More than 500 shootings and 36 homicides last year in Toledo have shaken the community and galvanized local police. This month’s shooting death of Frederick D. Watson Jr., 20, who was found slumped in a car in Toledo’s central city, marked another victim in a volley of senseless street violence.
Politicians and local police are looking for answers, but not always in the right places. Most of the city’s shot callers debating the problems of crime and violence don’t know a damn thing about the streets. The voices of young people — who, like Mr. Watson, are killed in disproportionate numbers — are practically silent. And the people who have done some of the shooting aren’t even in the mix.
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Real talk: If we want to understand the culture of violence, we need to listen to some of the people who have perpetuated it. Many ex-offenders — whether in prison or out — have changed their lives and want to help. Truth be told, they’re probably the only people a young man who has picked up a gun will listen to, anyway.
Which brings me to a state prison on Detroit’s east side, surrounded by some of the most blighted blocks in America. Inside the walls and razor wire of the former Ryan Correctional Facility, eight men who helped build Detroit’s reputation for violence are working to change it.
This month, they extended their life-changing mission to Toledo after eight troubled teens from Toledo’s Police Probation Program hopped in a van and, along with Officers Byron Daniels and Johnny Taylor and Sgt. Greg Mahlman, made the 65-mile trip to Ryan. It was the Toledo Police Department’s first trip to the Detroit prison.
The Police Probation Team diverts Toledo youths who have committed minor offenses, such as drug possession and fighting, from the criminal justice system. They perform community service or other tasks instead of going to court, getting a criminal record, and possibly serving jail time — consequences that often push young people into more serious crimes.
Most of the young men expected a lame and discredited scared-straight show, with menacing prisoners screaming and acting crazy. They experienced something far more sobering: a dialogue, driven by love and respect, about life-changing choices. Speaking calmly, prisoners separated the fantasies of thug life from the dream-killing reality of living doubled up in closet-sized steel cells, losing family and friends, having to use a toilet that’s inches from another man, submitting to strip searches, and being kept from your mother’s funeral.
The prisoners didn’t preach. They asked the young men to consider how one bad decision, or a few misguided moments, could ruin or end their lives. It got their attention.
John Cabitt, 17, a sophomore at Rogers High School, told me later that the kids started to listen after they found out the session was no “scared-straight thing.”
“Once the prisoners interacted with us, everyone was like, ‘OK, this is good.’ ” he said.
For the inmates, the Youth Deterrent Program offers a chance to help heal a community they once wounded.
“We owe a debt to our youth — to our entire community — because we helped contribute to the problem,” said Darryl Jamual Woods, 40, of Detroit. The group’s leader, Mr. Woods is serving a life sentence for murder.
“Transforming a young life is a blessing,” he told me. “It’s about loving ’em straight — not scaring ’em straight. This problem has no borders, and we all have to work together. We have to give our young people some options, because we can’t incarcerate our way out of this problem.”
Shannon Ladel Keys, 41, of Detroit, a founding member who’s now at Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Facility, said Youth Deterrent gave him a purpose. “It made me feel relevant,” he told me. “When a young brother tears up and says thanks, you feel like your life isn’t wasted.”
A work of love
In 2008, a dozen inmates at Ryan — all members of an NAACP prison program — started bringing troubled young males, ages 13 to 18, into the prison once a month for some real talk about life and crime. Most of the inmates were serving life sentences for murder.
Michigan State University Professor Carl Taylor helped develop the program, but inmates had to overcome the state Department of Corrections’ security concerns to get it running. With the backing of Warden Raymond Booker and some hard work by his administrative assistant, Frank Konieczki, they prevailed.
Prisoners don’t get special privileges or time off their sentences. They do the work out of love.
Last year, Ryan closed to become a prisoner re-entry center; most of the prison’s 1,000 inmates rode out to other prisons. But Youth Deterrent had become so successful that Michigan Department of Corrections Director Daniel Heyns and Gov. Rick Snyder permitted the inmates who participated in the program to stay and continue their work.
The current program committee includes Woods, Michael Hatifield, 26; Ichard Oden, 34; James Hill-El, 63; Everett Rock Jackson, 47; Michael 2X Tubbs, 43; Dewayne Witherspoon, 49, and Ernest Smith, 50.
The program takes referrals — males only — from the courts, juvenile homes, schools, law enforcement agencies, and even parents.
Some of the young men sent to Youth Deterrent already have been convicted of violent crimes such as carjacking. Michigan 3rd Circuit Court Judge Frank Szymanski started to send young offenders to Ryan last year, after he read a column I wrote about the program in the Detroit Free Press, where I worked until last September.
“It’s a powerful program,’’ he told me. “I’ve seen youths sit down with these guys and, within five minutes, start talking about the biggest traumas in their lives.”
Over the past five years, I’ve attended six sessions of Youth Deterrent, watching more than 100 young men walk through the metal detectors at Ryan into the drab prison visiting room.
Some walk in with smiles and smirks, but their faces and demeanor change as prisoners, wearing orange-and-blue numbered uniforms, start to tell cautionary tales about life on the street.
Prisoners also encourage the young men. If you can sell drugs, they tell them, you can run a business — if you legitimize your hustle and legalize the product.
Referring to the young men as brothers, the inmates urge them to be loyal to themselves. Their “ride or die homeboys” won’t be there for them in prison. They might even flip and testify against them to get a lighter sentence.
During each three-hour program, inmates break the young men into groups of five or six, with each inmate talking to one group.
Last year, I saw a 17-year-old start to cry after relaying how his mother was shot to death. He was embraced by a 24-year-old prisoner who had lost his mother the year before. A 15-year-old broke down after telling how he watched his best friend get shot to death during a bank robbery.
Forty teens from Detroit, Flint, and Toledo — the largest group ever — attended this month’s sesssion. Standing in a circle, they passed a microphone around, stating why they were there. The litany of offenses included auto theft, drug possession, fighting at school, and carrying a concealed weapon. Then they passed the microphone around again and stated their career goals. A few wanted to enter the military. Others aspired to become architects, rappers, mechanics, marine biologists, or fashion designers.
Asked to name his biggest challenge, one young man said: “Not to become a statistic.”
For young black men, the statistics are grim. The United States, with more than 2 million people locked up, leads the world in incarceration. One in every 31 U.S. adults — or 7.3 million people — is either locked up or on probation or parole. Incarceration rates for African-American men are more than six times higher than for white men, according to federal Bureau of Justice statistics.
One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is locked up, reports the Pew Center on the States. In many poor urban neighborhoods, more than half of young African-American men are in jail, in prison, or otherwise supervised by the criminal justice system.
Many things are to blame, including a failed and misguided war on drugs, racial biases in the criminal justice system (this month’s ACLU report on marijuana arrests is just the latest example), and concentrated poverty.
Still, the prisoners didn’t focus on external causes or on making excuses. They urged the young men to look inward, man up, and take responsibility for avoiding the traps they fell into.
Serving a life sentence for murder, Tubbs held a small box with a mirror in it. He told the youths that the secret to their identity and purpose lay inside the box. One by one, Tubbs asked them to look inside and ask why they treat the person in the mirror so badly.
“Do you like what you see?” he asked a 16-year-old, who shook his head. “Then what are you going to do to change that?
“I ain’t going to lie, man,” Tubbs continued. “Some days I look in the mirror with my eyes closed because I hate what I see. I’m so disappointed in what I see. What I lost I can never get back.”
As they do at every meeting, the prisoners asked the young men with no fathers in their lives to stand. In this group, about half stood, but in other sessions I have attended as many as three out of four were standing. The inmates embraced each young man standing and apologized for not being there for him on the outside.
Prisoners also asked the young men to applaud law enforcement officers who were there. “You all need to respect them,’’ Woods said. “They ain’t trying to lock you up. They brought you here to save your life.”
No program can work miracles. For initiatives like Youth Deterrent to really work, the community needs to follow up with other mentoring, education, training, and recreation programs. Still, all of the young men I talked to said they learned some valuable lessons at Ryan.
They were starting to understand the long-term consequences of some of the decisions they had taken lightly. At least they understood that life in prison isn’t a four-minute video.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, but I learned a lot,’’ said Ke’Mauri Armstrong, 16, a sophomore at Waite High School. “You have no say-so at all in there. You can’t see your family. There’s nothing. I think everyone could benefit from this.”
Sergeant Mahlman said Toledo police plan to use Detroit’s Youth Deterrent Program every month, starting possibly in August. “It’s powerful and the men are really passionate about what they do,’’ he said.
Sitting in a van after the session, I told four young men that, as we were speaking, the prisoners were probably stripped, bent over, and getting searched for contraband, as inmates must do after they leave a prison visiting room. It’s just one of the many indignities of prison life.
“Crazy,’’ one guy said.
Avoiding that crazy and terrible world is a message these young men needed to hear. No one can deliver it better than the men already in it.
Jeff Gerritt is deputy editorial page editor of The Blade.