Beyond the Bars Alumni Highlight: Kevin Mays

March 28, 2024

Kevin Mays became a Beyond the Bars Fellow right after he came home from prison in 2019. He is now a Beyond the Bars Senior Fellow, advocate, and so much more. Read his story below. 

  1. When did you do the fellowship and what was it like?

I did the Beyond the Bars Fellowship in 2019 soon after I got home from prison. That year, we helped with planning the Beyond the Bars Conference and I did a Sunday workshop about authentic reconciliation. In prison and when I came home, I knew I needed to create a safe space for men to talk about how we have experienced violence and harm ourselves so we can move forward as healed people. Abandonment is an issue for a lot of men. I was removed from my mom’s house and placed in foster care when I was younger. It was foster home to group home to juvenile detention to prison for me. As a child, I felt abandoned. I didn’t know where my family was. All children need to know they can be loved, and that made me question why this was happening to me and why no one was loving me. So that turned into anger and that anger led me to the streets. That fueled my mentality where I would hurt other people and not care and not be connected to community. So it was important to me to create a space for men to work through those feelings and take accountability for the harm we have caused and also repair it. 

  1. What led you to apply for the fellowship?

Greer’s father, Eddie Ellis, was my mentor in prison. When I was inside, I played basketball and one day Eddie came up to me out of nowhere and said “Son, you aren’t going to the NBA, so what are you going to do after prison?” He gave me a book called From Superman to Man by JA Rogers. The book is about a white racist senator who met a porter on a train and tried to debate with him. The Senator couldn’t believe how he was so well tailored and had an answer to everything he proposed. He showed the Senator that his preconceived notions were a lie. That book blew my mind. The Senator could not come to terms with the man’s intelligence and proficiency. He was seriously affected by that. My friendship with Eddie led me to become a part of the Resurrection Study Group in prison and I started to become more socially and politically aware. It motivated me to get my Bachelor’s degree and an associate degree in paralegal studies. It helped me understand I needed something practical to sustain myself and that I wanted to further my education. When I came home, I knew I needed to find Eddie’s daughter. We were both at a rally on 145th street and I overheard her say her name was Greer so I told her about how her father impacted me and that I had just come home. And she encouraged me to apply for the fellowship. 

  1. What was the biggest thing you gained from the fellowship?

I met a bunch of folks who were pursuing careers in social work, law, etc. and I learned the importance of meeting other people who have the same beliefs and ideals as yourself and how important it is to continue contact and communicating with them. That in and of itself is very important. Having community is important and being able to rely on each other to support each other’s work is a great resource to have. All of the fellows have expertise in a lot of things and it’s so important to have access to that. You never know who you are going to meet.

  1. Share more about your life/work after the fellowship

My first job home from prison I worked for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and did legislative advocacy with the HALT Solitary campaign. I am now a Senior Case Manager for the Doe Fund where I have a caseload of 40 men and use motivational interviewing to help them achieve some of the goals they have set for themselves to be productive members of society. I am also a co-chair for the Survivors of the System support group for people who have come home from prison. I’ve worked for several campaigns in Albany passing bills. I received a lot of my training for organizing from Center for Community Alternatives and other sources. I’ve testified in front of congressional committees and spoke on several radio shows and to law students. I also worked for a bit on Rikers Island in one of the most violent buildings and spoke with people incarcerated there. 

My passion is to help other people who have social deficits who are struggling to address them to no longer hurt other people and take accountability and responsibility so they can move forward. Because that’s what helped me. I’ll never forget, my daughter came to visit me and I came down with shackles on and I said to myself that I need to be a better example for her. So while in prison, I created and developed a 16 week Program called "Reconciliation" that addresses pathological anger that adolescents and young adults suffer from that stems from their primary and secondary stages of growth & development. The group brought in parole commissioners to give them the opportunity to see us doing the hard work to better ourselves. I also created a parole preparation workshop for men who were getting ready to appear before the board to support them as they prepare their packets and prepare for the interview. We also started researching and challenging the Parole Board’s methods, and that has continued since I came home. 

  1. What led you to apply to be a senior fellow?

I told Greer when I first met her “whatever it is that you do that I could bring value to, I want to do that because of what your father gave to me”. And I’ve been here ever since. I love to broaden and expand people’s perceptions about things. I love the opportunity to educate students on the impact of incarceration and correct people’s misconceptions.

  1. What have you been able to do and learn as a senior fellow?

I support Greer every week with the planning and implementation of the weekly fellowship meetings and offer support to the fellows throughout their time in the fellowship. I have gained facilitation skills and recently facilitated a session on legislative advocacy. I have learned how to share my wealth of knowledge well with others. I have improved a lot in being able to share what it is that I want to share in a shorter amount of time. Greer has shown me that my experiences matter and also listening to and making space for other people’s experiences does as well.

  1. What advice would you give to current and future fellows?

It is important to embrace the people they meet here who share some of their same beliefs and try to facilitate a relationship with them. We will share a wealth of knowledge and expose them to information they may not have known, and it is super important to show up and engage in order to get the most out of the fellowship that they can. The fellowship will help them be able to challenge and articulate what they actually believe. I have seen so many people leave the fellowship knowing more about the issues and understanding what their role in the movement is. It’s an ongoing process though. It’s not learned in one fellowship, but we are giving them the skills and setting people on the path to that process. The cohort we have now is so smart and has such a grasp of the facts and the history of this country and how these issues manifest systemically. They have a lot of knowledge and self awareness of the differences of how people are treated and they are not afraid to question that. The younger generations seem so much more educated and willing to challenge what they are taught and that gives me hope.