Former VPD officer teaches life skills

Published 8:48 pm Saturday, March 15, 2014

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In his youth, Austin Bracey couldn’t wait to get his hands on anything that would get him high. Now he can’t wait to get back into a classroom with the man who helped put him in prison.
Before having a stroke, Bracey, 64, teamed up with retired Vicksburg police Lt. Walter Beamon to spread the word about the lasting effects of a life of crime as part of the life skills classes Beamon teaches though Mississippi Prevention Service’s partnership with Vicksburg Warren School District.
Beamon, who was head of VPD’s narcotics division, arrested Bracey, who spent 10 years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.
“I have come to realize that I wasn’t arrested; I was rescued,” said Bracey who is currently a resident at Shady Lawn nursing home. “Drugs had me lying, cheating and stealing out there. I thought I was bigger than drugs, but it turns out drugs were bigger than me.”
While behind bars, Bracey wrote a letter to Beamon, saying that if he made it though his nightmarish experiences at Parchman, he wanted to be an asset to society rather than a menace.
“He did exactly what he said he was going to do,” Beamon said. “He had a stroke that sidelined him, but hopefully we can get him out soon.”
Beamon spent two years tracking Bracey and gathering evidence against him, and Bracey readily admits now that he was headed down the wrong path, the same path he discourages students from taking.
“I was the kind of guy that if I was walking down the street, I would knock on your door and ask to use the bathroom. … You thought I was using your bathroom, but I was raiding the medicine cabinet to see if there was something I could get high off of,” Bracey said.
Having Bracey along to speak to students is an invaluable part of the life skills program, Beamon said.
“We give them both sides, cop and criminal,” Beamon said. “I can tell you what I’ve read about drugs and prison, but I can’t tell you that story about what it feels like the first night in Parchman. He can.”
Being in prison, Bracey said, was “like ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’” and was filled with inmates looking to pick a fight.
“Some of them have arms like truck tires and necks like pine trees, and you came off Clay Street eating Debbie Cakes. You can’t hang,” Bracey said. “These guys will bust you up like firewood before anyone can come get you.”
Bracey’s stories of prison are graphic and brutal, but help students learn where a life of crime can lead, both he and Beamon said.
“Our kids do a great job, but unfortunately whatever gets their attention gets them,” Beamon said.
If a positive message can’t catch their attention or the youth won’t listen to reasoning, “Parchman has 2,666 acres for people who won’t listen,” Bracey said.
The talks are part of a life skills class Beamon began teaching following his retirement in 2005 from a 29-year career at Vicksburg Police Department where he founded the Street Ball Program, recently renamed for Randy Naylor, and an essay contest for students at Vicksburg High School.
After retirement, Beamon’s move into teaching life skills came naturally because of his prior service with the city’s youth, he said. He also founded the “I Can Make a Difference” program.
Now he’s teaching twice a week at Vicksburg and Warren Central high schools.
“We do three sides to everything,” Beamon said. “Their side, my side and the truth.”