For Rick Speck, the process of change relies heavily on role models — both having one and being one. While he was incarcerated, it was the presence of good role models that led Speck, now Safe & Just Michigan’s community engagement specialist, to turn his life around. Once that happened, he realized that he had become a role model for others looking to accomplish what he’d just done.

The change between needing a role model and being one was so subtle, though, that others had to point it out to him.

“My family had seen the change and expressed it to me,” Speck said. “They saw I matured. They knew I was changing when I didn’t quite realize it.”

The change had been a long time coming for the Detroit native, who at one time had pinned his hopes on the Navy to see the world and save money for college. He did well in high school and had already enlisted in the military. That’s when one bad night cut all his plans short.

“I had my first encounter with law enforcement when I was 18 and was charged with multiple felonies,” Speck said. “I pled guilty for breaking into businesses on a drunken night that I don’t even remember.”

Rather than being given a second chance to prove himself, he was given his first felony conviction. The label and the conviction hit him hard, and pushed him toward decisions he would later deeply regret.

“I was angry and began to drink and use drugs more heavily. Eventually, I ended up serving a prison term for that crime,” he said.

He was already serving a probation sentence, so the additional drug charges resulted in a prison stay of 4-10 years. When he returned home, he found work as a painter, but soon reunited with a friend who sold drugs and began to go down the wrong path again. He was in and out of prison, until finally he landed on a 15-year sentence.

It was the last five years of that sentence that made the most difference, Speck said. The impetus was being a father and wanting to become a better role model for his children. Speck has four children and two grandchildren.

“It was my desire to be a better person so that I could be a better father to them,” he said.

Fortunately, there were role models available to him in prison.

“I became part of a program called A Chance for Life in Prison, whose goal is to develop people into mediators and peacekeepers,” Speck said. “That’s where I really found my passion to help men like myself.”

While he learned from other men in prison who had transformed themselves, he soon realized that change had more to do with himself.

“It was about carrying myself with integrity on a daily basis, regardless of the fact that I was in prison,” he said. “It was just gradual, and it became easier and easier to do the right thing.”

It soon became clear, though, that others were watching. Other people who were incarcerated wanted to know if the changes were for real. “People were watching my actions to see if they lined up with what I was teaching,” he said.

For that matter, the corrections officers were skeptical, too.

Tim Runyan, a former corrections officer at the Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson, doubted the changes he saw in Speck. He said he had been trained to mistrust the incarcerated people under his care. But eventually, he saw Speck take enormous risks to retain his character and integrity.

For instance, when Runyan acted intentionally demeaning towards his fellow incarcerated people, Speck was courageous enough to argue that Runyan was undermining other people’s efforts to improve their character and have stronger ethics. And Runyan watched Speck put his own physical safety at risk to prevent violence between others.

“It got to the point where it was embarrassing when a prisoner was showing more integrity than me,” Runyan said. “The other officers started to hate me when I started to support (Speck and other incarcerated people). I chose to tell the truth, and man, did I get fallout for that.”

A few times, Runyan was even threatened with disciplinary action for sticking up for Speck, but that didn’t deter him. When Runyan retired from the Michigan Department of Corrections in 2018, Speck and his wife were in attendance at the party. Speck and Runyan remain close friends, and Runyan says the two “have a bond that nobody can take from us.”

Once he was finally out of prison, Speck wanted to continue to work of helping others avoid harming others — or if they had already, to get back on the right track.

“I wanted to continue to teach and work with young people that were headed down the wrong path. I wanted to talk to them about how I was when I was younger and share my experience of where my poor choices got me,” Speck said. “I wanted to tell them that what changed me was education.”

Through that effort, Speck founded LUCK Inc. — it stands for Leaders Under Correct Knowledge — to help people recently released from prison to successfully return to their home communities. LUCK Inc. did workforce development to help people achieve economic security once they reintegrated.

In 2018, Speck took an opportunity to work with ACLU of Michigan on their Smart Justice campaign, which aims to halve prison populations. In Michigan, the campaign aims to do this through bail reform, sentencing reform, and prosecutorial accountability and transparency. Speck also credits ACLU for providing tremendous learning opportunities and for giving justice-involved people a seat at the table in the campaign.

When an opening at Safe & Just Michigan came along, Speck was ready for it.

“I’ve always been a supporter of CAPPS (Safe & Just Michigan’s former name) when I was incarcerated. I wrote to CAPPS about issues in the past and donated to them. I got to know (Outreach Director) Troy Rienstra on the inside,” Speck said.

What drew Speck to SJM is the organization’s determination to advocate for the rights and better treatment of incarcerated people, he said. In particular, he would like to be a part of ending Michigan’s overly harsh “Truth in Sentencing” law and to make it easier for people leaving prison to successfully rejoin their communities.

“I believe in the work that Safe & Just Michigan is doing — and the way we are doing it — by bringing system-impacted people to the table to be partners in it,” Speck said.