Popular television personality Judge Greg Mathis has made a reputation for being tough but fair. A Detroit native, Mathis was in jail and on a fast track to nowhere when his mother’s dying wish and a judge’s compassion led him to a better path.

Extending the same compassion that he was shown, Judge Mathis and his wife Linda have worked tirelessly in community activism. Nearly 25 years ago they started Young Adults Asserting Themselves (YAAT), a Detroit-based agency dedicated to helping young ex-offenders take control of their lives by building careers and staying crime-free.

Recently, Judge Mathis launched the PEER Initiative – Prisoner Empowerment Education and Respect – to encourage and support current inmates around the country. Making appearances at various institutions allows Mathis to speak directly with prisoners and hear their stories.

Judge Mathis spoke with theGrio recently on the impact of prisons on the African-American community:

theGrio: What do you think is the key to rehabilitating people who didn’t have the strong foundation that you had?

Mathis: I think everyone has the ability to be educated either in a skilled trade or in other areas. We have many examples of individuals who failed at school for most of their lives. [They] went to the penitentiary and obtained culinary art certificates, or other skilled trades, and they come out, get jobs, and are productive citizens.

Women are in many cases the foundation of the family structure. Can you talk about the increasing rates of black women being incarcerated?

Mathis: When [women] are incarcerated for drug-related crimes, they’re unavailable to raise their children. Their children learn that drugs are an escape from poverty, from hopelessness, and from despair. So it creates that vicious cycle.

What about the prison nursery programs? Do you think the Department of Corrections should be in the child care business?

Mathis: Absolutely. Under certain conditions, I think that works very well. It creates a bonding between a mother and their child.

[Also] statistics have shown that it helps reduce recidivism, because a mother comes out with that bond that she has had with her child, with her infant. [She] wants to do the right thing because of that bond and because of that love for that child.

If you look at the surroundings in which the infant is being raised, though it is a prison facility they’re in, they don’t know much of a difference. What they do know is that they are with the person that birthed them.