The Right Message, the Right Mentor

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About Dante Cottingham #259241
At the age of 17, Dante Cottingham was charged with party to a crime of homicide, waived to the adult criminal court system, convicted, sentenced to a lengthy term of imprisonment and then transferred to an adult maximum security prison. He's currently serving his 18th year of incarceration in the New Lisbon Correctional Institute. While incarcerated he obtained his paralegal degree. He has thoroughly researched the social and legal elements of the history and development of juvenile justice in the United States. Research combined with his experiences has turned him into a passionate advocate for juvenile justice reform in America. In this blog, he describes what inspires him to create the IOU future program. He spotlights the details of the program and shares with us why he thinks it will be effective.

The Right Message, the Right Mentor

By Dante Cottingham

Like walking through a forest in the middle of a moonless night, unable to see properly I tripped and fell, made bad decisions, and took wrong turns throughout my childhood. I began running away from home at age 12. I joined a street gang, began skipping school and selling hard drugs when I was 13. I dropped out of high school in my freshman year at 14. At 15 I'd been in Juvenile detention homes on several occasions and was eventually sent to Lincoln Hills, a prison for juveniles. After being released 6 months later, at 16, I re-adapted many of my old ways, at 17 I learned my girlfriend was pregnant, just 2 months later I was arrested, charged as an adult and convicted of party to the crime of 1st degree homicide. I was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility in the year 2020 when I'll be 42 years old. I was then sent to an adult maximum security prison, Green Bay Correctional Institute. Though the early years of my imprisonment were plagued with conduct reports and time in the hole I eventually began to grow up. While serving years in the hole, in administrative confinement, I began to honestly and thoroughly evaluate my history, present and future.

An evaluation that persisted over the years and that has led me to this place where I completely understand:

  1. How I ended up in prison at such a young age.
  2. The ingredients of the combination of efforts that would have taken me off the path to prison.


Because I undoubtedly know that my childhood path could of been averted the same must be true for other children as well. So I've created a program based on what would of been effective with me. The program is called the IOU FUTURE PROJECT. It connects the youth of today with the wisdom and insight of the youth of yesterday whom have traveled a similar path, made similar mistakes and experienced similar pressures. The IOU Future facilitators and mentors give presentations at youth organizations and facilities. As the IOU Future mentor I participate via speakerphone. I tell them my story, I present myself as an example of what not to do and I explain why I have made many of my mistakes. We present topics that are connected to my story and then break them up into 2 groups to make pros and cons lists. For example: We'd ask one group to make a pro list and the other to make a con list about joining a street gang. Then I'd address the list utilizing my intimate understanding of the issue. There are several topics we address. At the end of the presentation I share with the teams that I am certain that if I had dreams as a teenager I would not be in prison today, for dreams are that powerful. We then present them with a dream pledge, upon signing the pledge we give them a light blue bracelet with the word 'Dream' upon it. A reminder to dream. I know that as a teen I would have listened to the right message, the right mentor. I know that if that mentor had led me to think deeply about the pros and cons of joining a gang I would not have joined. I know that if I had been inspired to dream, to see myself as something bigger than a gang member, a school drop out, a drug dealer, etc. I would not be in prison today!

Learn more about our IOU program.