Richard "White Boy Rick" Wershe Jr. spent more than 32 years in prison for a non-violent drug offense. He was released in July, and now, he's talking about his past, present, and future.
It’s the first time we’re hearing from Wershe in three decades.
Re-living his past and what he calls ‘a broken system'
During the days of the interview, Wershe wanted to visit a home in Southfield. He said it was the last place things felt normal to him.
“I walked out of this house Jan. 15, 1988 in the morning and never returned until now," he said. "I'm a little emotional, (it's) been a long time. Had a lot of good memories here, a lot of good memories. I considered this my home."
Nearly 33 years after leaving the home in Southfield, he returned and found some memories still feel like yesterday.
There has also been a book deal, and another documentary soon to come
“I don’t think I should have done 5 or 6 years for the crime I committed, if that.
“I sold drugs. I’m not proud of it. But, I was pushed into that life by our law enforcement and our government," he added. "I didn’t learn to sell drugs and my family didn’t teach me. Law enforcement taught me to sell drugs.
Wershe was an underage FBI informant living a fast life, trying to get ahead on the city's east side in areas you can still see blight today.
Some in the media back then portrayed Wershe as the head of a drug empire, someone he never was
"Where I come from Simon, it's usually poverty that drives you to those things," he said.
Now, a free man at 51 years old, Wershe has lived the effects of a mandatory life law for anyone caught with 650 grams of cocaine or more.
While the state law was found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 and called cruel and unusual punishment, Wershe remained in prison. He said false testimony by police led to countless denials of parole.
“There were letters that were written falsely saying I committed crimes I was never charged with. They were blatant lies to the parole board, and they committed crimes to keep me in prison," he said.
“The people that conspired to keep me in prison, nothing will ever happen to them, they look in the mirror every day and know what they did to me," he added. You also did it to my family. My mother, father, sister, children, they all lost me for 32 years. It’s not right.”
Attorney Ralph Musilli took Wershe's case back in the 1980s and has been with him all along. Musilli is a close friend to Wershe and remains part of his legal team.
Prior to his release, Musilli also obtained a sworn affidavit from a retired detective, proving lies were told by police and public officials to hurt Wershe at his parole hearings.
“What happened to him wasn’t criminal in the statutory sense, but it was highly immoral," Musilli said.
“I’ll never be able to thank Ralph. The respect and gratitude I have for what Ralph did for me, and sticking by me. I can never repay him. But, if he ever needs me I’m there," Wershe added.
Today, the same crime for which Rick was locked up at age 17 would only land someone three years at most. Yet, a broken system hasn't broken his spirit, and he's continued to publicly thank Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Dana Hathaway, who took a stand to push for his release.
“Rick has spent his 20th, 30th, 40th & 50th birthdays in prison and every year in between. He wasn’t going to weddings or birthdays. 2/3 of his life behind bars. It’s an absolute travesty," Hathaway said.
Eventually, a parole board ruling granted Rick's freedom in 2017. After completing time in Michigan and Florida on unrelated charges, Wershe once again hopes to focus on family as a father, grandfather, and fiance. He's also dedicating himself to helping others in the system who are struggling.
“I don’t want my legacy to be White Boy Rick, I want my legacy to be what I do after I was released from prison, the changes I can help make to the justice system. The changes I can help Team Wellness make in our community," he said.
Advocating for prison reform
After being arrested in the 1980s, Wershe spent decades advocating for prison reform. After seeing the problems within the system from the inside, he's come back here to Detroit's east side to help others and partner with the organization called "Team Wellness."
“One thing I’d like people to know is I care about others. If I see someone in need I try to help them.
We drove with Wershe through parts of Detroit, which stirred up memories from the 80s, when his life changed forever after he was convicted of selling drugs and sentenced to life without parole as a teen.
Wershe was caught with more than 8 kilograms of cocaine and was sentenced under Michigan's 650-lifer law, which gave people who had more than 650 grams of cocaine life in prison without parole.
“I think we over punish people today in society, especially for non-violent crimes," he said. "You can give a child molester 3-5 years, or a drunk driver who killed an innocent person 3-5 years, but you’ll give a drug dealer 30 years.”
Wershe was forced to grow up in a violent place, witnessing a brutal stabbing the first day he was locked up. For more than three decades across several states, it was all about survival.
“The Florida prison system is horrible. Feds should take it over and shut it down. They are beating people in there and torturing people," he said.
People he met behind bars opened his eyes to a broken system – one that's less about rehabilitation and more filled with despair. Particularly for inmates who suffer from mental illness and trauma.
“We don’t need to spend $2 billion a year on a prison system. Instead of incarcerating kids, let’s send them to college," he said. "I’d rather have a kid with a 4 year degree in society than a kid who went to prison for 4 years.”
Inside the cell, Wershe found a purpose – a calling to help others.
"I was in a dark place. A bad place. It made me feel good to do good things from a bad place," Wershe said.
Using a Facebook page, he would hold fundraisers for his neighborhood church, and use his voice and life experience as his biggest asset to advocate for prison reform.
“How do you plan to use your name and story to bring about real change?” I asked.
"I think I can bring real change through my name and story because I lived it. I lived 32 years 7 months in a cage. From the time I was a child to a 51-year-old man, I was incarcerated," Wershe responded. "So, I know what goes on behind those walls and it’s not pretty. You’re still a human being and 95% of those people are going to be released back into our society. Do you really want them coming out worse than when they went in.”
His message started reaching beyond prison walls in Michigan, Florida and Arizona. A Hollywood film brought more awareness, and back home, a strong movement for prison reform grew.
"This as a society cannot be tolerated," his attorney Nabih Ayad said. “The system let him down, society let him down. For a child to be doing 32 years in prison is unheard of.”
Ayad said Rick's story illustrates the importance of places like Team Wellness in Wayne County, which gives former inmates a foundation for success and provides an alternative to a jail cell.
“You need to help them while in custody and when they transition back into society. At the end of the day, it’s an investment for all the communities," Ayad said.
A growing number of judges, elected leaders and mental health experts agree that our prisons are filled with too many non-violent offenders in need of counseling, job training, housing and more.
“We were housing them in our jail where they really didn’t belong. It was costing the taxpayers millions and millions of dollars," Wayne County Criminal Court Chief Judge Timothy Kenny said.
Kenny and Freddie Burton, who is the Chief Judge of the Wayne County Probate Court, have moved to de-criminalize non-violent misdemeanor offenses and get real help for those who've made a mistake.
“Mental health courts have been very successful throughout the state and country and we’re glad to have that as an asset," Kenny said.
“There are a number of facilities like Team Wellness that provide help for people, but it’s really decision-makers that have to come together and say this is what we’re going to get done," Burton added.
It's also an issue with the juvenile system.
“When a dad gets incarcerated, you’re taking one of the parents out of that family home," Nick Hathaway, a juvenile court referee at the Wayne County Lincoln Hall of Justice, said. "Those kids are left sometimes to their own devices. One bad decision leads to another, and they might find themselves in juvenile court in front of me after committing an offense.”
In the end, Wershe said it's about breaking a destructive and costly cycle.
“I call it life on the installment plan. When you get in and out, in and out, you might do 30 years on 5-6 different prison bids. You did life on the installment plan," Wershe said.
During his final year in Florida, Rick got to work at a top Orlando law firm and lived at a transition home, paying his own way and saving money.
Participating in the Florida program that hires inmates to work – Attorney Mary Sherris, a former prosecutor, says giving Rick a job changed her life.
“His knowledge is tremendous. His communication is tremendous," Sherris said. "The reason he made the biggest impression on me, he was in prison for 32 years and you’d think we would have nothing in common, that’s scary to some, but after a year I consider him one of my best friends.”
“I worked for 10 months in a law firm it was amazing. People I worked for became like my family. Listen, she’s one of the top attorneys in Orlando," Wershe added.
Now, back in Detroit, Rick's new business partnership as a consultant with Team Wellness is all about helping people before and after incarceration. He's also spending time with his family and fiancée.
“I tried to send a card every year. She’s just a good person. She cares about other people, and someone special in my life," he said.
Rick's journey & plan for after prison
Part 3 of our exclusive series talking with Rick Wershe focused on the journey he’s taken and calling he’s found beyond prison. He tells us he sees himself making a difference base on his life and lessons learned.
“From my experience. 32 years and 7 months incarcerated. I want to talk to people and sometimes just to listen, they need someone to listen to them.” Wershe said.
His story is far from over and after spending a week with him, you can sense his passion for prison and mental health reform. It’s why he brought us to Team Wellness, a place that’s become special for him.
“A person’s past doesn’t reflect their future. A guy might have put that life behind him 10 years ago and you’re still holding that against him,” he said. ““Give a person a chance. They’re part of our society. They live here and one day could be your neighbor.”
More than 32 years since he was locked up for a non-violent crime, Rick says his passion is finding ways to change a broken system.
Wershe said Team Wellness is giving people a hand up, not a handout.
“I had heard about Team Wellness doing good things in the city for years. I had done my research already and looked into what they were doing. I was immediately attracted to the organization,” Wershe said.
“No one is turned away. They have mental health, dental, drug rehab. Everything people need in this area is offered in this facility. You can even stay overnight if need be. Everyone who has completed this program for job training has went on to get a job,” he added.
Wershe tells us he’s committed to stating a juvenile diversion program and would like to work with the governor. His goal is stopping mass incarceration.
“The saying you paid your debt to society to me is a foolish statement. When you are incarcerated you are actually costing society more money,” he said. “We’re in Wayne County. I believe 80% of our prison population in Michigan, is from here and it costs taxpayers 2 billion dollars. From Wayne County.”
Michael Hunter is a VP with Team Wellness and says they are thrilled to partner with Rick.
“Getting out of prison isn’t the answer. The answer is being set free. We’ve learned to stop saying what’s wrong with you and instead say what happened and how did we get here? They begin to tell us what happened because everyone has a story,’ Hunter said.
Watch our full interview below
Wershe regularly spends his time sharing his story and offering positive support, along with a team of mental health experts, doctors, job skills providers and others equipped to turn lives around.
“A lot of people who have brushes with the law have an underlying mental illness of substance abuse, so when they come out being able to address that and get into treatment as quickly as possible improves chance of success and not becoming recidivistic to the system,” Hunter said.
“A person is going to do what they have to do to survive. If that person has to commit a crime because they’re hungry or don’t have clothes and we can provide those services, it will make the community a much safer place,” Wershe added.
In addition, Detroit Wayne Intergrated Health Network CEO Willie Brooks Jr. is among those advocating for the same cause as Rick.
“I visit many providers like Team Wellness and corrections centers. The number 1 thing that drives people to change is when they realize someone actually cares. Every individual they turn around generates revenue and change in society,” Brooks said.
Brooks agrees a rise in crime, and stigma surrounding mental health have also contributed to the need for more mental health treatment.
“How many times they have been raped, abused, left homeless, how many times they didn’t know if they would live the next day,” Brooks added.
Rick believes the system must be improved in order to change people’s outcomes.
“In prison they can only do so much. There’s 1,000 people and might be five or four psychologists in prison. As society, when they come out is when they need more help.” Wershe said.
Judge Shannon Holmes, is another supporter of a growing movement. She’s also a part of mental health court at 36th district court.
“I send people to Team Wellness. They’ve partnered with us at Mental Health court. I get to address the whole person. The physical, mental & emotional needs.” Holmes said.
“As an inmate we broke the law. But, you’re still coming back to society. At some point, some people need help. Team Wellness is offering that help. But, when a soldier comes home and needs mental health help that’s offered. As an inmate it’s really not offered.” Wershe said.
Wershe crusade has also led to more consulting opportunities. He currently partners with Chicago law firm Hale & Monico, to assist with criminal defense and civil rights violations. He says he wants his legacy to be what he accomplishes after prison.
“This is his passion, to give back and to help. He’s genuine. Giving and kind. Truthful. He cares. He’s been thru a lot and it never broke him.” says his fiancé and biggest supporter Michelle MacDonald. Rick also says “I’ve had people ask me why did you come back here? There’s nothing here. But, this is where I’m from and this is my city. If I can help people here that no one else will help, I’ll help them.”
*digital editing and presentation by Max White*