Coming out of prison, former inmates need jobs, school, society’s acceptance – and something else.
“I needed healing I didn’t even know I needed,” Umar Muhammad said. “Healing after what I just went through.”
Muhammad was one of three ex-offenders, all gang members, who told Durham’s Gang Reduction Strategy Committee about their experiences and what community leaders can do to reduce gang-related violence.
“You all can open your arms to us and offer your resources,” Muhammad said. “Nobody wants to live in a violence-driven community.”
The gang reduction group (nando.com/14j) is made up of criminal justice, law enforcement, school and local government officials that coordinates anti-gang policies and programs. Muhammad, Kenny Lunsford and Brian Wiley, who spoke to the group last week, are Durham natives who returned home after serving time in prison.
Re-entry was not easy.
Wiley said he was “paranoid about coming back” with enemies left behind.
Lunsford had a hard time finding work: “My past was like haunting me,” he said.
“They don’t teach re-entry” in prison, where it is needed, said Muhammad. “We all came home, we fended for ourselves.
“After I paid this debt to society, why wasn’t I accepted in society?” he said.
On average, 721 people come back to Durham from prison each year, said Jim Stuit, gang strategy manager at the Durham Criminal Justice Resource Center. Nine percent are designated as having some level of gang affiliation, their average age 26.5.
“These folks are coming back to the community at a relatively young age,” Stuit said. “They’ve got a lot to offer ... our community, if we take the rights steps and if they take the right steps.”
Stereotype notwithstanding, Lunsford, Muhammad and Wiley all said they had good childhoods in two-parent households, and did well in school – but there wasn’t enough at school to hold their attention.
“I was on honor roll to about sixth grade,” Lunsford said. Then, “I started taking my attention away from school and putting it in the streets” and by age 11 or 12 was hanging out with a gang.
“I don’t feel like gang members are recruited,” Muhammad said. “We see them as part of our community and ... you go with your community.”
Aid and acceptance
Answers to the gang problem are in the community, too, they said. They particularly talked about Spirit House (nando.com/x3), an East Durham nonprofit that promotes restorative justice and autonomy for communities of color, where they had found aid and acceptance.
“They didn’t ask us what we did ... just ‘What do you want to do?’” Muhammad said. “Great things are going on in Durham that get no attention.
“If we can give these organizations responsibilities they can own in their communities, the violence will stop,” he said. “If we could have power, that would be great.”
As for official authorities, they can offer resources, he said – and, very importantly, open lines of communication.
“We need more communication instead of no tolerance – ‘Put your hands behind your back,’ ” Muhammad said.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do in the community, with your help or without your help,” he said. “We need you all to take our voices seriously. We’re speaking for the whole community. ... We can fix the violence in Durham.
“A lot of the senseless stuff that’s going on, there is a voice behind it,” Muhammad said. “And this voice wants to be heard.”
Coming home: By the numbers
721: average annual number of prison inmates released to Durham County, 2012-2014
67: average number of them deemed gang-associated (Security Threat Group, ‘STG’)
26.5: average age, released STGs
31%: Threat level 3 (highest) STGs released to Durham County
79%: Released STGs arrested on new charges within two years
Source: Jim Stuit, Durham Gang Reduction Strategy Manager