The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A city beset by violence seeks solutions — from those in jail over it

D.C. runs a program asking those behind bars to propose ways to stem crime in the city

Sylvester Jones, 42, takes a moment to feel the sun on his face before presenting his team’s project to help stem gun violence. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

From behind bars at the D.C. jail, Sylvester Jones could sense that the streets in his city were even more dangerous than when he was picked up on a gun possession charge in January.

He had read about the especially violent past week in the District — when at least three dozen people were shot in incidents across the city — and he had an idea about how to help.

D.C. should create an incentive program, he told a crowd at the jail Wednesday, in which community members get music studio time in exchange for turning in weapons. That way, he said, officials could steer the community away from music that glorifies guns and shootings.

“They’re killing each other for sport, and it’s motivated by music,” said Jones, 42, standing beside a poster board that said “SOLUTION” in capital letters.

Around him in the Correctional Treatment Facility in Southeast D.C., other incarcerated people shared their suggestions about how to stop the type of behavior that landed many of them in handcuffs. As part of an educational program called LEAD Up!, the men spent 10 weeks this summer considering what resources could help keep D.C. residents safe.

A 22-year-old charged with murder proposed more mentorship for young people. A 19-year-old found guilty of carjacking said the city needs more job programs. Another group of incarcerated men said the District needs an entirely new agency to “treat gun violence as a public health emergency.”

Listening were local officials and academics involved in anti-violence work in D.C., which has struggled with rising killings despite providing a deluge of programs aimed at reducing gunfire. Homicides are up 11 percent compared with the same time last year, putting the city on track to reach a 19-year high.

“There are a lot of subject matter experts in here,” one correctional officer said to D.C. Director of Gun Violence Prevention Linda K. Harllee Harper, standing in the gymnasium at the Correctional Treatment Facility.

“That is where the answers will come from,” Harllee Harper replied.

The District has already implemented many of the ideas that the students proposed Wednesday. Most groups wanted to see more mentorship opportunities, which the city provides through at least three agencies. Some wanted to see investment in activities for young people; the mayor just invested $13.5 million to expand recreation services. There is even an initiative similar to the music program suggested by Jones run out of the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.

Harllee Harper said the presentations revealed a flaw in the city’s efforts to reduce violence: Those behind bars don’t seem to know what the city is doing already. “There is a communication breakdown that we need to work on,” she said.

Still, there were some new ideas that surprised city officials and academics attending the showcase. One group, for example, proposed creating a new city agency called the Department of Violence Prevention and Firearm Education, which would include many of the same functions as the Office of Gun Violence Prevention but focus more on firearm safety. Those who came up with it suggested asking the National Rifle Association to build a shooting range for underserved communities to teach residents how to legally obtain and safely operate a gun.

Isaiah Murchison, 22, wants to see the city build additional resource centers in every ward where community leaders, religious organizations, violence interrupters and counselors gather to make themselves available to neighborhood youths. He said that type of investment is necessary to change the conditions that have driven many people, including himself, to violence.

“I feel like if I was brought up in a different environment, I wouldn’t be here,” said Murchison, who is facing a murder charge in the fatal shooting of 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson, who was killed in 2018 when men opened fire with assault rifles in a Northeast Washington neighborhood. He is still awaiting trial.

Amy Lopez, who designed and oversees LEAD Up!, said a primary function of the program is to make people like Murchison and Jones feel as though they can create positive change from behind bars.

“The goal is for them to feel less disenfranchised, like they are actually a part of the community,” she said. “And the flip side of that is humanizing their situations.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui, who listened to each group present, said he was moved to see how much time and effort the participants had poured into considering how to keep D.C. residents safe.

“It’s exceptionally challenging to detain people in court, but that is why I am happy to be here,” Faruqui said, adding that he had run into a participant whom he had ordered held in the jail. “I am still involved in their lives.”

Jones, who is awaiting trial, said he cannot wait for the day when he can see the new movie “Thor: Love and Thunder” with his 16-year-old son. That future motivates him not only to stay out of trouble, Jones said, but also to help make the city a safer place to grow up.

“One of my kids getting hit by a stray bullet,” he said. “That is the scariest thing.”