July 13, 2012
With Detroit's streets getting bloodier, the Michigan Department of Corrections shouldn't kill an effective local crime-prevention program that doesn't cost taxpayers a dime. I'm talking about the Youth Deterrent Program at Ryan Correctional Facility on the city's east side.
Corrections plans to close Ryan, and that means the 10 or 12 inmates who run the Youth Deterrent Program might ride out with nearly 1,000 other prisoners. Both Mayor Dave Bing and Police Chief Ralph Godbee Jr. want these dozen inmates to stay in Detroit to keep Youth Deterrent going, after Ryan becomes a center for parole violators later this year. So does the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP.
Here's why: Over the last four years, hundreds of young men, ages 13 to 18, have gone inside the walls for some real talk on life and crime. Teenagers come once a month, 20 or 30 at a time.
Serving mostly life sentences, the inmates are helping to heal the community they once wounded. Youth Deterrent is no scared-straight program where inmates scream and spit. Citing their own mistakes, prisoners provide cautionary tales, separating the fantasies of thug life from the soul-sucking reality of living doubled-up in closet-sized steel cells, losing family and friends and undergoing daily strip searches.
It works. On four occasions, I've watched young men come into Ryan with sneers and smirks. But after talking to prisoners wearing numbered orange-and-blue gear for three hours, they leave sober-minded and serious. Noah Brunner, founding director of Operation Reach community center in Saginaw, tracked 100 teenagers he brought into Ryan; none had gotten into serious trouble afterward.
The program's success comes largely from the dedication and commitment of the prisoners who developed the program and fought the department to get it going. They're also part of Ryan's NAACP program.
"We owe a huge debt to our community," said inmate Darryl Jamual Woods, 39, of Detroit, who leads the Youth Deterrent Program and serves a life sentence for murder. "Transforming a young man gives us a sense of purpose. It's the biggest reward we can receive."
With Ryan closing, Corrections plans to continue Youth Deterrent with some of the hundreds of parole violators who will soon fill the prison. In talking to young people, however, they would lack the credibility and juice of inmates who have worked the program for years, and could spend decades more in prison. Parole violators will be on their way home, struggling with their own problems. Some will be withdrawing from drugs, distracted and depressed. Most will stay at the new center for 90 days or less, requiring the prison to continually train new inmates to run Youth Deterrent.
"You can't simply replace these men with warm bodies and expect the same results," Carl Taylor, who helped develop the program, told me Wednesday. He's a Michigan State University professor and nationally known expert on youth culture. "They're focused on changing lives, not on their own benefit."
The program also brings young people together with law enforcement. During a session this month, a Detroit homicide detective talked to 25 teens. At the start, practically all of them said they didn't like or trust cops. After the detective and prisoners talked to them, however, several young men apologized for their attitudes. They had, maybe for the first time, seen a police officer as a human being.
Keeping those 12 men at Ryan shouldn't take much. Staff would have to accommodate different security and custody levels, but the Ryan prison will retain 75 inmates from its dialysis unit anyway, and some of them are also lifers.
I urge Gov. Rick Snyder and Corrections Director Daniel Heyns to watch a Youth Deterrent session before deciding to change it. They shouldn't make another decision that undermines the department's mission and disregards Detroit.
Five months after closing Mound Correctional Facility, Corrections announced in May that it planned to close Ryan -- Detroit's only other prison -- and reopen a prison in Muskegon, 200 miles away. The state plans to use Ryan, to be called the Detroit Reentry Center, to house hundreds of parolees with technical violations. Those are violation of parole rules, not new crimes.
Roughly one-third of the state's 44,000 inmates come from the Detroit area. Sending inmates at Mound and Ryan to prisons hundreds of miles away will sever family and community ties and undermine the state's re-entry mission. Unfortunately, Ryan's closing is a done deal, but the department can still show some regard for Detroit and its crime problems by allowing the inmates of the Youth Deterrent Program to continue their life-saving work.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter"