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Inmates give Washington, D.C., ideas for curbing gun violence

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

An innovative program inside the D.C. jail is asking incarcerated people for their ideas about gun violence. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson got to take a close look.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Inside a gym at the D.C. jail, tables are set up like a science fair. Detainees in orange uniforms are standing by to explain their projects to a group of visitors. Sean Johnson's a coach for other detainees who are part of the program known as Lead Up.

SEAN JOHNSON: Each person that you see in this facility, in this gym right now are all enrolled in some type of a educational commitment that they have a goal to achieve.

JOHNSON: Today they're explaining how they think the district can reduce gun violence, like creating a Department of Violence Prevention, enlisting lobbyists and the National Rifle Association to devote money and training to the problem. Deputy Mayor Chris Geldart is paying close attention.

CHRIS GELDART: What am I doing here?

JOHNSON: Yeah.

GELDART: I'm looking for the next great idea because there's no patent on the good ideas and how we deal with this. And quite frankly, we need more ideas.

JOHNSON: Geldart and other D.C. government officials say they'll use the ideas to reflect on how they can address such a persistent and deadly problem. Amy Lopez is deputy director of College and Career Readiness for the D.C. Department of Corrections. She's also the architect of the Lead Up program, which she says hasn't been used with incarcerated adults before.

AMY LOPEZ: They really get to be problem-solvers for what's happening in their own city even though they're in here. So they feel less disenfranchised. And then it also gives the community an opportunity to humanize what's happening in a prison or jail.

JOHNSON: In each of three housing units, detainees work to get their GED or toward a college degree or professional certification. Lopez came to Washington for another job near the end of the Obama administration, but it didn't work out.

LOPEZ: I was hired to be the first superintendent for the first ever school district to be built inside the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

JOHNSON: A few months later, the Trump administration took a different, more punitive approach, and Lopez was let go. She moved to the local government, where she's developed programs like this one. In a far corner of the gym, detainee Xavier Lee, who goes by X, is chatting with a judge.

XAVIER LEE: This is one of my favorite people that I've met here, which is really bizarre - right? - because he's a judge, you know? So it's not a normal relationship.

JOHNSON: Maybe it should be a normal relationship, says Judge Zia Faruqui.

ZIA FARUQUI: As X said, we play a part in each other's lives. And for me, I think that relationship doesn't end when someone is sentenced or detained.

JOHNSON: Detainee Leon Lipscombe says the time in jail can pass slowly, and it's hard to find ways to be productive.

LEON LIPSCOMBE: Just because I'm back here doesn't mean that I don't care, doesn't mean that I'm invisible. And maybe there's something that I can bring from behind the walls, some perspective to the world.

JOHNSON: Lipscombe says he's got papers and exams due soon that are making him a little anxious.

LIPSCOMBE: But to be able to say that I'm stressed out in a productive way - I'm not talking about being stressed out about my court date or about my lawyer coming. I'm stressed out about things that are going to further my education.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.

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