Bankole: Black men seeking redemption
The common refrain is that Detroit is bouncing back. That’s no longer news. What is news is that there are many whose stories of redemption are hidden behind reminiscences of the city’s past and should be told now to inspire the many who feel left out.
Meet Dennis L. Wallace Jr., 48, who was incarcerated from 2002-07 for selling drugs. He has no qualms revealing his prison number: 297322. With his voice almost cracking, Wallace says the number is a constant reminder of the long and lonely road he traveled in life since childhood, the bad choices he made along the way and the power of personal transformation.
Like many children in Detroit, Wallace was born and raised in one of the poorest areas in the city — Mack and Bewick — on the east side, where he said his mother was shot when he was 5 and his father killed in front of him when he was 6.
Both his father and grandfather sold drugs and to this day he could not explain why his mother was shot in the head. That tragedy left him and his three other siblings to the mercy of the foster care system and moving from one house to another. The emotional trauma left him scarred.
“I never adjusted. I had no guidance. I constantly got in trouble. I was in and out of detention centers,” said Wallace, now a motivational speaker who just returned last weekend from a re-entry conference in Atlanta.
Wallace, who went to prison for distributing cocaine, said: “I was seeking change before incarceration but it was rough.”
The turning point in his life, he said, was when his son, Dennis III, asked if giving back everything he bought him from selling drugs would get him out of jail, and his wife vowing to divorce him if didn’t change. It struck a nerve.
He said he was even more determined to break the cycle of incarceration, so his six children — two of whom are currently undergraduate students on full academic scholarships at the University of Michigan — do not repeat their father’s mistakes. A book he read in prison that said three out of four children of incarcerated parents will end up in prison themselves also helped.
“My kids are proud of me,” Wallace says of his life now. He says young people struggling like he once did should not feel abandoned.
“I tell young people that I give advice to that they’re not alone. I have a lot of different little sayings but what sticks out the most is defining responsibility as our ability to respond to anything we as men are accountable for,” Wallace said. “I try not to preach. I just try to be there for them when they need me and always keep my word to them. That’s key.”
Like Wallace, Gregory Anderson, 31, has a similar story. Anderson was incarcerated from 2002 to 2011 for armed robbery and felony firearm charges.
“What led me to incarceration was the environment I grew up in, a lack of a father in my life and a lack of real guidance from the men in the neighborhood,” Anderson said. “All they could teach me was what they knew and how they lived.”
Timothy Greer, 56, who spent 14 years in prison for various crimes, including conviction for numerous weapon and assault offenses, said he also was a product of his environment.
“I grew up in a world of violence on the west side of Detroit, primarily on 12th Street in the 1960s and Linwood in the 1970s. Most of my friends are either dead or have been imprisoned,” said Greer, who recently taught a class on prisoner re-entry at Wayne State University.
The formative years of Greer, Wallace and Anderson underscore a fact in the debate about ending the prison pipeline: that some young people incarcerated today were already imperiled by the environment they grew up in.
“I would describe my journey as one of evolution because I had to grow and evolve on a different level personally to accomplish the few things I have accomplished,” said Anderson.
“I tell the young men that I’ve helped turn their life around that their skill sets from the streets are transferable in any sector or industry they choose to go in and that they will be able to outwork many of their co-workers because of their appreciation for another chance in life.”
Keith L. Bennett, the executive director of “Flip the Script,” a prisoner re-entry program of Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, said that between 2005 and 2012, about 5,000 returned home every year to Wayne County with a vast majority living in Detroit.
Bennett said young people coming out of the criminal justice system need training like Wallace, Greer and Anderson give and his group is helping to do that.
“Most important we’re raising, not training, young men and women who bypassed that crucial element of the true maturation process,” he said. “Once we raise them, then we can train them educationally and for the workforce.”
Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on Super Station 910-AM at noon Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.