'I lived 32 years, 7 months in a cage.' Rick Wershe reflects on time in prison, advocates for reform

Posted at 1:54 PM, Oct 01, 2020

(WXYZ) — After more than 32 years in prison, Rick Wershe Jr., who many know as White Boy Rick, is speaking only to 7 Action News about his future.

Related: 'Law enforcement taught me to sell drugs.' Rick Wershe says a 'broken system' hasn't broken his spirit

"One thing I'd like people to know is I care about others. If I see someone in need, I try to help them," Wershe said.

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."

Watch part one of Wershe's story below

'Law enforcement taught me to sell drugs.' Rick Wershe says a 'broken system' hasn't broken his spirit

“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.

Related: Timeline shows the major events in White Boy Rick's life

“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.

Related: 'I made it out. I’m living good.' White Boy Rick Wershe speaks out after prison release

"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.

Related: “We were very overwhelmed.” Fiancée of White Boy Rick welcomes him home after 32 years

“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.

Wershe and his fiancée met in middle school and reconnected a few years ago. She's also a huge supporter of what he plans to do at Team Wellness.

Tomorrow on 7 Action News at 6 p.m., Rick will take us inside Team Wellness and show us how the organization is making a change for the better in our community.