Sunday, August 7, 2022

DC seeks the input of inmates in desperate effort to thwart violence

From behind bars at the D.C. jail, Sylvester Jones could sense that the streets in his city were even more dangerous than when he was picked up on a gun possession charge in January, reported the Washington Post.

He had read about the especially violent past week in the District — when at least three dozen people were shot in incidents across the city — and he had an idea about how to help.

D.C. should create an incentive program, he told a recent crowd at the jail, in which community members get music studio time in exchange for turning in weapons. That way, he said, officials could steer the community away from music that glorifies guns and shootings.

“They’re killing each other for sport, and it’s motivated by music,” said Jones, 42, standing beside a poster board that said “SOLUTION” in capital letters.

Around him in the Correctional Treatment Facility in Southeast D.C., other incarcerated people shared their suggestions about how to stop the type of behavior that landed many of them in handcuffs. As part of an educational program called LEAD Up!, the men spent 10 weeks this summer considering what resources could help keep D.C. residents safe.

A 22-year-old charged with murder proposed more mentorship for young people. A 19-year-old found guilty of carjacking said the city needs more job programs. Another group of incarcerated men said the District needs an entirely new agency to “treat gun violence as a public health emergency.”

Listening were local officials and academics involved in anti-violence work in D.C., which has struggled with rising killings despite providing a deluge of programs aimed at reducing gunfire. Homicides are up 11 percent compared with the same time last year, putting the city on track to reach a 19-year high. 

 “There are a lot of subject matter experts in here,” one correctional officer said to D.C. Director of Gun Violence Prevention Linda K. Harllee Harper, standing in the gymnasium at the Correctional Treatment Facility.

“That is where the answers will come from,” Harllee Harper replied.

The District has already implemented many of the ideas that the students proposed Wednesday. Most groups wanted to see more mentorship opportunities, which the city provides through at least three agencies. Some wanted to see investment in activities for young people; the mayor just invested $13.5 million to expand recreation services. There is even an initiative similar to the music program suggested by Jones run out of the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.

Harllee Harper said the presentations revealed a flaw in the city’s efforts to reduce violence: Those behind bars don’t seem to know what the city is doing already. “There is a communication breakdown that we need to work on,” she said.

Still, there were some new ideas that surprised city officials and academics attending the showcase. One group, for example, proposed creating a new city agency called the Department of Violence Prevention and Firearm Education, which would include many of the same functions as the Office of Gun Violence Prevention but focus more on firearm safety. Those who came up with it suggested asking the National Rifle Association to build a shooting range for underserved communities to teach residents how to legally obtain and safely operate a gun.

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