Richard Garland, an assistant professor of Public Health Practice at Pitt, has spent a total of 23 years incarcerated — almost two-thirds of his life.
“Believe it or not, I have a real good relationship with law enforcement,” Garland said. “Never thought I’d say that.”
Today, Garland works with police departments and community groups in Allegheny County to educate troubled youth on avoiding gang involvement and gun violence.
In a Cathedral of Learning classroom Tuesday night, Garland discussed his work and his personal views on gun violence, the opioid crisis and the cycle of incarceration with about 30 people during an event hosted by the Pitt Democrats.
Garland said no matter how many laws are created, guns are easy to get in certain places. He believes innocent people should to be taught how to use them to guard themselves.
“The easiest thing for me to get in the hood is a gun. You can put all the regulations you want on it,” he said. “For me, I want people to learn how to use guns to a certain degree to be safe with them.”
As director of the BCHS Center for Health Equity’s Violence Prevention Project, Garland said his experiences with gunshot-wound victims in hospital trauma units have made it clear that gun safety education is crucial to reducing violence.
“Everybody wants to be safe,” Garland said. “When they talk about that white picket fence, nice home, no cares in the world — everybody wants that.”
He said gunshot victims will often claim they were just walking down the street, but their Facebook page often tells another story. Garland looks at the social media accounts of victims to identify signifiers of gang affiliation or illegal activity — sometimes the evidence is as obvious as a photo of a person beside a duffel bag of money or drugs.
“I’m good at connecting the dots,” he said.
Grace DuBois, a first-year political science major at Pitt, came to support Garland, who she said is a good friend. After listening to his talk, she said she still hasn’t changed her desire for stricter gun control laws, although she appreciated hearing a view different from her own.
“I understand his views and where he’s coming from, especially since he’s had a personal, intimate experience with gun violence,” she said.
Alexis Takoushian, a sophomore political science major, said she came to the talk to hear the perspective of someone who was well versed on the gun control debate and had personal experience with gun violence and the criminal justice system.
“You won’t hear these kinds of things from a congressperson,” she said.
Takoushian said it is important for people with different views on major issues in society to discuss them in a civil manner in order to learn more on the subject.
“Gaining info is so important if you want to see any change in the future,” she said. “The benefit is that we’re young, we still have the ability to make a change.”
Through direct counseling with victims, Garland said he aims to avoid repeated emergency room visits for gunshot wounds primarily by stressing education as a way to break out of the cycle of violence, which often leads to incarceration.
Following the lecture portion, audience members prompted Garland with questions about high rates of prison reentry, which he cited as a symptom of poor rehabilitation programs.
“Rehabilitation — it’s a farce. It just doesn’t happen,” he said. “If we really want to talk about rehabilitation, come up with some programs that a guy can use when he gets out, so he doesn’t have to go back to the streets and do the same thing that he did.”
Takoushian said what she took away from the talk is that more needs to be done to address the societal issues that require people to own guns for their own safety.
“He said with some communities it’s necessary to have guns,” she said. “What can we do to make safer communities so we don’t need them?”
Charlotte Goldbach, president of Pitt Dems and a senior communication and political science major, said the discussion was particularly open and informative for the group, many of whom were not usually exposed to the struggles Garland spoke about.
“It gives us a dose of reality, and a lot of education about what we can do, what’s happening,” she said. “Not necessarily that we can help, but that we are more educated about it.”
Today’s generation, Garland said, is more accepting about social issues than the last. He advised college students to continue to be open-minded and tolerant.
“Maybe your parents have really archaic thoughts,” he said. “But you have to be strong in your beliefs.”