Purpose Changes Richard Garland’s Path of Violence to Violence Prevention

Richard Garland has travelled from behind bars to an office at the University of Pittsburgh, aiming to reduce crime in local communities.

He was a fighter.

He belonged to a gang.

He didn’t have a traditional family upbringing.  He came from a broken and dysfunctional home with only a grandmother for parental guidance.

And at 12 years old, Richard Garland knew his violent and hostile lifestyle would land him in jail. He was ready.

Like many inmates, Garland had trouble overcoming his past mistakes during his 23 1/2 years behind bars. But he did not allow himself to be counted among the majority. Garland is now the director of the Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI), which tries to understand and reduce violence in communities. He is also an assistant professor of public health practice at the University of Pittsburgh. He found success by using opportunity and a purpose of helping others.

Words by Daniel Priore, Abraham Kabazie and Nunu Withrow-Davis

Garland had started out on a path to crime, jail, and even death.

He was raised by his grandmother in the neighborhood of Frankfurt, located in northeast Philadelphia. Garland’s problems started when he was an adolescent, mostly fighting with anyone he could pick a problem with. He sold drugs, and worked his hardest in the gangs to keep his twin brother away from them. His sister was also a drug addict. And while his grandmother gave him some order, the gang represented a closer family.

“I used to have a short man’s complex” Garland said, who found an allegiance to fight for in the gang life. “You know, I was closer to my homies than I was to some of my family members.”

This connection to the gang community heavily influenced his early life. He was addicted to heroin at 14-years old. He was living in a “gang house;” living accommodations for groups of gang-affiliated people sponsored by city of Philadelphia in hopes to reduce violence. Garland related these housing setups to “fraternity houses.” He was first arrested in one of these houses at the age of 16, and spent six months behind bars.

This cycle of repeated incarcerations continued until it reached a pinnacle on March 20, 1979.

Garland walked up the steps of his house to find his roommate, Frank Jenkins, wielding a freshly fired shotgun and standing over the body of his other roommate, Willie Tinsley. Jenkins told Garland to go downstairs and retrieve some trash bags out of the closet. Garland returned with the bags and helped Jenkins wrap and dispose of the body in the dumpster behind their building.

Garland was convicted of hindering apprehension and tampering with evidence, and he was sentenced to consecutive sentences of three to seven years. This time behind bars was the spark that set in motion Garland’s drastic personal reformation.

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Garland started serving this prison sentence at Graterfort Penitentiary and soon ran into trouble. He refused to cut his dreadlocks and spent 32 months in solitary confinement as punishment for his disobedience.

“I used to come out my cell every other day, you know, for 10-20 minutes,” Garland said. “Go to a cage, exercise, then you have to go back in for the next day and a half.”

In prison, he was at the mercy of the guards – a dynamic Garland found out quickly.

“They beat me so bad, I thought I was going to lose my eye,” Garland reflected. “I wore a patch over my eye for nine months. It took me two months before I was able to sleep through the night because I was withdrawing from drugs.

“And unlike what they do now in prison, where they can give you methadone, they made you quit cold turkey. I think that was the worst. That part of my life in the prison system was where I felt the most vulnerable because I was so weak.”

Nonetheless, Garland was determined not to let prison break him. In his free time, he slept, read and exercised to keep himself busy. Garland was active in prison and so was the world around him.

His grandmother passed away while he was locked behind bars. The sheriff refused to let Garland attend her funeral, a steep price he had to pay for his past misconduct. Garland remembers fondly his last memory with her, as he watched her board a bus to go visit one of her friends in New York.

Her passing served as another maturing point for Garland. Then at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, Garland attributed this growth by continuously receiving mail about people he knew dying instead of experiencing joyous occasions such as weddings and arrival of new born babies.

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Garland was sentenced to serve two additional years in prison because the parole board wanted him to renounce his allegiance to MOVE, a black liberation group founded in Philadelphia in 1972 by John Africa and Donald Glassey. Garland refused. He credits the organization, which he was first exposed to and joined at SCI Huntingdon, with helping him abstain from drug use and motivating him to educate himself and put his life on a positive track.

MOVE used philosophies very similar to the Blank Panther Organization. Move members were trained to be active because “everything that’s alive moves.” Members wore their hair in dreadlocks and advocated for a return to a hunter gather society while opposing science and medicine. They also identified themselves as deeply religious and extreme advocates for all life. The organization operated on the principle that all living beings are dependent, their lives should be treated in equal importance. At the root of all of this is the avocation that justice is not always found within the institutions.

MOVE was very controversial throughout the 70s and 80s and had many conflicts law enforcement. In 1978, the organization was accused of murdering a police officer, which saw nine members sentenced to life in prison. MOVE claimed the officer died because of friendly fire.

In 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department, which classified MOVE as a terrorist organization, dropped a bomb on the group’s row house during a shootout. The bombing killed 11 members, including five children.

MOVE helped Garland see a potential in himself that few people saw, he said. And the bombing only reaffirmed his support of the group.

Garland was beginning to be respected in prison, as some guards viewed him an asset since he could calm down intense situations. Inmates from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh looked up to Garland because of his leadership and command, he recalled.

Garland was taking advantage of the opportunities. He loved to fight, so he began boxing in prison. His dedication and drive he quickly resulted in him as champion.

“Boxing gave me discipline because you had to run, you had to exercise and you had to be in shape, Garland said. “But, those programs, I don’t even think that they have them in [prison] anymore.”

Beyond physical labor, Garland started taking various educational classes. Each day, he aimed at being a more robust person.

Garland concluded his sentence at Western Penitentiary, where he was able to take computer classes and learn to code. He became determined to take advantage of every opportunity. Out of 2000 inmates, Garland was one of 25 who took GED classes and one out of 250 to enroll in the college program. He refused to see himself as disadvantaged because he wanted his trauma to help find a purpose. Garland sees a lack of opportunities within prisons today and hopes to change that.

“I believe reentry starts when you get in, not when you get out. So that’s one of the avenues I’m going down right now,” he said.  He’s been trying to help prisoners, returning citizens, and young men on the streets of Pittsburgh since his release from Western Penitentiary in 1991.

“[I’m] trying to get back into the institution to do programming, you know, with dudes before they get out. So, they can have jobs, good jobs. Then we got to think about housing. You know, because some people lived in housing communities, and the law says that you can’t go back into the housing community if you are a felon. So, we got work to do.”

By the time Garland became a free man in 1991, he was not allowed to return to Philadelphia. His association with MOVE and Philadelphia gangs grounded him in Pittsburgh, where he made the most out of his connections.

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Lee Davis walked a troubled path similar to Garland’s as a young adult. Knowing he wanted to be an entrepreneur, Davis dropped out of college and eventually found himself in Braddock “caught up in the street life.” In 1999, Davis was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for being associated with corrupt organizations.

“While I was doing that, Richard was the first one of the first guys in the city to really reach out to these guys like me on the block,” Davis said. “Doing whatever we were doing, whether it was illicit or doing nothing at all sometimes. He was always coming back with a plan and asking us: ‘What are we doing?’, ‘What can I do for you?’”

Davis was released in 2004, and Garland’s words still resonated with him. Garland showed him he could use his time in prison as a badge to navigate others, he said.

“I can help people, and I can get people out of situations before they get into them. The prevention part of it.”

As a life coach with 1st Step Recovery & Violence Prevention Project, Davis is accomplishing just that. Part of his job description is teaching youth how to better manage themselves in real-life situations and to confront challenges with decision-making skills and words rather than with a gun. He also works with Garland at Pitt on violence prevention.   

Davis believes consistency is the most important value Garland has taught him.

“Keep your word; do what you say you’re going to need to this day,” Davis said. “Do things not for yourself, but for your family or for people coming behind you. You know, everything can’t just be about you, so be more selfless instead of selfish.”

He explained consistency is also defined as always being there for young men and women, regardless of the situation they are in. Garland set the example of constantly being on call, ready to “rock and roll,” regardless the day or time. 

“Whether it’s a shooting in the middle of the night or a family that needs help with funeral arrangements, he’s always there,” Davis said. “And so by seeing that, that’s how I am now. I love that I’ve never gotten to the point where I think I’m better than somebody.”

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Before Davis, Garland worked alongside community activist Khalid Raheem to find peace between rival gangs in Pittsburgh in the 1990s. A time when city gang violence was drastic.

Raheem said Garland’s best attribute is his calm demeanor and energy in the most difficult situations.

“It’s not just the things that he’s done and helping people, but the spirit he brings to the entire process,” Raheem said. “And that spirit is shared with everybody else’s around him. He has serious passion, and that serious attitude of ‘Okay, things are bad, but let’s try to pull it together. Let’s try to make some changes. Let’s try to open up some doors.’”

Garland founded One Vision One Life as a continued application of this mission. The organization, which began in 2003 under Allegheny County’s Department of Human Service, had former-gang members help with street conflicts before they could escalated into violence.             “For me, this was a way to get formally incarcerated guys who were part of the problem and make them part of the solution,” Garland explained.

A lack of funding ended One Vision One Life; however, it led Garland to his current position.

Garland has transitioned from the four walls of solitary confinement to the four walls of a cozy office at Pitt. With a play golf mat at his feet and an iguana for company, Garland uses his academic position to research and apply practices to treat violence as a public health issue.

Richard Garland’s pet iguana roams his tank in Garland’s office at the University of Pittsburgh.
Photo by Daniel Priore

At the helm of VPI, Garland aims to reduce violence by tackling it at the community level. The initiative has produced the Homicide Review, which implements intervention strategies throughout Allegheny County to better understand neighborhood violence, and the Gunshot Reoccurring Injury Prevention Services (GRIPS). GRIPS is a hospital-based program offering social and employment support to people who are reoccurring victims of firearms.

Garland wants communities to start thinking of violence as a disease.

“From my perspective, outreach workers, what they do is interrupting the transmission of disease. As we move forward, once we interrupted transmission of the disease, we want to try to stop the future spread of the disease.”

His work expands to FOCUS Pittsburgh, which acts as a means of treating the disease.

“The most important thing is changing community norms,” Garland explained. “So a lot of the times now and in the communities when there’s a shooting or homicide, you don’t hear nothing. You hear crickets.

“We give people a chance to talk. They have been traumatized, and now they get some help. And that’s one of the ways that you can get information. That’s way we go about it.”

To Garland, as he is reflecting on his initiatives, one of the most unexpected elements of his line of work is the good relationship he has developed with law enforcement.

Oftentimes, officials will contact him looking for help to engage with others. It is here where Garland feels his background enables him to reach troubled youth in a way that police cannot.

“It’s my reputation,” Garland said. “And they know I’m not a threat. I’m not going to take them to jail.”

            Davis admitted Garland’s appearance, both physically and verbally, is what made him and others listen and pay attention. It just provides another opportunity Garland has capitalized on.

“It’s made the difference for me to be able to give back, to instill some hope to a lot of people who don’t have hope,” Garland said. “The penitentiary is full with dudes who are some of the most intelligent people I know, and they’ll never see the light of day.

            Garland believes all of them can succeed, no matter what form it might take. Because as Raheem described Garland: he is someone who overcame major obstacles.

“He is really an exception to the rule because based on the rule, he should still be in prison,” Raheem said. “He should be going through that revolving door. But he didn’t. He was able to pose a real serious challenge to the system, and he was able to do all the things that they didn’t think he was going to be able to do.”

Garland is using his difficult past experiences as a catalyst for change, indicating sometimes it is just a matter of opportunity.

Sometimes the person who is on the opposite side of the law can prove to be the best ally to the law.

And sometimes a 13-year old boy who grows up with violence and crime at every corner, destined for prison, can find his purpose.


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