NEW ORLEANS -- The suicide of 15-year-old Jaquin Thomas in a New Orleans prison has people asking questions about why it happened and if it could have been prevented.
There is some insight from a man who was mentoring the teen and who was given a letter with his final thoughts.
Ameer Baraka, a former inmate, and mentor to several inmates including Thomas, said he was overcome when he heard the news that Thomas hanged himself in his jail cell.
"I wailed. I weeped like a kid. I said, 'Oh my God.' And every week he was waiting for me," said Baraka.
For years, the actor, producer, activist, former model and author has been mentoring teens and adults in several prisons.
"I made a promise to God if he freed me from a 60-year prison sentence, which I was guilty of, I said, 'God, if you deliver me from this, I'll go back into every neighborhood possible and help as many kids as possible," Baraka said.
Before Baraka could get acting jobs, like on the Rob Reiner film 'Shock and Awe,' which is in production now in New Orleans, he did time in prison for shooting, killing and selling drugs. It was the only life he knew.
"The streets tell you, Meg, in order for you to be a real man, you gotta kill somebody, or if you sell dope, or if you beat your broad, or if you're robbing somebody, you're looked upon in our neighborhood as he's a real dude. Our kids are not being stimulated and therefore they're angry. They're mad and they will hurt you," he said.
Baraka was only 14-years-old when he first went to prison. Despite his dyslexia, he taught himself to read and decided to learn from men who had wisdom and had reformed their lives. Thomas read Baraka's autobiography 'The Life I Chose' about turning himself around. They bonded over the shared experience.
"It's the choice that you make. It's not your environment. See, your environment does not control your thinking. Your values control your thinking. So that's what I try to get these kids to understand," Baraka said. "So that's what we have to do as African-American males. We have to reach back and grab our boys because if not, the prison system will raise them or the graveyard will fill them up."
Baraka said Thomas was smart. His cell was filled with books. But he was scared of a life in prison and a future of being sexually assaulted by inmates.
"He cried a lot. He would tell me he cried in his cell, because if you cry like openly, you know, you're going to be preyed upon," said Baraka, who added about his time in prison, "I used to cry a lot as well."
Baraka said the teen knew he did wrong, robbing and killing a man that July morning in New Orleans East.
"He said, 'At first, my uncle had me going into stores just stealing.' Right? And he said he didn't want to do it. He said, 'My uncle would be mad at me.' You know what he told me Meg? 'I was only trying to impress my uncle," Baraka said.
After the suicide, the normally noisy cellblock was silent, Baraka said.
"Everybody just had the wind sucked out of them. One kid was Jaquin's really good friend. I mean, this kid was just, he was just in a corner with a sheet over his head just crying."
Orleans Parish Sheriff Deputies said Thomas left a letter about what Baraka's book taught him.
"When you realize that you want to make these changes, you should cleanse your heart and mind of all the negative energy in you and around you," Baraka read from Thomas' letter.
Baraka plans to share the letter when mentoring other inmates.
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