In 1975, shortly after beginning a sentence at Attica Correctional Facility that would last more than three decades, Ellis Stokely attended his first meeting of a prisoner-support group named Cephas. But when a fellow inmate in the group began talking about his upcoming release, Stokely quickly headed for the exit door.
"I’ll never forget it," he said. "He’s saying he’s going home next week, and I just got 25 (years) to life."
The Cephas facilitator coaxed Stokely into sticking around, saying he wanted to use Stokely as an example to deter others from committing acts resulting in long prison stays.
"I said, ‘How long you want me to do it?’ He said, ’25 to life,’" Stokely recalled.
To his great credit, Stokely maintained his Cephas affiliation during his entire time at Attica — some 31 years, ending with his release in 2006.
"I realized early in my sentence I had made a big mistake, and I wanted to correct it. Cephas was a good place to do it. They were honest, straightforward, truthful," said Stokely, who was imprisoned for his role in an attempted robbery that turned into a shootout and left one person dead.
Cephas — which takes its name from the Aramaic word meaning "rock" that Jesus bestowed upon Simon Peter — is a nonprofit organization dedicated to meeting the emotional needs of men and women in prison and on parole. It was founded in 1972, in the wake of the September 1971 riots at Attica, in an effort to provide more contact and guidance from people outside the maximum-security facility. Cephas now operates in several correctional facilities throughout western New York, including the Monroe County Jail. The multidenominational group is chaired by Brother Michael Oberst, a Franciscan from Buffalo.
Central to Cephas’ mission is helping prisoners learn about themselves and the underlying causes that led to their crimes, and take accountability for their lives.
"They teach you you’re the head of this vessel, that you steer this car. It made me step up; it didn’t make me pass the buck," Stokely said. "Cephas got me to deal with small stuff that’s really not small stuff — all your insecurities, shortcomings, shame."
In recent years Cephas has evolved beyond prison-visitation groups into operating transitional residences for parolees in Buffalo and Rochester; helping the reintegration process via support meetings in both cities; and offering a variety of family services. Another key component is Cephas’ educational efforts, through which many speakers — usually ex-offenders — share their stories in such venues as high schools, colleges and churches.
Since his release from Attica, Stokely regularly has served as a lecturer and group-discussion leader for Cephas and other organizations. He warns teens and young adults in particular about the consequences of their actions, drawing from his experience with "a five-minute decision that cost me 31 years of my life."
"You have no idea, when you’re 16, how important your choices are," he remarked.
Jim Horkheimer, chairman of Cephas’ Rochester chapter, maintained that there’s not all that much that separates prisoners from the rest of mankind.
‘"I arrived at the very clear understanding that everyone has the same emotions. It’s just that some people don’t react the way others do, and the way they do react gets them in deeper trouble as they grow older, and they eventually commit some kind of crime. Otherwise we’re the same emotionally," Horkheimer said. "Every human being carries a dark side. There isn’t a human being who doesn’t have it, and whoever doesn’t think so is fooling themselves."
Stokely, 59, has done a commendable job of shedding his dark side. A Brooklyn native who now resides in Rochester, he earned three college degrees while in prison and since has received several community awards. He maintains a positive attitude even though he entered Attica as a young adult and was released nearly at retirement age.
"There’s so many people who didn’t make it," Stokely said of fellow prisoners who died before their sentences were up due to age, violence, disease "and giving up."
Based on the odds that he has overcome, "I’m on the grateful side all the time," Stokely stated. "I am so grateful to be out there."
EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about Cephas, visit www.cephas.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 585-546-7472.