just as much inspiration. I was humbled to be there with them because it gave me so much help.”

Today, Harris continues to provide counsel to prisoners in local correctional facilities. He is currently leading a team of Sailors whose main duty is to preserve and maintain Chung-Hoon. He plans on becoming a master chief boatswain’s mate or a chief warrant officer boatswain’s mate in the Navy one day.

When asked about the prisoner he first counseled, Harris said the man now resides in Connecticut and has his own apartment.

“A couple of months ago, he was looking into buying a car,” said Harris. “It’s not the best of quality, but it was a point A to point B. He’s getting established. Along the way, he was keeping me informed of what’s going on with him and anytime he needed help, I didn’t mind jumping in there because I knew the effects of helping somebody. The effect of helping somebody is I’m blessed.”

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Category: News