Former NYS Corrections Officer uses the lessons learned while on the job - along with his photography skills - to impart important life lessons to school children.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that statement has never rung more truly to any man than it does to Lorenzo Steele, Jr., a former New York State Corrections Officer and photographer who is using his medium of choice to help guide young people on the straight and narrow path in life.
Steele, 50, a Valley Stream resident with his wife and children, said that he has held a deep love and fascination for the art of photography ever since he first discovered it in his early childhood.
“I was practically born a photographer,” he said. “The first time I touched a camera was when I was about six years old…my father played national-level softball, and my mother always brought a camera with her when he played. So, I used to go in my mother’s closet and play around with the camera – I loved to hear it click – but I didn’t know at the time that it would eventually be my gift, my craft.”
By high school, Steele and his camera were practically inseparable; he would bring it wherever he went, snapping random photos of whatever caught his eye. In school he took photography classes that further cultivated his natural talent, giving him the inspiration and technique to truly realize his artistic vision.
Later, he would work as an Aide in the New York public school system and then served as a Corrections Officer at Riker’s Island from 1987 to 1999; currently, the prison serves as a youth detention center, but during Steele’s tenure there it was a facility for housing adult inmates awaiting trial and sentencing for very serious crimes.
“Once I got behind those walls, I realized that it wasn’t just a job…it’s an adventure,” he said. “I was inside with actual bad guys…murderers, rapists, child molesters…anything you could imagine. And we had to watch over these men until they either were released or they were transported upstate to a permanent prison facility upstate to serve their time.”
Noting his impressive abilities behind the viewfinder, his bosses appointed Steele Riker’s official prison photographer; he was in charge of documenting various facility events on film (yes, this was the age before digital), and it was during this phase of his employment that he realized that the prisoners – and even the very structures that housed them – were themselves works of art just waiting to be captured by his lens.
“I just started taking pictures of the actual prison,” he said. “The cells, the barbed wire gates, the solitary confinement unit, the whole process – beginning to end – of coming through the system.”
After twelve years, citing the stress of the job, Steele left Corrections and embarked on a new chapter of his life; he started his own business utilizing the lessons he learned while working at Riker’s Island and imparting them upon impressionable young people in schools throughout New York, including many in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as well as ones in Brooklyn Queens as well.
However, simply talking can only do just so much, Steel noted, and it wasn’t long before he started to bring some powerful visual aids to accentuate his words…his collection of prison photographs, which served to paint a graphic, hard-hitting portrait of what life in “the system” it truly like.
“I realized that I worked at a job that the public didn’t know anything about, so I started going into local communities to bring awareness to people of what happens to people when they are behind bars,” he said. “At first, I would go to the schools by myself and tell the children to stay in school, don’t do drugs, the consequences of bad choices, things like that. But with these visual images that I have, I can show you what solitary confinement looks like, what an eight-foot by six-foot prison cell looks like. Can you imagine that? Go in your bathroom and hang out there for a while…that’s about the same size as your average cell.”
“I tell kids all the time to go home and sit alone in their bathroom,” Steele added. “They always come back the next day and tell me they couldn’t stand it for more than five, ten minutes. Now imagine going in not being able to get out for ten years in an environment where people are getting beat up, robbed, and raped.”
Steele has gone on to also hold exhibitions of his prison photography to rave reviews and large attendance. Clearly, this is a man who has an eye for capturing captivating images that tell important stories.
Mentoring young people to follow the right path in life is a passion and a calling that Steele said he is fortunate enough to have discovered in his life; just talking with the man for a brief period is long enough to realize that he means every word he says, and is dedicated to not only helping kids do the right thing, but also to stamping out the root of evil weeding its way into local neighborhoods as well.
"I definitely want to mentor children…I’ve spoken to thousands of kids, and the majority of them don’t even know [why] they’re going to school. But what’s going to happen if you’re grown without a high school diploma?” he said. “So, I focus on that, as well as drug awareness on Long Island…when I was younger crack was the big plague, but nowadays it’s heroin and opiates, painkillers. I’m tired of seeing young people overdosing, throwing their lives away. We need to educate our youth to make the right choices, and we need to find the people who are making the drugs that are poisoning our children – not just the street dealers, but the people growing it, making it – and stop them.”
“I’ve lived it, I’ve smelled it, I’ve tasted it, I’ve seen the consequences of those negative choices of those in the criminal justice system,” he said. “The kids that attend my presentations have to make a decision that day, and hopefully it’s the right one.”