Omar Yamini speaks to an auditorium full of young people about his life experiences. His makeshift prison cell, which he often uses to visualize his message, is in the background. | Submitted
Omar Yamini, 40, stood before a captivated audience at Thornwood High School in South Holland last month. He was confined to a prison cell the size of a walk-in closet — made of PVC pipe. Yamini, who often speaks at school assemblies around the country, says he never talks to students without his makeshift cell.
“I had an experience in Englewood once at Paul Robeson High School, and the young people were very fidgety and not paying much attention,” Yamini recalled in a recent interview. “I came back about two days later with the cell and it was absolutely different. The students were engaged because they hadn’t seen anything like it.”
The cell is a reminder, Yamini said, of the 15 years he spent physically and psychologically confined to a real prison cell, and a warning for kids with wide eyes, alert minds and boundless energy that prison isn’t a place they want to go.
When he was 20, Yamini was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years behind bars for being in bad company.
“I was with a guy who shot somebody and I got charged,” Yamini said. “It’s what’s called the theory of accountability. You don’t have to be the person to pull the trigger. You can just be with somebody who did. That’s the essence of my mission — what I want to warn our young people about.”
Yamini uses his life — before and after prison — as an object lesson that gives human substance to the inanimate object lesson of the cell. Not only does prison confine you, he said, it also changes you in a deep way.
“My biggest mission is to help students identify the helpful and harmful influences in their lives,” he said. “If we can get our young people to identify those harmful influences, then that allows a teacher to at least have control of the classroom. That’s my approach.”
After his release from imprisonment in 2011, Yamini said, he had a hard time adjusting to his newfound freedom.
“I came home to a world I didn’t know existed when I left it,” he said. “For the first eight or 10 months after my release, I just had to get my bearings. I came home with no education, no work history, no relationship skills. I had no idea how to interact with women and children.”
After finding his footing, Yamini enrolled in Triton College before going on to the University of Illinois Chicago, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He wrote a book about his life in prison called, What’s Wrong With You! He also recently founded a nonprofit organization, Determined To Be Upright, to “remove the glamorization of prison life” for males, age 12-18, according to the organization’s website.
Yamini said his book, and a workbook that accompanies it, is taught in the New York City school system, among others around the country, and has also been used in classrooms at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Yamini said he’s looking to include his program in schools like Provisos East and West, where it doesn’t exist, but could be beneficial.
The makeshift cell, he said, is incorporated into his nonprofit organization’s curriculum, along with more affirmative experiences like field trips and group discussions.
The father of three said his goal is to help schools block the school-to-prison pipeline by giving the students themselves the power to prevent being victimized and swallowed up by a criminal justice system he describes as unfair and avoidable.
“Even though we know the criminal justice system does a terrible job with African Americans and Latinos, my approach is centered on what the young person can do to keep from inviting harmful influences into their lives so they won’t be put in the position of being mistreated by the police or a judge who may have an agenda.” VFP
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