by Chris Levister
(NNPA)—He is the host of “Judge Mathis,” the wildly successful syndicated court television show named after him. But few people realize Judge Greg Mathis was once a convicted criminal who did hard time. Now the jurist known for his tough, take-no-prisoners mantra in the courtroom is determined to break the cycle to keep other young Black men out of prison.
“Over 25 years ago I was sitting where you are—angry, beaten down and locked up,” Mathis told a rapt audience of inmates recently.
Mathis fulfilled the deathbed wish of his mother, Alice Mathis, to change his path, with the compassion of a judge who ordered him to get a GED and educate himself as part of his jail sentence.
“I walked out of prison, I got a GED, bachelor’s and a law degree. I used that same courage when the roadblocks of life came my way. I didn’t punk out and return to my old ways in the ’hood. I didn’t blame the system. I told myself if I can be strong behind bars I can be stronger outside,” Mathis told hundreds of inmates at Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Ga.
Currently, Mathis is visiting prisoners and jails throughout the country talking to inmates about his rise from jail to judge.
Through his Prisoner Education, Empowerment and Respect Program also known as the PEER Initiative, Mathis is spreading the message that success is still possible through education and determination.
“Your plan should involve finding your talent, developing that talent and working hard to become successful. But you gotta change your life.”
He called the prison industrial complex “modern day slavery” and criticized state and federal prison officials for selling prison labor to various companies for less than a dollar a day. Mathis points out that Black men are 60 percent of the prison population and also talks about the trap of bad schools and no opportunities that often results in African- American men being in prison. He said statistics reveal African-Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 6.5 times of White males. At the same time they make up approximately 6 percent of the population of the United States.
He said the majority of those incarcerated have a history of joblessness, a lack of education, and return to prison within 18 months of their release.
“When you take away the jobs you undermine America’s future. It used to be that a Black worker could secure a stable job in one of those blue collar industries and work their way into middle class. Those days are gone.”
Gary Jameson is a 27-year-old former gang member who grew up on Detroit’s Rutherford Street in the shadow of the Mathis Community Center. He moved his family to Rialto in 2009 following General Motors unprecedented crash and massive worker layoff.
He says Mathis helped him turn his life around after he served 11 months in a Detroit jail for simple possession of marijuana.
“He would show up in the ’hood and ask ‘Why aren’t you in school?’
“We would make up excuses and act like we were sick. He would bust out laughing and say ‘stop lying brother, I used those same excuses before I got thrown in prison more than 25 years ago. We were shocked. He would tell us about how he was a gang member who dropped out of school, and was in and out of jail and how he overcame that life.”
Jameson is currently employed at an auto parts store. He says this fall he plans to enroll in an electronics program at Valley College in San Bernardino.
“The wonderful thing about the Judge is that he knows the streets, but he also knows what it takes to get out of the slums of Detroit—hard work, education, determination.”
The 49-year-old Mathis was the youngest person appointed to Michigan’s 36th District Superior Court. The NAACP Image Award winner and his wife Linda, founded Young Adults Asserting Themselves, Inc. The program works with Rev. Jesse Jackson’s RainbowPush organization to provide mentorship to nonviolent offenders and assists individuals in a janitorial entrepreneurial training program and the Second Chance Through Expungement program to expunge their criminal records if they stay crime-free for five years.