When Sebastian Longstreet ended up in Stateville Correctional Center for selling drugs, he started talking to the man who indirectly led him to prison in the first place: His father.
Longstreet’s path to prison began when he was about 12 and his father was incarcerated on a life sentence for murder. Wanting to help pay the bills, Longstreet turned to the drug dealers to cash in on their business that was an all too familiar presence in his Austin neighborhood.
“They were like older brothers and sisters,” he said. “So I never looked at a drug dealer as a bad person, just a person who stood outside all day.”
Longstreet began selling drugs, his main product being heroin. He also committed other crimes, like robbing fellow drug dealers and stealing cars. Police caught him several times as a juvenile, then at age 17, he was sent to Stateville for two years.
Once he arrived in prison, he heard from his father again. It was through a process inmates call flying a kite, that Longstreet and his father exchanged about four notes between Stateville and his father’s prison.
Now a free man, Longstreet said he is reluctant to talk to his father again.
“I’m not ready to see him…I know I disappointed him,” the 21-year-old said. “Because I was always like his little rocket scientist. Like I was always his child that was supposed to grow up and go to college and do all these great things.”
After his two-year prison sentence, Longstreet decided he couldn’t go back. So instead of standing on the street corners of Austin selling drugs, he went to The Peace Corner Youth Center, a nonprofit that serves as a safe recreational space in his West Side neighborhood.
Founded in 2002 by Father Maurizio Binaghi, The Peace Corner offers community youth summer and after-school programs, including activities like basketball, academic tutoring, and using the computers. More than anything else, it offers kids an opportunity to escape the criminal activities on the streets outside, and allows them to forget being in "survival mode," said The Peace Corner's executive director, Steven Hartley. He said the center also teaches them the concept of respect.
"If kids are here in a place that respects them, has them feel like they own this place, and gives them a sense of pride and self-worth, they're less angry," Hartley said. "They feel better about themselves."
Once they learn how to respect others and are respected at the center, Hartley said, there is a bigger chance children will take those lessons with them to the streets.
The Peace Corner also provides job training, employment resources and assistance to ex-offenders such as record expungement and job placement.
Once former drug dealers gain the skills to get a crime-free job, Hartley said, they are less likely to go back to their old jobs.
Longstreet learned of The Peace Corner from his friends and once he met Binaghi, he joined the center's job training program. He later became a staff member. As a youth supervisor, he said the center serves as a refuge for children who often can't find a safe place to play.
"It's a safe haven for people who are not cut out for the streets," Longstreet said. "Because there are really no safe places you can go, like either you stay in the house and hope your house doesn't get shot up or you come to The Peace Corner."
When it comes to keeping kids away from the street, Hartley and Longstreet have similar approaches: They do what they can but know change doesn’t come easy.
As a former drug dealer, Longstreet often has an advantage when helping out youth who are currently drug dealing. He said he helps out those who are more open to switching lifestyles, but he also gains respect for his own transformation.
“If I could get the kids to understand what I know now, maybe there’d be a lot less drug dealers and a lot less violence going on in the community,” Longstreet said.
His next goal is to attend Dominican University and major in computer science with a minor in social justice and civic engagement. Still, becoming a reformed role model for the kids in Austin is a new beginning in itself.
"I'm actually helping the community,” he said. “I'm giving back, after all the years of destroying it."
Photos by: Lucio Villa