Making the right choices – ACI forum enlightens RIC students

RIC students enter the ACI.
Twelve RIC students piled into a non-descript blue van outside Rhode Island College’s New Residence Hall around 8 a.m. on Sept. 29. Coffee cups were still in their hands as they tried to stifle yawns. Someone in the corner was quietly finishing off a bagel, and everyone was in surprisingly good spirits considering they were heading to the John J. Moran medium security prison of the Rhode Island Adult Correction Institutes (ACI) in Cranston. The mood would soon change.

They were the first college students to take part in the Zero Fatalities Project – an educational forum with prison inmates with the aim of reducing offenses in young adults.

Since the program began in May 2008 the inmates of the ACI have addressed nearly 3000 people, mostly high school students. The program is a collaborative effort of the Attorney General’s office, the R.I. Department of Corrections and other state offices.

ACI panelists Adam Ragusa, left, Jacob Bilodeau and Ryan Wright.
On the prison grounds the students felt confines of the prison, with it's 15-foot high fences garnished with coils of razor wire. Upon arrival, four guards from inside the fence briefly eyed the students before returning to their duties. Each student was security screened, passing through a metal detector, before being allowed to enter the prison through a series of motorized security doors operated by unseen guards, leading students to the visitors area, where four convicts were waiting for them.

The first panelist to speak was Adam Ragusa, 24, who has been jailed since he was 19. After a night out drinking in Providence, he turned the wrong way onto I-95 and caused a fatal crash. Adam woke up in the hospital with broken bones and a court date, which resulted in a sentence of a minimum of nine years in prison for a DUI, with death resulting.

“There’s no excuse,” said Ragusa. “I always heard about it but I thought it wasn’t going to be me.” Ragusa told students how the whole experience felt like a bad dream, one he couldn’t wake up from.

ACI panelist Brandy Graff
In contrast to the stereotype of a young delinquent, panelist Brandy Graff, 24, had a 3.4 GPA studying at CCRI and was working part-time to pay her way through school when her life changed forever at age 18. After she spent the day drinking on the beach with her friend, Graff killed two elderly women in a head-on collision when she was driving home.

“I ruined peoples' lives because I was selfish and stupid,” said Graff, in a speech about how she hurt, not only her victims, but also their loved ones, the community and her family. “Take something from this today,” she told the audience, “help someone make the right choices.”

Students also heard from Jacob Bilodeau, a college graduate serving eight years for driving to endanger, with death resulting. Unlike Ragusa and Graff, Bilodeau was sober during the incident that landed him in the ACI. During a bout of road rage, Bilodeau put on the brakes to scare a driver, who swerved off the road resulting in a fatal crash.

“Doing the time is the easy part,” said Bilodeau. “I crumble inside every time I hear about another crash, they devastate communities. I have to live with that.”

Fifty teens are killed in Rhode Island every year by drunk driving. This number doesn’t include those who are injured, in a coma or paralyzed.

“A split second is all it takes,” said Ryan Wright, 18 years into a 40-year sentence. “These little choices are easy to make, but don’t lie or make excuses. Remember the door is always open here [at the ACI].”

At right, Ryan Wright shows students the prison yard.
Wright was 16 when, drunk at a party, he and his friend stole a firearm from a gun-cabinet and after an altercation, his friend shot and killed the party host. Though Wright didn’t pull the trigger, he was charged with several felonies, including larceny, breaking and entering, conspiracy and theft of a firearm with intent to commit a violent crime.

“I was selfish and egotistical, I deserve to be in jail,” said Wright, who said he has now spent as much time in the ACI as out of it. “Think everyday about how precious every moment is. Never take them for granted, cherish the opportunities you are given and make the right choices.”

Wright has spent the last several years studying for a degree in social work in a program where convicts serving at the ACI can take one course a semester at CCRI. He recently earned his associate’s degree.

“The most interesting aspect of this project is the human interaction,” said Lorenzo Crumbie, A RIC resident assistant who coordinated the event. “It gives students a side of the drunk driving story that you can’t read about in a textbook or see on a billboard.”

Jay Sullivan, assistant attorney general
The forum included a presentation by Jay Sullivan, a Rhode Island assistant attorney general, about the perils of the everyday choices and how those seemingly innocuous events can radically change lives.

Sullivan said deaths as a result of drunk driving are caused by three factors – alcohol in the blood stream, the speed of the car and not wearing a seatbelt. In the last three years, he said, only one teen in Rhode Island has died as a result of drunk driving while wearing a seatbelt.

Through his work at the attorney general’s office, Sullivan has prosecuted many of the cases where defendants have been charged with a DUI resulting in death. He said the worst thing about these cases is that often the victim is the defendant’s friend in the seat next to them or innocent strangers going about their daily lives.

Though the students were somber, pensive and attentive, they were still unprepared when, without introduction, Daniel Converse took the stage. He told the audience with raw heartache the story of his 16-year-old son, who died three years ago in a car crash. His son’s best friend was drunk behind the wheel.

RIC students react to Daniel Converse's speech.
“Close your eyes,” said Converse. “Imagine the person you love most in the world standing up here in my shoes, talking about your death. Imagine them picking out the clothes you were going to wear at your funeral.”

The visible pain the audience could see in Converse, or perhaps the harsh reality of the lives destroyed and the communities devastated by drunk driving, drove some to tears.

Students left the ACI feeling a change in perspective and emotionally drained. “I see a lot of drinking and driving around student life,” said Zuleyma Gomez ’12. “Probably because of the new freedoms students are given. I think more students need to see this.”

The Zero Fatalities Project began in April 2008. The ACI visit was made possible by the RIC offices of Health Promotions and Residential Life. For more information on the Zero-Fatalities Project, click here.