The GAP Origin Story
“We built GAP from scratch. It was improvised. There were not a whole lot of models for us. There was nothing we could find that fit our philosophy—to occupy, but not abandon the gang; to empower rather than to anesthetize. As a result, our program is not tried and proven. But GAP is based on a reality-based strategic plan. GAP is based on hope. We think that’s more than enough.“
Rhidale began collaborating with his friend Cedric Watkins in 2010 on what became the Gang Awareness Program (GAP), the first of many change-focused initiatives Rhidale would go on to develop and refine over the years. This is the story—in Rhidale’s own words—of how it all came about, as told to Adam Bradley in 2015.
You forget how much it really hurt. It was the beginning of 2010, and Cedric and I were both at our breaking points. We had been locked up since we were teenagers—I was seventeen when I entered prison in 1994—and now we were grown men, in our thirties. We each knew we were in here for a reason. We each knew that what we did could not be undone. Ced has more years in here than anyone in a normal lifetime could ever do, and I have life without the possibility of parole.
But we were in here suffering. I was suffering, but I couldn’t see it. I only realized it when I looked at Cedric and saw that somebody I truly loved was hurting. Looking at him was like looking in the mirror and seeing my own face. We both needed to find a way to deal with the pain. We both needed hope. No human being can live to suffer.
When we were on the streets, we were warriors. For as long as I can remember, I always had to fight. Sometimes the fighting was real—with fists and knives and guns—sometimes it was just in my head. That didn’t stop when I entered prison. Just because you’re locked up doesn’t mean you stop fighting. In fact, it makes you want to fight even more.
So there we were, trying every day to find a way to numb the pain. Prison hurts. The espoused theory of prison is to correct or rehabilitate, but the implicit goal is mainly punitive. It’s been that way for a long time. Every reaction here is like a sledgehammer swatting a fly; it carries so much collateral damage.
It doesn’t just hurt us. You never suffer alone, because you’re human and you’re connected to other people. When I suffer, my mother suffers. My brother suffers. My grandma suffers. I’ve lost relationships. I’ve lost so many loved ones, and they’ve lost me. Any connection I have with others causes them pain: dealing with loss of privacy, seeing someone you love in pain. I wish I could find some superhuman way to put it all on me, but you’ll never be in this place of pain and suffering all by yourself.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not questioning my punishment. I deserve it all. I can’t give my victims the days and the months and the years that I spend here, or replace the possessions or the people that I’ve robbed from them. I can only take my punishment, and try to live a better life.
I’m still here. I still have to live with being me. Being me behind bars means being labeled: the DOC calls me a murderer, an offender, a felon. I’ve been or I am all of those, but I still have to find a way to be me. People like me, locked up behind bars, we’re still people—real people. You can’t manage me like a thing without causing more pain. Men are not meant to be controlled; we’re meant to be influenced. If you want me to do something different, if you want me to change, then you need to influence me.
The Gang Awareness Program (GAP) was born out of hope, but also out of desperation. We had to find a way to alleviate the pain. In the absence of a clear solution, people look for alternatives—sedatives that get you through the day, or anesthetics, which make sure you don’t feel anything at all. Cedric and I were done with sedatives; we were done with anesthetics. When they don’t work, you either die or you come up with a real solution.
When Ced put in the proposal for GAP, he was testing to see if hope could be a reality for a gang member in prison. If there wasn’t going to be any hope, if they denied the proposal, then that gave us carte blanche to say: Hey, check this out. We’re done. We’re going to make this as painful as we can for you, too. I’m not proud of it, but that’s what we were thinking at the time.
Thank God there were people in DOC that were willing to give us hope. A good many people in DOC recognized that the other kinds of programs weren’t working. They saw the promise in our vision.
So that’s when it all began. We had to create a legitimate reason to hope. I’m not looking to create another sedative or an anesthetic. We have all of these programs that give just enough, but they’re not a salve for the pain. We had to think deeply about where this pain was coming from, what comprehensive things that we could do.
As strange as it might seem, Ced and I had been preparing for this opportunity for our whole lives, even when we were on the streets. Nothing that we’ve done has ever been small. We’re leaders on a large scale. So when we thought about GAP, we thought big. If someone went through this program, then they couldn’t call us an ex-anything: ex-con, ex-gang member, whatever. You don’t call a butterfly an ex-caterpillar. It’s just a butterfly. That’s what we wanted to do with this program. Make butterflies.
When someone leaves GAP, you have to call them what they are: a true, responsible, loving person. That’s what we’ve challenged people to take on, to be who you truly are: not what you’ve been, not what someone labels you, not your crimes alone, but the true person that you’re meant to be.
After hours of thinking over things with Ced, we came to a conclusion: the pain we felt derived in large part from competition over scarce resources. It comes down to assets and liabilities, to borrow some investment terms. I need to stop drawing my identity from the liability side of things, and instead draw it from the asset side. If I grow, then there is no limit to my potential. You can discover who you are and pursue it and create an abundance of opportunities for others along the way.
Cedric and I were thinking big. We told ourselves we were going to create something so great, so dynamic that it will allow us to grow bigger than our circumstances. GAP could go nationwide, then worldwide. It could change the game. What would it take to transform dudes that come from where we come from and have little to no abilities and skill to take on what we’ve taken on and make it even greater than ourselves? We set extremely high standards, focused on our leadership and our influence.
We figured that the first thing that people have to give up in GAP is a sense of victimhood. You may not have had all the advantages that other people had, but the one thing you always had was a choice. You still have a choice. When you’re aware of your humanity, your free will, then you have the ability to change.
The narrative that comes from prison is this: if they didn’t keep the gates up it’d be pure anarchy. But the majority of the people here are civil. There are some sickos, no question. But when it all comes down to it, if you give a person the choice of shame or redemption, most people will choose redemption. Most people want to care, to contribute, and to change for the better. Sure, you have to be really patient. People don’t change over night. It has to be incentivized. You need the right people, the right resources. But when an inmate changes, the only reason that we’re amazed is that we’ve bought into the myth of their inherent criminality.
So there we were with Cedric coming back from his meeting with the prison administrators. They said come back in two weeks with a plan. Ced, me, and another friend, Shane Davis, came up with a plan. They thought it had potential. For the first time that I can remember, I felt a kind of freedom. What resources do you need, they asked me. What will help? The main thing I needed was access to a computer, so they enrolled me in a pre-release program. Every afternoon, I’d sit there with folks that were preparing to leave and return to society, something I could never hope to do. I’d sit there and use Microsoft Word and PowerPoint to build my documents.
But the administrator that oversaw the pre-release program wasn’t too pleased that I was there. Every night I’d save my documents, but every day that I returned I’d find that they’d disappeared. They’d been erased. It wasn’t too hard to guess who’d done it. Instead of admitting defeat, though, I took that as a challenge. So every day, I sat back down to recreate what I’d written the day before. And every day it just got stronger. Before long, I’d start handwriting the drafts so that I’d be sure to have copies. That’s how GAP’s first instructional documents were born.
The other challenge was the meetings. As the program’s organizers, Ced, Shane, and I had to meet periodically with the prison staff. At this time, it was unheard of for a convict with our reputation to be talking to any law enforcement. To keep our credibility, we had to make sure that all of our meetings with prison staff were conducted in wide-open spaces where the general population could see us. After the meetings were through, we had to report to the guys on the yard so that there were no conflicts or misunderstandings. It all had to be transparent to keep our credibility.
Yes, we wanted to counter the prison culture, but we still had to live within the prison’s rules—both those of the institution, and those of the yard. The biggest thing was developing ownership in GAP among other inmates. We needed to train ourselves out of a job.
But how could we make this dream a reality? It had to start with the other guys. Before they could learn anything about GAP, they had to learn everything about themselves. Who are you? What matters? What are your values? What are your goals? What would keep your motor going without being told what to do? Most important of all: What do you love?
That’s the question we started with. What do you love? You got people from rival gangs, different races and cultures. We realized that what everyone has in common is love. What do you love? When we asked that simple question, answers started coming back fast, and a lot of the time they were the same. I love my family. My homies. My girl. My momma.
As the instructors, our job at first was to take it all in. Let them know you’re listening, that you care. Ask them questions in a sincere way. When you do that, they open up. Emotion overrides logic. I don’t mind talking about what I love if I know that I’m safe.
Once we got them talking, we’d ask a follow-up question: If you love them so much, how are you showing your love? Pretty soon, people would realize that they were showing their love in all the wrong ways: by taking, by breaking. Guys would realize that they were showing fealty and devotion to something they didn’t create—and, worst of all, to something that was tearing them and the ones they love apart. GAP promised to give them something more. Committing crimes and resorting to violence is not it. What are you creating, man? How are you showing your love?
The first people we recruited were shot-callers. We found the winners in the gang. You’re a factor. What are you going to do with your influence? Aren’t you supposed to have a direction, supposed to show others the way? Give your homie a better option. Act from a place of love. We had to get as many likeable leaders as we could, factor individuals that people could root for on our team. That’s what that first group was. We challenged the hell out of these people to do something they’ve never done before. We had three people drop out in the first three weeks. Those early weeks were about introspection, and it was hard work. One of the three came back into the fold, though. We never gave up on people.
Once we established a baseline, then we started working with the guys on some common sense next steps. There are a lot of rules in prison, but there’s no rule against doing right. If we actually do something to give value to everybody, who’s going to stop that? Our results actually show it makes a difference.
The way that we set up the classroom learning environment was strategic, too. We used music to set the tone. Some Pac. Maybe some R&B. Even some metal. We just set the mood. We were telling them: We relate to you. We understand. This is your space. Everybody who comes through the door, you’re greeted—that handshake, that homie love. For Ced and me, it was about using our leadership skills. That’s what we were doing, bringing them into an environment that’s cool, not just your average classroom. We didn’t want people going into classroom mode. Once we saw people going into classroom mode, we’d challenge that.
Simultaneously, we had to train the prison staff. They gave us intermittent supervision, which meant that there would be a staff member present from time to time but not throughout the entire session. They gave us enough freedom to train ourselves and to enlist staff that believed in the cause. We found some champions. Because we introduced them, we cosigned for them, the participants were cool with it. They’re with us. It’s confidential. We even got the staff to sign confidentiality agreements, that they wouldn’t use anything said in the meetings for intel purposes.
A typical classroom session would include a mixture of lecture, discussion, and group activities. We tried to keep the lectures interactive. We used visuals. I was doing most of the teaching, but when I need a dose of the real I’d call in Shane or Ced. We set it up to where there’s one facilitator and then there’s someone doing documentation (evaluating people’s interest and activity in the session), and someone watching for body language. The goal was to make sure that people are actually learning and keeping it real.
One thing we had to learn a lot about very quickly was how people learn. We recognized differences in people’s learning styles. Some were hands on, others were just listeners. A lot of these guys have ADD—maybe throw in a few more Ds for good measure. We built in enough breaks to keep things fresh, and keep folks focused. The information sessions were as brief as possible, especially when we were getting really technical. Sometimes I would exceed people’s capacity on purpose, though. I told them that it was just like lifting weights; you have to exercise that muscle, pushing yourself beyond your perceived capacity. You’re about to do my job. You’re about to take over. These are the tools. I’m giving you the game.
The first GAP curriculum was focused on training leaders. You can’t give what you don’t have, we told them, so make sure you have something. From there, we moved onto the components of the actual program. What are our tools? How do we do assessment? We had to test them to find out if they were actually delivering the material effectively. The development process began after they became certified as peer facilitators. We spent a year or so developing that first group as leaders: getting better at team processes, learning how to do better communication, how to deliver the classes. That was the first class. Now we’re at a turning point; it’s time to make GAP what we know that it can be.
We built GAP from scratch. It was improvised. There were not a whole lot of models for us. There’s nothing we could find that fit our philosophy—to occupy, but not abandon the gang; to empower rather than to anesthetize. As a result, our program is not tried and proven. But GAP is based on a reality-based strategic plan. GAP is based on hope. We think that’s more than enough.