Hundreds of shootings and 50 homicides over the last 18 months in Toledo, including last week's shooting death of 20-year-old Frederick D. Watson Jr., have the community and local police looking for answers.
But they're not always looking in the right places. Politicians and others who don't know a damn thing about the streets are leading the discussion. The voices of young people, who are killed in disproportionate numbers, are practically unheard as the city debates crime and violence. And the people who have done some of the shooting aren't even in the conversation.
If we want to understand the culture of violence, we need to listen to some of the people who have perpetuated it. Many ex-offenders -- whether in prison or out -- have changed their lives and want to help. Truth be told, they're probably the only people a young man who has picked up a gun will listen to, anyway.
That's why I suggested, after moving from Detroit to Toledo four months ago, that the Toledo Police Department check out a program at a prison on Detroit's east side -- a program I had written about many times while working for the Detroit Free Press. Inside the walls and razor wire of the former Ryan Correctional Facility, eight men who helped build Detroit's reputation for violence are working to change it.
Three weeks ago, these prisoners extended their life-changing mission to Toledo. Eight young men from Toledo, ages 15 to 17 and part of the city's Police Probation program, took a van to the prison, along with Officers Byron Daniels and Johnny Taylor and Sgt. Greg Mahlman. I rode along. So did Blade photographer Jeffrey Smith, who took this photo of youths going through the security gate.
Toledo's Police Probation program diverts young people who have committed minor offenses, such as drug possession or fighting, from the criminal justice system. They perform community service instead of going to court and getting a criminal record that would likely push them into more serious crimes.
Most of the youths from Toledo expected some kind of lame scared-straight show, with menacing prisoners screaming and wild n' out. They experienced something far more sobering: a dialogue about life-changing choices, driven by love and respect.
Speaking calmly, prisoners separated the fantasies of thug life from the dream-killing reality of living doubled up in closet-sized steel cells, losing family and friends, having to use a toilet that's inches from another man, submitting to random strip searches, and not being able to attend your mother's funeral.
"We owe a debt to our youth -- to our entire community -- because we helped contribute to the problem,'' prisoner Darryl Jamual Woods, 40, of Detroit, told me. He's the group's leader and serves a life sentence for murder.
"Transforming a young life is a blessing. It's about loving 'em straight -- not scaring 'em straight. We have to give our young people some options, because we can't incarcerate our way out of the problem."
I plan to write a column about this later. Every young man I talked to said they learned something valuable from the inmates. Toledo police liked it, too. They plan to start taking troubled young men from Toledo to the Detroit prison once a month, starting possibly in August.