Lil Baby and La La speak to young men at Rikers Island

The RNDC jail on Rikers Island is considered one of the most dangerous. It houses 18- to 21-year-old men, many of whom arrive with built-in beefs with other detainees. 

FOX 5 News got exclusive access behind the walls to an unusual faith-based initiative created by Pastor Tim Johnson. It combines baptism, basketball, and belief in a higher power to guide young inmates to a productive future. 

La La and Lil Baby Visit Rikers

Popular film and television actress La La, a.k.a. La La Anthony, volunteered her time for and brought a special guest for their final session.

"I wanted you guys to have something to remember for the rest of your lives, so I brought a surprise. I brought one of my close friends," La La said. "I had to pull in some favors — I had to bring Lil Baby to see you all."

The 11 detainees who completed the program had questions for hip-hop superstar Lil Baby, who was once incarcerated. He decided to turn his life around and focus exclusively on his music career, and it paid off in a big way. His new album, like the one before it, is dominating the charts.

"The advice I've got for somebody who came out of jail and getting back into society is, ‘Take your time,’" Lil Baby said.

I spoke with La La about why she donated her time in between her busy filming schedule to work with Johnson in his Fatherless No More initiative.

"It's so important to me because when I see these young men, I see my son and one bad decision — being in the wrong place at the wrong time, following your friends, that could be my son," La La said. "And if I can lend my time and change somebody's life, that means so much to me so I'm just here. I came one time, and they can't get rid of me."

Pastor Tim Johnson, Creator of Fatherless No More Initiative

Johnson, an Orlando-based pastor and a Super Bowl champion, told me he felt a divine calling to come to Rikers Island and help the young men here, most of whom grew up without a father. To show his commitment to them, he has been living in an RV on Rikers Island for the last five months.

"When you don't have the earthly source of your existence — meaning a biological father — telling you he loves you, telling you that he's proud of you, telling you who you are, then money, guns, streets, gangs, whatever you belong to, and many of these young men, they belong to the streets, so guess who's defining them? The streets," Johnson said. "You talk to them, they don't really want that. But they have no choice because the streets have done what a father was supposed to do."

Pastor Tim, as he's called, is not being paid with any public funds for this work. Private supporters are covering the costs. 

What Detainees Get from the Initiative

For participants, the program has benefits hard to come by on Rikers Island, like catered meals. However, restoring their belief in themselves and changing their trajectory of their lives is the most important thing, Johnson said.

"They're able to communicate a freedom in their decisions as they become businessmen, dads, restored to a place in society that is productive, that's youthful, that's fruitful and effective," the pastor said. "That to me is success. It's not money, cars and houses. It's the hole in their soul in the shape of their dad that's been left empty, that they've been trying to fill, is filled, by the father who's the source of our existence."

We spoke with two of the incarcerated participants at their basketball game, which looked like any school gym except for the presence of correction officers.

"I feel like this initiative helped me a lot, mature as a person, get my head on the right track, I know I made a mistake, that's what got me here in the first place," Lesley Jemison, a detainee, said. "But being in this program helped me see it's not just one way of living life. There's a lot of things to do out there besides being in the streets."

Correction Department Sees Program's Value

The Department of Correction said the initiative has proven to have benefits in the often volatile housing areas where violence can erupt at any time. Deputy Commissioner Francis Torres told me none of the participants have been involved in any trouble and are setting a positive example.

"We need to understand that programs are just as equally important as security," Torres said.

Correction Officer Donnell Cummings said he sees the change.

"You have to put them in a position where they can succeed and that's what we did for them," Cummings said. "It ain't about the color banging, it ain't about the opps. You're all here now, you're destroying that cycle."

Rikers Island Coverage