Column: Focus on rehabilitation in prison
At the age of 10, I senselessly lost my best friend to gun violence. Even as an elementary school student, Reubin Elder represented something bigger to us. Reubin was a popular and straight-A student who tragically died in a random drive-by shooting in our Highland Park neighborhood.
So much of our conversations around gun violence centers around those who died from it. But what if those bullets hadn’t killed Reubin? If he had survived, would society have provided the support and services needed to get Reubin back on his feet?
I know the simple answer, because I’ve lived it firsthand — we wouldn’t. I have lost dozens more of my friends to gun violence. From an early age, because of the mentorship and support of my basketball coach, I was determined to get out and make something of myself.
After two years at Wayne County Community College, I attended Elms College in Massachusetts, where I was a star basketball player. I graduated with my degree and signed to play professionally in Europe. Then while living in Hartford, Connecticut, my life changed overnight. I was shot twice in an attempted robbery, ending my basketball career in an instant. After the shooting, I suffered from depression, paranoia, and flashbacks, and had no place to turn for therapy or emotional recovery. I was angry at my attacker and was prepared to testify against him in court, ensuring he would be in prison for 40 years.
But then something clicked for me. My brother was serving a life sentence, and I had seen firsthand what long-term prison sentences could do to a family. I didn’t want to put another human being through that, so I worked with the prosecutor to secure a shorter term and the man was sentenced for six to 10 years in prison.
Too many survivors of crime never receive the care and support they need, and as a result, they fall into the same cycle. The pain and anger caused by trauma can cause people to lash out, all too often perpetuating the cycle of violence that rips apart communities, like my own neighborhood in Highland Park. When I lost my best friend, there were no social workers around and I had never heard of therapy. Decades later, many victims still aren’t getting access to the services they need, and Michigan isn’t adequately investing in prevention.
Michigan wastes millions of dollars keeping people who could safely return to their families and communities behind bars. Research shows that simply keeping people in prison longer does not keep us safer. Investing in preventive programs to stop crime from happening in the first place, helping victims and their families heal after a crime has occurred, and helping people rebuild their lives is what will ultimately make our communities safer. The number one priority for victims is making sure that what happened to them never happens to anyone else. And the vast majority of crime survivors support shorter prison sentences and increased investment in prevention and rehabilitation including education, mental health treatment, drug treatment and job training.
The real answer to promote safety in our communities is cost-effective, evidence-based policies that focus on reducing recidivism and expanding access to rehabilitation and community programs. By reforming Michigan’s prison system, we can help survivors heal and make our communities safer.
Aswad Thomas, a native of Highland Park, is national organizer for the Alliance for Safety and Justice.