At-risk youths lead from 'corner to coroner'

Unusual effort to reduce violence

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Twelve young adults meet a great-grandfather, a wisp of a man, in the lobby of the Allegheny County Jail. He leads them into the facility.

The hallway echoes. As the youth are ushered down the stairs to a room where contact visits are allowed, their voices bounce off the windows.

They sit in the visitors room, their bodies oversized for the chairs that are fitted for small children. Disney drawings line the walls.

El Gray works to get kids back on track with tours of the jail, the morgue and the cemetery.

Two inmates walk in.

Dude called Tiger stands to talk with the students.

In jail practically all of his life, he has been shot five times.

He's now serving 25 to life for drugs.

"America, it is free. Land of I do what I want. But in here, I can't do nothing," says the inmate, Leonard T. Smith, standing and staring straight at the youths.

Prison is not a place you want to be, he says. He's watched dudes get raped and killed.

He then holds the back of his head. There's a metal plate there, a result of an injury sustained when he was caught in the middle of a gang fight.

"You get in these institutions, dog, and you ain't guaranteed to go home. Somebody will stick a pen in your neck because they don't want you messing around with somebody else on the floor."

This is the first stop on a circuit "From the Corner to the Coroner," led by El Gray.

Mr. Gray is program director for One Vision One Life, an Allegheny County program that aims to reduce street violence.

About four times a year, Mr. Gray gathers the young men -- and women, too -- who few want to be bothered with. Most have dropped out of school, many have been in trouble with the law. They come from Youth Build, Out of School Youth and Independent Living, all neighborhood programs that support school dropouts with academic, social and employment enrichment.

He takes them the places where few voluntarily go: the jail, the morgue, the cemetery.

As of Friday, there had been 78 homicides in the county this year. Sixty-two have been black lives; 56 of those were black males. Many of those charged with the deaths are also young, black males .

Mr. Gray is sick of it.

"I'm out here because of a sense of social responsibility," he says, crossing Second Avenue while holding up a right index finger to hush a conversation so he can answer his phone.

"I see my sons and my grandbabies about to come into some of these situations and I have do something."

He also wants the children to know the truth: "It's hell on the streets."

Ervin Dyer, a former reporter for the Post-Gazette, already is dreaming of his next adventure in Africa. He can be reached at .


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