Ex-Con Larry Lawton Finds Redemption in Rescuing At-Risk Youths
"They were telling me to curse more," laughs Larry Lawton, right, whose body is tattooed with ink from melted chess pieces, applied with a guitar string.
Lawton's story isn't very funny. He robbed $15 million in jewels, a cut always going to the Gambino crime family, and ended up spending 12 harrowing years in federal prison. But today, Lawton runs a program for at-risk kids. People can change, he tells them, as he rips off a button-down shirt to reveal his bulging tattoo-ed arms.
Lawton can joke about his story now. He's told it enough times, to TV audiences, to teens and young adults, in a book, and possibly soon in a movie and TV show. Lawton is a professional cautionary tale.
How To Be A Jewelry Thief"I'm not proud of it, but I was a bad guy," says Lawton, about his years as a criminal. "I put guns in people's faces." Growing up in the Bronx, New York, Lawton was swept into organized crime at a very young age. Lawton was already taking bets from the neighbors on sports games, when he says that he was sexually molested by a priest at age 12. After that, Lawton gave up on church and school. He got heavily into gambling, and then stealing to feed the addiction -- first little stuff, then cars.
Lawton ended up robbing jewelry stores for six years, and living a life to show for it. He had horses, boats, homes, a private limousine and, he adds, a very attractive younger wife. "I had money, power, I guess. I felt like Hugh Hefner," he says, adding with a laugh, "I wish!"
The FBI busted Lawton when he was 34. He was ultimately convicted of racketeering, beating a life sentence because he'd been armed with just a BB gun. He wouldn't have ended up in prison at all, he claims, but "I wasn't a rat."
Changed By The Horrors Of PrisonLawton spent 12 years bouncing around some of the country's highest security prisons, in Lewisberg, Pa.; Jesup, Ga.; Yazoo City, Miss. His accounts of that time are devastating. "I was tortured. I was stripped naked, strapped down, peed on by guards," he says. Friends died -- some from medical neglect, he claims, some by suicide.
He was moved so far from his family that his son, Larry Lawton Jr., who was six when his father went away, only remembers being able to visit him once, although the two exchanged letters everyday.
"He always told me when you're older you'll understand," says Lawton Jr., now 23, who was told his father was on a business trip for the first nine months of his incarceration. "When I was young all I wanted was to grow up and find out what he did and why."
Lawton says he traveled Con Air -- the nickname for the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation system -- 16 times, and learned not to eat before takeoff. "When you're on that plane, you can't s***, and you're on for sometimes 12 hours," he explains. "I watched a guy almost die, his appendix rupturing or something, so that was real sad."
When Lawton got out, in August 2007, he moved into his parent's home in Florida. A friend reached out right away -- for a favor. Expecting to be asked to "break someone's legs," Lawton responded: "Come on, I just got out of of prison, leave me alone."
But his friend wasn't asking him to return to the old life. His son was smoking weed, he explained, and he wanted Lawton's help to get him to stop. So Lawton pulled together some photos of his time in prison, and spent a few hours telling the kid about his experiences as an inmate. Two weeks later, Lawton says that his friend called him back.
"I don't care what you do with your paralegal degree. You gotta help kids," Lawton says he was told. "My kid changed."
What's The Most Important Thing In Your Life?Soon Lawton was getting calls from other parents, asking for his particular brand of child-intervention. Lawton decided to develop his technique into a fully-fledged program. And so "Reality Check" was born, both as a live show and a DVD. It's different from other intervention programs, run by counselors or cops. Lawton is an ex-con, telling the story of his own life: the abuse he suffered in prison, and everything he lost, like the opportunity to go to his grandmother's funeral, and watching his two children grow up.
Even Lawton Jr. says he stopped messing around when his father came back when he was 17. "I've changed my path as well," he said. "I'm on a straight edge." "Gangster Redemption," filmed a reality TV pilot, and is in talks with TV networks and film studios.
Lawton wanted to fix the prison system, make it more rehabilitative, more accountable and less cruel. But that's a daunting task. So Lawton found another way to get at the same problem: prevent kids from making the choices that land them in prison in the first place.
A couple of times, Lawton has asked kids at the beginning of the session: What is the most important thing in your life? People would answer, "I want to be a rap star," he says, or "I want to have the biggest house on the block." After the program, the answers are almost always the same: my grandma, my dad, my brother, my mom.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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