Richard Garland
Richard Garland. Photo by Tony Norman.

When Richard Garland enters a room, his reputation usually precedes him. While a fedora on a shaved head has replaced the salt-and-pepper dreadlocks he wore for years, he still looks 20 years younger than the 70 years he insists he’s clocked on the planet.

The assistant professor in Behavioral and Community Health Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh currently oversees the Violence Prevention Initiative at the Center for Health Equity.

He’s also the mastermind behind Gunshot Reocurring Injury Prevention Service (G.R.I.P.S.) and the director of Reimagine Reentry, which includes MC3, a program for citizens reentering society after a stint in prison. (Both programs are significant initiatives that will be explored in detail in future columns).

For all of his bureaucratic finesse, there was a time when Garland found it impossible to imagine a problem he couldn’t punch his way out of. He spent decades in prison working through that self-defeating philosophy.

Growing up in Philadelphia at a time of intense gang activity in the 1960s and ’70s, Garland was known as “Squirt” because he was unusually short for a gangbanger — 4 feet 11 inches tall at the time.

The only thing that gave him any kind of edge in West Philly and other neighborhoods, were his fists, his ferocity and his willingness to “throw down” at every opportunity. The gang he repped gave him a sense of community that his grandmother, twin brother and sister couldn’t match.

Drug-addicted and violent even by the standards of  Philly’s mean streets, Garland was also intelligent and aspirational in his own way. He knew his lifestyle would lead to an early grave, but he couldn’t figure out a way out of his downward spiral.

Though raised by his grandmother, Garland was also familiar with juvenile group homes; he spent time in enough of them thanks to various petty crimes and misdemeanors he committed along the way to adulthood.

In prison, Garland experienced a tremendous growth spurt that made him more intimidating than ever — and rendered his nickname more ironic than descriptive. Still, he held on to the name because it was his calling card. 

“I grew up in the penitentiary,” Garland says. “I used to box. I could fight. That’s how I got that reputation. Everything I’d gotten in life was based on how good I could rumble.”

For helping dispose of the body of a housemate his friend murdered with a shotgun blast to the face, Garland was sentenced to Graterford Penitentiary in 1979.

Garland kept his boxing skills intact with sanctioned matches in various prisons when he wasn’t cooling his heels in solitary for defying authorities. But it wasn’t boxing that instilled a sense of self-worth within him he carries to this day; it was his association with members of the back-to-nature collective MOVE he met at Philly’s Holmesburg Prison.

Photo by Tony Norman.

“MOVE is the reason I’m who I am today,” Garland says, knowing a positive mention of his prison mentors will be triggering to many. 

He invites those curious about that period of his life to read his 2004 biography co-authored with John A. Taylor called “That’s All In It: The Richard Garland Story.”

For decades, Garland wore dreadlocks and adopted a near-vegetarian diet out of respect for MOVE. His newfound friends also motivated him to exercise daily and pursue healthy lifestyles and the development of his mind. “MOVE taught me that before joining a revolution, you gotta’ change yourself,” he says.

Upon turning his back on future violence, he also completed his G.E.D and took college courses offered at the prison by the University of Pittsburgh, his future employer. 

From his mid-teens to when he was released from Western Penitentiary in 1991, Garland spent 23 1/2 years in various forms of incarceration. Pittsburgh became his home because a condition of his parole was that he couldn’t return to Philly due to his history of gang entanglements there. 

Garland and community activist Khalid Raheem organized efforts to address Pittsburgh’s increased gang activity in the 1990s when politicians were still in denial. Garland also completed a master’s degree in social work at Pitt on grants provided by foundations that recognized the importance of his work.

In 2002, Garland founded One Vision One Life, an initiative that employed formerly incarcerated gang members to use their influence to persuade the younger generation of shooters to stop.

“We made it known that we may not stop the first shot, but we could stop the retaliation based on the people we had on the street,” he says.

One Vision lost its funding under Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services in 2012, but Garland was already strategizing with foundations and community activists to keep the momentum going. 

Before the end of the month, Garland will be going to Mercer County Jail to talk to incarcerated men and women about vocational opportunities and job training available in Pittsburgh once they leave prison. He especially wants to get young people to change their trajectory the way he did decades earlier.

“Older inmates took me under their wing and put me on a better path,” Garland says. “Older dudes bear responsibility for the younger ones. It’s their responsibility to help these young dudes change the narrative.”

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.