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A former criminal teaches that crime doesn't pay
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Winfred Payne who runs Alternatives: A Program For Youth and some of the kids who come to the center. (Brandt Williams)
There are many organizations in Minnesota designed to alleviate socio-economic factors that some blame for the prevalence of crime in black communities. Then there are people like Winfred Payne. He uses his life experiences to set an example to young African Americans. He says making bad choices can lead to big trouble. For Winfred Payne, his choices led him to spend nearly half his life behind bars.

Minneapolis, Minn. — On this day, like many days, Winfred Payne is in motion. He's dashing out the door of his office to drive a few miles to pick up some kids whose mother can't bring them to his after-school program.

"I was locked up for 25 years, 6 months and 10 days"
- Winfred Payne

Payne says he's driven to help young people, because he doesn't want them to end up where he did.

"I was locked up for 25 years, six months and 10 days," he says.

Payne is 59-years-old. He's not a tall man. He doesn't have the stereotypical traits one might associate with an ex-con, like facial tattoos, scars or a beefy build. Instead he walks, talks and dresses more like a college professor than a former violent criminal.

During the late 60s and early 70s Payne became associated with a group affiliated with the Black Panther Party. Their crimes helped fund some of the Panther's efforts to feed and educate low-income African Americans.

"I got involved with a group of guys, whereas we robbed banks and did things across the country," says Payne. "We'd say we were doing it for the right reasons, but really a lot of the money went to us, but a lot of went to help the party and help people. It helped people. It helped black folk."

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Image Winfred and Son

He lived a very unglamorous lifestyle as he moved from state to state, town to town, robbing for money and hiding. He was eventually caught, then escaped -- twice -- before being placed in the federal prison at Marion, Ill. one of eight super maximum prisons he would inhabit for the next 25 years.

"Marion is a total lockdown penitentiary," he says. "It's where you're locked in a cell 23 hours a day. You're allowed out of the cell only one hour a day. You read books. Some guys go crazy. There's a high rate of suicide or attempts in Marion."

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Image Winfred Payne's son Eric and Bill Clinton

Payne read all kinds of books, but made a point to read about black history and culture. When he ran out of material to read, he wrote to pioneering pan-Africanist scholar John Henrik Clarke and asked him for more books. Clarke sent him the books and instructed Payne to pass them around to the other inmates.

He says Clarke inspired him to look at himself and other African Americans as Africans, as heirs to a rich legacy.

"I think learning that in prison helped to prepare me for doing what I'm doing right now," says Payne. "I think a lot of our children don't know who we are."

What Payne is doing now is running Alternatives: A Program for Youth. It's located in the Jordan New Life Church in North Minneapolis. The organization is not a faith-based group. Anywhere from five to 20 kids 'drop-in' to the space during the center's hours.

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Image Albert Moore and Derrick Wilson

"We learn how to work on computers and we learn teamwork and cooperating with each other and all that stuff," says Jasmine Beyers. She lives in Minnetonka, but her father drops her off here every day. Beyers, like all the kids who come here, is required to spend at least a half an hour with a typing tutor program before she can do anything else.

Beyers is also learning other lessons when she comes to the center.

"There's a lot more people on the streets, it's a lot dirtier and it's a lot more loud and noisy," she says. "And there's a lot more violence down here than there is in Minnetonka."

Beyers says Winfred Payne tells them there several reasons why some of her peers are out on the street: A lack of jobs, lack of hope and lack of role models to show youth that there are alternatives to crime.

He's trying to convince kids that the gangsters with the 'bling, bling' they see in rap videos and movies are not real.

"Most of these children look up to and revere old gangsters," says Payne. "And that's what they would say, 'yo, he's a real O.G.' And there's nothing beautiful or glamorous about being a gangster."

Payne concedes he has an uphill struggle for the hearts and minds of some of the young African Americans he meets on the street corners, in schools and in his center. As a young man he believed he was helping to mitigate the struggles of African Americans by robbing banks. As an elder, he's still trying to help his people, but this time through strictly legal means.

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