THE BLOG

Invest in Those Who Can Save Us

06/30/2010 02:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Elena Quintana Executive Director, Adler Institute on Public Safety & Social Justice

A slight, dark-skinned man made his way slowly down the hallway of the hospital clinic. He shuffled awkwardly, his movement impeded by shackles binding his legs and arms. His small frame swam in an extra-large bright yellow jumpsuit with large "IDOC" lettering emblazoned across the back. Two officers flanked him, the larger holding onto a metal loop attached to the chain leash protruding from the manacles binding the man's wrist. The trio slowly made their way onto the freight elevator, and disappeared from sight.

I trailed them at a glacial pace while escorting a man named Alphonso, who was recently shot. Alphonso watched keenly as the man in the jumpsuit made his way down the corridor. He could relate to him. Not only did Alphonso reflect the physical characteristics of the jailed man, but Alphonso, at age 52, has spent over half of his life behind bars. He was first sent to the juvenile detention center forty years ago and has spent about 30 of those years locked up. It would appear that a person like Alphonso could never be reformed.

Alphonso is an unusually kinetic man - in constant motion, scanning streetscapes, crowds, facial expressions, and car movements, makes, and models. Alphonso, known by the nickname Swanky, is so well-known on the Westside of Chicago that when his car broke down for a few weeks, Alphonso stood on the street and flagged down cars to take him to his desired destination, any time of the day or night.

Addiction has dogged Alphonso for most of his life and his drug and alcohol use often resulted in more jail time, as one aspect of his addictive personality was an irrepressible desire to run the streets. In 2004, after he'd been out of jail for a couple of years and resolved to never return to prison, Alphonso began volunteering with CeaseFire to help stop conflicts from turning deadly. He used his unparalleled street knowledge to find out who was in conflict, and who they might listen to in order to stop the violence. Since then, Alphonso has been on a mission to track and interrupt violence on the Westside of Chicago. His movement from street to street, conflict to conflict, family to family is frenetic.

As a criminal, Alphonso honed his powers of observation. He watched his back, and was never once shot. That changed a couple of weeks ago as Alphonso stood in a crowd of people, attempting to stop violence from jumping off when a passing car sprayed the crowd with bullets. Although the crowd was dense, only Alphonso and one other man were shot. Alphonso was struck three times in both thighs, one bullet lodged in the muscle. On crutches and moving slowly, Alphonso feels lucky to be alive and not to have suffered greater injury.

For the most part, our society writes off people like Alphonso. There is an expectation that after so many incarcerations, relapses, and failures to succeed in the mainstream, people like Alphonso may never amount to anything that will serve the larger society. We couldn't be more foolish. What has become apparent to me is that we are dependent on people like Alphonso to address the killings and shootings in Chicago as only they can.

It is ironic that only after Alphonso became firmly committed to violence prevention did he fall victim to gun violence. As he sat on the couch of his auntie's house, Alphonso answered the 20th phone call in an hour. He was itching to move through the streets, to put out any fire he could. His friend teased him: "CeaseFire doesn't work! You got shot trying to stop the violence." Alphonso responded "I could have gotten shot just standing out on the street." I am thankful that he continues to do what he can to stop the violence in a way that most of us can not.