Rick Speck, Storyteller

Rick Speck defies labels. He is a proud grandpa and a father in mourning; a formerly incarcerated man and an advocate for survivors of crime; someone convicted of multiple felonies and a man who overcomes stereotypes and statistical likelihoods to thrive after prison. He is all of these at the same time without contradiction.

If that sounds unusual, it shouldn’t. All people are complex, burdened by personal histories and bolstered by individual strengths, skills and innate talents. But often, as Rick knows all too well, people who have been incarcerated are forever defined by that experience alone.

But Rick won’t let himself be defined on those terms.

Rick spent 17 years in prison before becoming a criminal justice reform advocate. In 2020, he joined Safe & Just Michigan, a Lansing-based nonprofit working on state-level policy reforms, as a community engagement specialist. As part of his work, he speaks with lawmakers about pending legislation.

“I’ve been in situations where we’re talking about ending long and indeterminate sentences, and when I share my perspective, I get push back. They say that I’ve never been on the receiving end, that I just don’t understand,” Rick said. “Then I explain I am a survivor. I lost my oldest child to a violent crime, and I still feel this way.”

Rick’s story begins in Detroit, where he grew up to the age of 9. But after his parents divorced, he moved to the suburbs, where he had a hard time adjusting and fitting in. At the same time, he was also contending with an incredibly upsetting personal trauma that he couldn’t talk about: shortly after moving out of Detroit, he was sexually abused by a friend’s family member.

“I had the shame of not wanting to discuss it, and then not working through it,” Rick said. “It led to a lot of later alcohol abuse and experimentation with drugs and addiction issues primarily with cocaine, which exacerbated my behavior and life of crime. I’ve been self-medicating most of my life.”

Rick got good grades and looked forward to entering the military after graduation, but he struggled to find his place in his new community. He found acceptance among people who didn’t have his best interests in mind. It led to him being arrested and convicted of multiple felonies for breaking into businesses one drunken night when he was 18.

Being considered a “felon” and losing his chance to join the military hit Rick hard. He gave up on his goals and fell further into behaviors that led him to being involved with the justice system in the first place.

“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.

During his final five years in prison, Rick began to understand the need for change. He was the father of two daughters who had largely grown up while he was incarcerated, and once he came home, he wanted to be a better dad to them.

Fortunately, Rick didn’t have to look far for help. In prison, there were several people ready to help him become a better parent and to prepare for a life after incarceration. Some were simply individuals who had been in prison a while and turned their lives around already. Others belonged to organizations like A Chance for Life in Prison, which teaches incarcerated people to become mediators and peacekeepers.

At first, friends and family members were skeptical of the positive changes Rick was making. Many of them had gotten their hopes up before, and they didn’t want to be disappointed again. But Rick stuck with it, even when working to keep peace inside prison put himself in physical danger. That won over even staunch skeptics like a corrections officer who himself risked disciplinary action for sticking up for Rick.

When Rick when came home from prison in 2013, he was a much different man than when he went in. He didn’t want anything to do crime anymore. He wanted to be a family man, and he wanted to work on criminal justice reform in order to make the justice system more effective and fair for everyone impacted by crime and courts.

“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,” Rick said. “I wanted to tell them that what changed me was education.”

He founded L.U.C.K. (Leaders Under Correct Knowledge) to help formerly incarcerated people find their way back into the workforce and, in 2018, took a job with the ACLU of Michigan’s Smart Justice campaign.

But then, tragedy struck.

Rick’s oldest daughter Bryanna — who by then had become a mother — was killed in an act of gun violence. No one has been convicted of the killing, leaving a painful, unhealed wound in Rick’s heart. The loss made Rick take some time off work to reconsider whether he could continue to do criminal justice reform work, knowing that the person who killed his daughter had yet to be held accountable.

“Bryanna was just always really proud of what I was doing, that I was doing good in the world,” Rick said. “That was my motivation to stay in this work. It’s still challenging at times, but that was honestly the decision I came to. But it took me a while. It took months.”

It was a dark time, he recalls.

“During that time, I wanted to use (drugs) again,” Rick said. “It was a pain like I’ve never experienced.”

Thanks to his friends and family, he was able to avoid that.

“My family was concerned with how I would respond on a number of levels – from seeking revenge to using again,” Rick said. “I had just a lot of support around me. I wasn’t left alone, literally not alone for weeks.”

He emerged from that time recommitted to helping others who had felt lost in the criminal justice system find their own way out. After all, many of them had also known losses as painful as his — a fact brought home to him again while working on the From the Numbers project.

As part of From the Numbers, Rick listened to nine other formerly incarcerated people share their life stories. He was struck by how many of them had also experienced sexual abuse as children — just as he did. Hearing them be brave enough to talk about what happened to them gave Rick the courage to talk about what happened to him for to anyone other than his wife for the first time.

“It was cathartic to say it out loud because I’d been hearing the women in From the Numbers sharing their stories, and there are other men out there struggling with the same issues,” he said. “I cried. I think I cried more for the little boy I was than myself today. I can deal with it emotionally today where that little boy couldn’t because that’s how I coped — by using. I just didn’t want other people to have to think that’s the only solution.”

Rick’s experiences — as a formerly incarcerated person and a criminal justice reform advocate, as a survivor of sexual abuse and a grieving parent and as a person recovering from addiction — illustrate how people can’t be neatly divided into categories like “victim” or “perpetrator.” In that sense, he’s very much like everyone else. But few people who have been through such emotional events in their life are willing to talk about them with lawmakers, like Rick does.

He recalled one conversation with a legislator who wanted to hear more from Rick once he learned about his daughter.

“It gives (lawmakers) a moment of pause and then many want a further conversation,” Rick says. “He wanted to follow up with a conversation. He was more receptive to moving forward from that point. I told him that I want my family safe too. Things still happen to our families and to us. We’re not different.”

And that, to Rick, is an essential point he wants everyone to know.

“We’re all more than the sum of our worst decisions,” he said. “We have redeeming qualities and we are an asset to the community. When we come home, we are here to help and not harm anyone. We’re here to pick up the pieces of our own lives, to start over and build a fresh start.”

Listen to Rick tell his story here: