“I grew up in the inner city. Hanging around with friends doing teenage stuff. That’s how I ended up getting in trouble. Police officers in Brooklyn wanted to arrest young kids for anything they did. Writing on a door with a marker. They’d arrest me and then I’d have to go through the system,” says Melshawn Baucicault, Case Manager at LSSNY’s Non-secure Detention Center.

He grew up in NYCHA housing, living with his mother once his parents separated. “I wasn’t a bad kid. I was always smart. I just hung around people in NYCHA and ended up getting in trouble. That’s all I knew, those were my friends,” he says.

As a youngster, he never had the opportunity to live in a non-secure detention center like the one where he currently works. He was placed in settings such as the now-shuttered Spofford (aka Bridges) in the Bronx, Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brooklyn, and the Brookwood Secure Center in Upstate New York. There was next to no interaction with the staff. The residents had histories of violent behavior.

“On June 4, 2010, I got out. That was the last of any type of involvement with the police,” he says. “When I was there, you sit there, you’re by yourself, you don’t have your friends or family by you. I’d think about how my actions hurt my family. My mother was able to sleep better knowing I was there. When I was outside, she always worried about my whereabouts. I’d think to myself, ‘You know, what I want is for my mom to stop feeling like that, to stop crying, because I love my mom a lot. I want different for her. She deserves better.’”

It wasn’t smooth sailing right away. When Melshawn left Brookwood, he got into occasional fights. His mother didn’t want to send him back to juvenile detention and called his father. That’s when Melshawn moved to Brentwood, Long Island.  “It was either that or she was going to call my probation officer or I’d be back in the streets,” he says.

At first, he didn’t like his new hometown. It was too quiet. None of his friends were there. His father was strict. His grandmother lived with them and cared for him. He started to attend school and was encouraged by his teachers — far more than he had been while in Brooklyn. Knowing that people really cared about him motivated him. “They just showed me a better and different way,” he says. 

The achievements kept building upon one another. Melshawn was awarded Student of the Month. He made the honor roll. He realized he was capable. He went to night school and passed his Regents. He graduated high school at age 19.

He hadn’t yet set his sights on college. But his guidance counselor posed a compelling question: “How about going to school for something that you love? It would be different.” Melshawn loves music. So they started looking up schools for the music business. “And I was telling him, ‘Sir, I don’t think I want to go away for school. I still have a little trauma. Those buildings look and smell like the secure centers where I had lived,’” says Melshawn.

They identified Five Towns College, a private college in Dix Hills, New York. He applied and was accepted. “I started meeting people, all walks of life,” he says. He transferred schools to join a fraternity — Phi Beta Sigma. He left school with an associate’s degree in business administration, with a concentration in the music business.

But that wasn’t all. “I didn’t want to leave there empty-handed,” he says. He applied to and was accepted by SUNY Old Westbury. He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology. The EOP program had helped him pay for both colleges. His family only had to pay for campus housing. That was the good news. The bad news was that his parents took out loans and didn’t realize that this would later appear on their credit reports.

After graduating, Melshawn worked at a young adult institution — a place for young people with disabilities in Queens. He loved being a direct support professional. He was let go after four years because of not getting vaccinated.

He researched job opportunities and discovered LSSNY’s Non-secure Detention Center. Fortuitously, his fraternity brother worked there. He knew Melshawn had been in the system. He also knew LSSNY needed someone like Melshawn who “had been in their shoes” — who could relate to the residents of the center.

Melshawn currently serves as a Case Manager. He schedules individual and group sessions with the residents. They talk about their plans for when they are released, about themselves, and about their families. Melshawn shares resources with them and speaks with their lawyers. He meets with the residents every day and documents their behavior.

“This program is inarguably one of LSSNYs most important programs, serving incarcerated male youth and offering an alternative to incarceration in a home-like setting,” says Rachel Bleecker, Executive Director for Residential Services. “Our goal is to help the youth placed at our program — who are disproportionately black and brown — to be heard, to feel understood, to heal, to return home, to course-correct and to hopefully avoid a life of poor decisions/negative outcomes,” she says.

LSSNY’s non-secure detention center has 12 beds. Some residents have their own rooms and others live two to three in a room. Primarily for ages 12–17, some residents range in age from 18 to 20 years old because they are dealing with cases from family court.

In just five months with LSSNY, Melshawn was promoted from Recreation Coordinator to his current role. Though it was clear that he was perfectly positioned to help the residents, the job required an MSW degree. The center’s director Ron Baldwin advocated successfully with ACS that Melshawn’s lived experience was just as valuable as an educational degree and that he should be considered for this position. 

“The experience from me being in their shoes makes it 10 times better,” says Melshawn. “Besides what I’m reading and what they’re telling me, I understand what they’re going through because I was on the opposite side,” he adds.

None of Melshawn’s success was assured. He says, “It’s so hard for someone to go from those types of settings and poverty, to throw everything behind them and do the right thing.”

Adds Rachel, “Melshawn shared with me that he was in the system himself as a youth and he was able to choose a different path due to the support of others who believed in him. Now, he strives to do just that and be the one to support other young men going through similar experiences to his. Melshawn also believes in the importance of education and currently is applying to MSW programs. He is just trying to juggle everything as he recently became a dad!”

Melshawn’s journey brought him to Brentwood where he found people who believed in him. Later in Brooklyn, he found additional support. “There are people who believe in our youth right here in Brooklyn and that’s where programs like ours show up,” says Rachel.

Pictured: Melshawn in detention at 16 years old; Melshawn taking graduation photos at SUNY Old Westbury.

Join us Tuesday, March 26, at 6 pm at our Virtual Town Hall to hear directly from Melshawn. Pre-register here.