Warren’s Journey from Orijin Learner to Justice-Impacted Leader

When Warren Allen was transferred to a juvenile detention center in Washington, D.C., as part of a resentencing agreement, he found the max block in disarray. In a block holding 160 young men, only two phones worked, and access to them was tightly controlled by competing factions. Just one TV worked, and the only ball in the basketball court was flat. More importantly, the lack of an outlet for education, enrichment, and communication led to idle time and a spike in violence.

As a 34-year-old man serving a 21-year sentence, Warren was considered an older statesman of the cell block and was well-respected by the much younger inmates. Leveraging his stature for good, he created The Truth Group, which served as a haven for hope, learning, and creative expression. Every Tuesday, he led lively discussions in a small recreational area known as the “situation room,” where they would delve into everything from faith to politics to education and family.

Attendance was slow at first, with one or two men trickling in. Then Warren devised a plan to boost attendance by engaging gang leaders within the unit. “I knew if I could get people with status on the block to come, everybody else would follow.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Within weeks, dozens of men would pack the room, prompting Warren to expand the program to two days a week. The group’s popularity caught the attention of the warden. He approached Allen and invited him to meet with staff to learn more about the Truth Group and to find ways to better serve the incarcerated youth. “I told him I knew a lot of the reasons why they were the way they were was because they weren’t educated. I expressed that the violence should be even more reason to bring resources down there.”

He became the liaison between inmates and administrators, helping to identify areas of improvement. During one meeting, the warden mentioned the Orijin tablets and learning platform, which immediately piqued Allen’s interest. “I told the warden, I knew if you bring the tablets here to the max block, I guarantee you the violence would start to subside.”

The warden presented an incentivized plan to pave the way for the tablets. In exchange for the tablets, he wanted to first see the unit cleaner, and witness better behavior from the officers and staff. In turn, the warden also began addressing some of the issues, including phone repairs.

“Guys started cleaning up the unit. They brought in a lot of cleaning supplies and more things the individuals were asking for, like new jumpers, new sheets, and towels,” he said. “I advocated for a visit video monitor so when the jail locked down, we still had opportunities to go on visits like other units.”

“I felt inferior about my tech skills. Orijin brought me up to speed, taught me how to write an email, how to make a spreadsheet. So once I was asked to do some of these things in my interview, I already had a step ahead of some guys.

– Warren Allen

Due to his strong leadership skills, Allen was appointed to go on “detail.” Individuals who go on “detail” have a lot of influence in correctional facilities since they are responsible for cleaning the unit and distributing food. “The officer can recommend you, but if the fellas ain’t feeling you, you ain’t getting no details. That’s just what it was. So the fellas were like, yeah of course.”

According to Allen, this is when he really got the unit in order. “I was able to buff the floors, help maintenance fix certain tables. We got the TV fixed. We had, like, 8 phones at the time. You know, the basketball is up and running. The Truth Group is still popping. Now, the unit has become an attractive site for when, you know, certain individuals from the outside are coming in, like mayor assistants. They actually bring them through on a tour.”

He inspired men to write letters to the warden to expedite the tablets. Shortly after, the warden addressed all of the men again with good news. He explained that he had received the letters and confirmed that they would indeed be receiving the tablets. “The block went off like they won a Super Bowl. He (the warden) was true to his promise.”

Shortly after, Warren distributed the Orijin tablets to eager learners. “They explained the process to us. You can’t keep the tablet, but you can come and sign up for a tablet each and every single day equivalent to a library. That’s how it initially started. I was in awe about it,” he said. “Every morning, you have a line for the tablets. Staff was making sure that everyone had an opportunity. In an instant, we were more attuned to what was actually going on in society and had an outlet to block out a lot of things that were going on in the jail.”

Warren was asked to expand the Truth Group, but he had to turn down the opportunity. He was accepted to enroll in Georgetown’s college program, an opportunity to receive college credits in the adjacent adult facility. “I was playing tug of war with it. I didn’t want to leave the guys because of everything I accomplished, you know, and I knew the guys would be upset if I left, but I always wanted college. I always wanted higher learning. So I told the warden, and he was ecstatic for me.”

Warren went into the transitional assistance program, where they already had Orijin tablets up and running. “It gave me more time. It was a better environment. Now, I can actually focus on certain things that were on the tablet. These guys are more savvy. They were more attuned to things that are happening in the world. You know, they’re taking college classes on it. Yeah. You know, they’re actually navigating on these tablets. It’s basically a computer. Now, they’re teaching me things.”

With blocks that were much quieter and a dorm-like atmosphere, he found an environment more conducive to learning. Up until that point, Allen had never had access to digital technology. “This is one of the reasons why I got a lot of respect, a lot of gratitude, appreciation for the tablet because individuals like myself who’ve been behind the 8 ball for over two decades. I wasn’t privileged to technology. The tablet brought me up to speed with technology. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if it wasn’t for those tablets.”

On the Orijin learning platform, he enrolled in biology, philosophy, and financial literacy courses, and was just 24 credits shy from getting a college degree before he was granted release. “I was amazed, like, I can take these classes on the tablet? Like, we can actually zoom in, and the professor is actually teaching as we are there.”

Today, Allen is married with a two-year-old daughter. He is a full-time Campaign Associate with the Citizen Project, a research and advocacy organization for citizen reform. With a team of data analysts, writers, and researchers, he is advocating for public policy that promotes equity.

“I felt inferior about my tech skills. Orijin brought me up to speed. Orijin taught me how to write an email. How to make a spreadsheet. So once I was asked to do some of these things in my interview, I already had a step ahead of some guys.”

Today, Allen is busy working on campaigns to help pass legislation to help other justice-impacted individuals. “The cause is bigger than me. I’m not I’m not gonna hang my head on a loose hook. I know these tablets were definitely life changing for me. It helped put me in a position where I’m at today.”


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