ALBANY, Ga. -- Eleven years ago, Michael Severson was sitting in the same place as the students he was talking to Friday afternoon at Albany State University's HPER Gymnasium.
Severson, 16 at the time, was in his third year of attending ASU's National Youth Sports Program, a free summer program for low-income, disadvantaged children ages 10-16. The 35-year-old ASU program offers instruction in athletics and academics, as well as drug and alcohol prevention classes.
A year later, Severson was convicted for theft by shoplifting, a misdemeanor, according to Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul.
Severson, 27, who has been to jail four times in his life for a total of 4 1/2 years, talked about his experiences to a large, attentive audience of National Youth Sports Program participants. Wearing handcuffs, chains around his ankles and a bright red prison jumpsuit, Severson aimed to scare the program's participants into avoiding the same mistakes he made while growing up in Albany.
"When I finally got caught (stealing), I went to jail," said Severson, who gets out of prison in 2 1/2 months after serving a felony forgery charge. "I have a chance to live my life when I'm out. Jail's not a place to be, for real. Being in a gang is not a life. You hear from your friends that I'm with you, but once you get in there, you see who are your friends because no one comes to see me.
"I made a lot of bad decisions in my life, and, if I could, I would change them, but I can't. No one can," he added later in his talk.
To drive home his point further, Severson said, "They got me," and held up his handcuffs, "and they'll get you too!"
And if the handcuffs weren't enough, Severson brought out a brown bag to show the students what a typical lunch at the Dougherty County Jail contained. It featured two sandwiches usually made the day before an inmate eats them, one peanut butter and the other baloney; a small carton of milk, an apple and a cookie.
Sproul said Severson had asked him if he could speak to the NYSP participants when he learned Sproul would be speaking at the program. Severson told the audience that he recently started attending church for the first time in his life at the jail and that, "I feel like a better person."
"It's really important because if I can make a change for the younger generation, at least I know I did something positive," said Severson, who attended Monroe, Westover and Dougherty Comprehensive high schools but didn't graduate. "It makes me feel better knowing that I reached out to touch somebody to put a change in their life. When I get out, I'm going to start a teen program (called) Think Twice and Go Right."
Albany State NYSP Project Administrator Robert Skinner said having Severson and former inmate Donald Hart, who left prison two months ago, speak to the students was important. Skinner has coached ASU's women's basketball, volleyball and softball programs for the past eight years.
"I'm not doing anything wrong and it's frightening me," said Skinner, who has worked with NYSP for 20 years. "To hear those young men's stories you just wonder what are our kids thinking and why are they making the kinds of decisions they make. They're getting right to the point because this is the stuff our kids need. It's going to keep our kids out of jail or walking the straight line. You have a choice of doing it right or wrong -- there's no in between."
ASU National Youth Sports Program Liaison Officer Jesse Massey said the goal of Sproul's presentation was to "head off teenage crime problems within the city."
Hart's talk focused more on trying to inspire the students to reach for their potential. Hart, 50, left the Dougherty County Jail in April after serving a two-year sentence for credit card fraud. While incarcerated, Hart said he started mentoring other inmates about their choices and gave them spiritual direction.
"I'd rather pursue something great and fail than pursue nothing and succeed," he said to the crowd. "We are to do something great to achieve something great. ... You will not possess what you will not pursue."
Sproul started the program by talking about how his sister helped him to turn his life around. This happened when she told a store manager that she witnessed her brother stealing Reese's peanut butter cup candy from that store when he was 12 years old. As he rode his bike from the store with the candy in his pocket, Sproul soon was caught.
He remembered his father, a Marine, telling the police officer to take his son to jail since, "I didn't fight in Vietnam to raise a thief." The officer put the sobbing Sproul in the patrol car and drove about four blocks before stopping. Sproul's father was a friend of the store owner and had arranged for the police officer's response. The young Sproul later worked four Saturdays and did "whatever" the store manager needed him to do to pay his debt.
Sproul told the students that he never stole again after that day and loves his sister greatly for saving him from himself. The 1976 Albany High School graduate closed his program by encouraging them to call the Dougherty County Sheriff's Office if they ever needed anything "because we're here to help."
"I've got 920 people," in Dougherty County Jail Sproul said. "I don't need any of you locked up. If you want to get a free lunch, I'll lock you up and give you one."
This year's ASU National Youth Sports Program, which has participants from Dougherty, Lee, Terrell, Mitchell, Worth and Baker counties, concludes July 2. It has 450 students enrolled this summer in the weekday 7-1/2-hour program.