Open doors, open eyes and change lives

'Rewilding' project is taking a formerly incarcerated young man into the wilderness for a life-changing trip

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(From left) Anthony DeJesus and his best friend rapping in front of DeJesus' apartment; DeJesus, Jesse Spiegel and Vitek Linhart meet for the first time as a group; DeJesus and Spiegel in the Shawangunks climbing area in New York.
Jesse Spiegel

Thirty minutes outside New York City, on the road to the Shawangunk Mountains in upstate New York, Anthony DeJesus turned to his travel companions and said this was the farthest he’d ever been outside the city. Born and raised in the Bronx, he’d joined a gang as a teenager and been incarcerated for dealing drugs by his 20th birthday. His outlook on life was as narrow as the space between the buildings and pavement that surrounded him.

Jesse Spiegel knew there could be another way. He was in the van with DeJesus that day, taking him on an initial exploratory outing to preface a much longer trip that is hoped to be the pilot project for “Rewilding,” a program that would take incarcerated adults far from those city landscapes and into a wider view of the world.

“Because of their surroundings, these guys, they hardly leave their block, and they’ve just got no access to see or experience anything different than that, so how could they possibly know anything other than that?” Spiegel says. “If you’re not shown or don’t see or experience anything else, then you’re not aware of it. You can’t envision yourself doing it, and I think by getting himself out of that by showing him that there are other ways… I think it’ll broaden his horizons and awaken a sense of potential.”

Spiegel also grew up in New York City and watched, as a teenager, as the district attorney and judge gave the nod to drop charges on him when he was arrested for fighting. He was lucky, Spiegel says, to have parents who told him to put on a suit and sent him to court with a lawyer. The kid he’d been fighting faced real penalties for the same crime — and anywhere else, the whole incident might have been ignored as teenage mischief. It was just the first in a series of signs that led Spiegel to see the justice system was broken.

“We are penalizing kids for making childish mistakes,” he says. “I was a kid when I did those things. I’m a totally different person now.”

Policy changes in the 1970s led to an unprecedented increase in incarceration rates — and no real increase in public safety, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, non-partisan research and advocacy organization founded to document and publicize mass criminalization. The U.S. incarcerates 716 people for every 100,000 residents, a rate five times higher than most other countries, despite having a comparable crime rate, the organization states. The runner up is the United Kingdom, with 147 people incarcerated for every 100,000. It’s an expensive correctional system — running as much as $100,000 per year per criminal at some institutions and totaling $75 billion nationwide — that often fails to really change behavior. Based on the research compiled for Rewilding, 75 percent of incarcerated men will be re-arrested within five years of their release.

Spiegel was lucky, too, that he had parents who spotted a need for the great outdoors in him, and sent him to climbing camps in Colorado, and that turned to college in Denver. When the former startup entrepreneur sold his company and spent two years traveling and rock climbing and searching for what to do next, he thought of how to reach back into that city and help a few other kids who hadn’t been so fortunate to climb out. That was how he met DeJesus, doing administrative work for a transitional program in New York City and spotlighted immediately by the director as a great spokesperson for what was hoped to be a growing program.

In all of the individuals considered for the program, Spiegel says, he saw a deep, innate desire to spend time in the woods.

“There’s this primal thing in them that’s just itching for it. They’ve never been out there — they want to get out there and build fires and eat bugs,” he jokes. “I think it’ll have an amazing effect, I know it will.”

The plan for this summer is a dream roadtrip: load into a van and spend six weeks traveling around the western United States, driving from New York to Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah and then back to New York to climb, camp, fish, practice yoga and learn about permaculture and sustainability. DeJesus, Spiegel and Vitek Linhart, a former professional skier and outdoor educator, will travel together, joined by filmmaker Matt Corliss, who will record their journey for a web series and documentary film. Doug Metzger, who worked on Dances with Wolves, The Italian Job, Aspen Extreme, City Slickers and White Fang, has also signed on to produce the film.

They’ll live at an eco-village in Oregon and climb with “dirtbags” in Utah, Spiegel says. Perhaps as influential as the things they do and the places they go will be the people they meet.

“Just interacting with people in a loving way I think is very foreign in that [inner city] community,” he says. “Everybody yearns for that, I think, and by not only exposing them to experiences but feelings and awakening all that, it’s going to awaken a sense of potential.”

The plan has been well-received by the transitional organizations. Their response, Spiegel recounts, was “I don’t know how you’re going to fund it, we don’t have the funding for it, but if you can do this for our guys, we think it would be outstanding.”

Seven of them have signed on as partners.

The hope is that this year is just the beginning, and that the web series will pave the way, financially, for more participants and, eventually, the Rewilding’s Alternative Adventure Retreat, a full-fledged alternative approach to transitional therapy for formerly incarcerated adults: one that looks to the outdoors and uses wilderness experiences and an education in sustainable living to give them a much broader perspective on the world.

On that first trip into the woods in upstate New York, to camp and climb, Spiegel says, he could see the difference it was making for DeJesus.

“What you saw was mostly in his eyes, it was mostly him gazing at things and taking things in,” he says.

“My whole life, I’ve been boxed in,” DeJesus says in his introductory interview for Rewilding. In foster care, he was labeled as a runaway risk and was left in a room with no windows. At one point, he was institutionalized in a room with a window so high he couldn’t even look out of it.

“Growing up in my community if you weren’t tough you couldn’t survive. The things you did made you tough — being violent,” he continues in that video. “The amount of money you had made you feel tougher or like you had power. It’s not. It’s doing other things, being open to other things, other knowledge is what really gives you that power, and what really makes you tough, to say, ‘Hey man, this makes me happy. This makes me a stronger person.’ … I always wanted to see a mountain. I’ve seen buildings. I’ve seen streets, I’ve seen all these things in the city. It’s nothing new. … It’s about legacy. I want to be able to say, ‘You can do it. I’ve done it, and I came right from where you’re at.’”

His journey is set to begin in mid-July.

Visit www.rewildingthefilm.com for additional information and a trailer.