From Inmate to Inspiration: Man Helps Prisoners and Youth Turn Lives Around

John Valverde spent 16 years in prison, now focuses on helping improve the lives of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and at-risk youth.
John Valverde spent 16 years in prison, now focuses on helping improve the lives of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and at-risk youth.

By Christopher Zoukis

John Valverde is living proof that second chances are possible, and that the criminal justice system needs to be about more than just punishment — it should focus on rehabilitation and facilitating successful re-entry for the legions of ex-offenders who will eventually rejoin their communities.

Valverde this year becomes CEO of YouthBuild USA Inc., a network with a global organization of programs for low-income youth, which provides education, employment, and other opportunities to help them become leaders in their communities. These programs are important on both a local and global scales, as in the US alone there are more than 2.3 million youths who are not in education or employed, and whose prospects of becoming successful adults are pretty grim.

Valverde is certainly a good candidate for the position, and youth from troubled backgrounds appreciate the candor with which he shares his story. He was sent to prison in his early 20s after killing a man who was accused of raping his girlfriend. The man was a serial sex offender, on probation for two other sex offenses at the time. Valverde spent 16 years behind bars, during which time he felt remorse for his crime, and sought opportunities to better himself and those around him.

He earned two degrees — a Bachelor’s in Behavioral Science from Mercy College, and a Master’s in Urban Ministry from the New York Theological Seminary. He also taught other inmates how to read and write, acted as an HIV/AIDS counsellor, and lead initiatives to create educational programs after the elimination of TAP and Pell finding. The Certificate in Ministry and Human Services, today called Rising Hope, still continues in several New York State prisons. And he co-founded Hudson Link for Higher Education, which provides college education, life skills and re-entry support to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women, from which more than 450 students have graduated.

After his release from prison, Valverde worked as a paralegal before going on to work for The Osborne Association — a New York organization that provides treatment, education, and vocational services to current and former inmates. Their mission is to help these individuals transform their lives, and to serve the community by reducing crime and its human and economic costs. The Osborne Association offers a broad range of programs that serve more than 10,000 people each year, including programs on economic independence, health, connecting families, and strengthening communities.

Now at YouthBuild, Valverde will continue his work to provide much-needed programs that build strong communities and give tools to some of society’s most vulnerable. The program started in 1978 in East Harlem, where a group of teens rebuilt an abandoned tenement. It now encompasses 250 programs around the US, and more than 80 programs in 21 other countries. Each helps to provide at-risk youth with the skills they need. Many participants work toward finishing their high school diplomas while learning skills through hands-on projects such as building affordable housing or participating in other community services. Participants are also offered leadership training. Valverde brings a lot to the table through his previous experiences and youth find him relatable. He is an example that no matter what you did before, you can always turn your life around, create a worthwhile future, and make a difference.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.