WORCESTER - A few years ago, John W. Cormier Jr. was an up-and-coming jail gang leader on the fence about reforming his life.
A conversation with Derrick Kiser, he said, changed everything.
"It touched me in ways I can't even explain," Cormier said from a stage Monday at Quinsigamond Community College. "From that moment, I was able to walk away from that lifestyle."
Cormier is one of millions across the country who landed in jail following addiction or mental health struggles. He is one of thousands in Worcester County local authorities are trying to reach by partnering with Kiser, a founding member of the city's first gang who, later in life, is working to prevent youth violence.
"It's time to build bridges," Kiser told students and faculty at Quinsigamond at a program that featured speeches from some of the county's top figures in criminal justice.
Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis and District Court Judge Timothy M. Bibaud took turns at the lectern talking about their efforts to reach people struggling with mental health and substance abuse.
Each agreed that the vast majority of people that cycle through the prison system struggle with one, and often both, issues, and noted the importance of trying new collaborations.
"It's crystal clear that trying to incarcerate away an addiction is beyond comprehension," Bibaud, the top judge in Westborough District Court, said. "Why we even discuss it is mindboggling to me."
Kiser, a co-founder of the Kilby Street Posse in the 1980s and 1990s in Worcester, now heads Fresh Start 508, a nonprofit that works to curb youth violence largely through mental health awareness.
Kiser, as he often tells people he meets, began his speech Monday by stressing the common human bond of mental struggle.
Mental struggle has no color or creed, he said, and helping those suffering from trauma - as well as reducing the stigma - is central to reducing crime and creating a more healthy society.
It's a message that Early, Evangelidis and Bibaud stand behind, delivered from a source they noted Monday is uniquely positioned to have impact.
Evangelidis noted that Kiser, who he has tapped for some jail programming, has "instant" credibility with many inmates by virtue of his past.
That was the case for Cormier, who, going on three years sober, said Kiser's heartfelt discussions about his past helped him see he could extricate himself from his jail gang.
"It was huge," he said, crediting Evangelidis for bringing Kiser to the jail and for other programming the jail offers.
Cormier said the jail's STOP program - a six-month, intensive substance use disorder rehabilitation program - was integral to his success.
The program, Evangelidis and others said, is one of multiple collaborative efforts aimed at helping people turn their lives around or prevent them from turning to crime in the first place.
Early, noting he ran for district attorney 15 years ago on a platform of prevention, said he understands how traumatic events in childhood can influence later mistakes in life.
He said he and Evangelidis are working to implement a "Handle With Care" program that would partner with high schools on giving students dealing with particularly difficult circumstances some leeway.
For example, if a child's parent overdosed the night before, Early said, law enforcement could work to ensure high school staff are aware of the traumatic event and can be sensitive to the student's situation.
Early said data indicates children who see drug use are much more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.
"That is something we have to prevent," he said, adding that the pandemic has brought mental health concerns to new levels.
"People are more argumentative. People are out fighting more," he said. "We're seeing a great propensity for violence."
Early said he sees Kiser as an important voice in the prevention conversation.
"There isn't anyone else in the community like Derrick," he said. "What better person to talk about (these issues) than a person who has lived the life, and experienced trauma firsthand."
Kiser thanked Early and the others for their support. He said while he has some disagreements with law enforcement, partnerships are key to change - as is self-reflection.
Pulling up his muscled arm, he pointed to the tattooed names of friends he said were lost to gang violence.
"I have 12 dead brothers on my arm. A police didn't kill not one of them," he said. "We have to start looking in the mirror, too.
"We've got to stop the generational trauma we pass down."
Kiser said he didn't grow up planning to start a gang as a kid. But the violence and drug use he witnessed at an early age, he said, led him down a dark path.
Judge Bibaud, who started the county's first drug court in 2014, talked about the hard work that endeavor has taken. While it's been difficult and required a lot of ad-libbing, he said, 64 of the 66 graduates have yet to reoffend.
'This is what's going to change the dynamic," he said, referencing efforts to collaborate with people like Kiser.
Early said removing the stigma associated with drug and mental health struggles is, in his mind, the most important step.
Doctors treat the issues as diseases, he said, and the criminal justice system must do a better job of offering compassion within the law.
Bibaud spoke of his own personal story. His daughter earned high marks in college, he said, before struggling with an addiction to painkillers.
"It was a process of helping her get well," he said, adding she is now four years sober and helping to sponsor others.
Bibaud thanked Evangelidis for the work he is doing at the Worcester County House of Correction, saying the sheriff's programming has been indispensable to his drug court efforts.
"If I don't have that resource, I'm not sure I can be successful," he said, adding that tackling mental health and substance abuse issues require "complete buy-in" from the whole system.
Evangelidis detailed several programs he runs in the jails aimed at supporting inmates' mental health, including music, culinary and dog adoption programs.
"The officers say the blocks have never been safer," Evangelidis said of the lower-security jail areas where dogs have been utilized.
Cormier praised staff at the jail for grasping his hand when he reached out for help.
"They make you feel like you're human," he said.
Cormier, who has always loved music, said that program in particular helped him think twice about misbehaving in jail.
"(I would think), 'I've got a concert coming up,'" he said, before evaluating some of his decisions. "It gives you something to stay out of trouble for."
Cormier thanked those in the Hebert Auditorium Monday for their efforts to reach people in jail and help them overcome.
"Everybody who's here right now is a part of the solution," he said.
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Worcester DA, sheriff, judge talk mental health awareness with former city gang leader