Upon his reentry back into the community, Leviticus Mitchell discovered a passion for acting that he hadn’t tapped into before. Working with Manhattan Theatre Club, he now sees all elements of cinema just a little bit differently. “I got the eye for it…because when you’re acting, you learn all these different types of things,” he says, “The different games they play for sound effects, things like that. So, when [I] see it, [I know if] somebody did it wrong…”
Just as understanding the inner workings of theatre helps him see opportunities for growth in the field, his personal involvement in criminal justice similarly lends credence to his passion for systemic change. Leviticus is a project assistant at The Fortune Society, where he works in a number of different capacities to advocate for policy changes that affect people with justice involvement. From group facilitation to public speaking, his insight shines through, helping others see that on the road to criminal justice reform, we have a way to go. “When I came home, I didn’t know what a bank card was, or an identification card…,” he notes, “The system stagnated my growth. I didn’t really know what these things were because I was incarcerated at a young age, which was 14 all the way up to 19…” Lack of family support exacerbated this stagnation, leaving him at risk for recidivism or worse. It wasn’t until he came to The Fortune Society as an Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) participant that he began to discover ways to successfully navigate his future.
Fortune staff members like Substance Abuse Counselor John Cleaver helped him carve a path through the mire of uncertainty: “[John] was always on top of me about things,” Leviticus relays, “He actually helped me out with getting my high school diploma. I used to come here many times and just study with him.” These types of personal interactions are a common occurrence within the Fortune walls. When you’re here, you are not a number– you’re a person who deserves holistic care. It’s a stark contrast from the criminal justice system that consumed Leviticus’ life for a large part of his formative years. “Being incarcerated makes you feel numerous emotions,” he says, “…you feel degraded, you feel dehumanized, you feel stagnated, you feel confined…” Even moments of happiness, like when one is granted permission to go outside or roam freely among restricted prison facilities, take on new, bittersweet meaning. Regularly, Leviticus was perplexed: “What makes you happy [while incarcerated] are the privileges they give you, and that always got to my head. It was mindboggling. How could you feel happy about a privilege you should already be given?”
When one is stripped of their personhood this way, being able to make sound decisions upon community reentry seems like an unjust challenge. To make matters worse, stigma and discrimination can make reentry itself feel like a second sentence. “When people are released, they’re still being blamed for their mistakes,” Leviticus notes, “…they can’t get a job, they can’t support their families…” Without understanding support systems like The Fortune Society, it’s difficult to maintain hope and not fall prey to old habits. This is why, even after his time as a participant was over, he insisted on staying involved with the Fortune community. “I saw what Fortune was doing, and the fight and work they were putting in to not [letting injustices happen to other individuals with justice involvement]. I wanted to be a part of that. I felt that this was big; that this was history.”
Now as a Fortune staff member, Leviticus is making history of his own, using his natural charisma to humanize the criminal justice system and shine light on what needs fixing. Politicians like Mayor Bill de Blasio have taken notice, and he’s been invited to key events like the National Conference on Community and Restorative Justice, where prominent figures like Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins were present. Interacting with such legends in the fight for reform helped him see that, though there are still-persistent challenges, hope is found in the progress made thus far. “They were dreaming about this 50 years ago, …all these different programs and…things they could build to strengthen our communities,” he notes, “For them to be there and watch these things come into fruition, that’s big.”
More big progress will be made with Leviticus’ future plans, which includes combining his love for acting with dreams of continued change. “I already see where I’m headed,” he says with confidence, “I already see the things that I have to do, and I’m already in the lights and cameras.” Equipped with his powerful story, Leviticus is poised to become an even brighter light for change, helping others see that nothing, not even a broken system, can clip the wings of a determined spirit.
*Written by David Leon Morgan