David Lewis, an ex-convict turned social activist who co-founded a drug treatment and prisoner rehabilitation program that gained national recognition, died June 9 of a bullet wound to the abdomen, said his mother, Cora. He was 54.

Lewis was shot outside a mall in San Mateo, Calif., in what police are calling a targeted attack.

With a Stanford University student in 1992, Lewis started Free at Last in East Palo Alto, Calif. The organization helps more than 4,200 people annually and has become a model of community-based treatment, said Lara Galinksy of Echoing Green, a nonprofit that provided seed money to Free at Last.

Born Nov. 23, 1955, in San Francisco, Lewis was a high school dropout in East Palo Alto who became involved in gangs and drugs. A heroin addict at 15, he was in prison at 19 and spent most of the next 17 years behind bars.

He was serving time in San Quentin State Prison when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989. He felt powerless and "vowed to never feel powerless again," Lewis told the Sacramento Observer in 2003.

Released from prison shortly after the quake, he eventually entered a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center and joined a black men's support group, Circle of Recovery, that was featured in a 1991 Bill Moyers' documentary with the same name.

Lewis remade himself into a counselor and co-founded Free at Last the same year that East Palo Alto recorded the highest murder rate in the nation. The program has been credited with greatly reducing area crime.

He also pioneered a program aimed at East Palo Alto residents who are returning to the community from prison. Run by the local Police Department, it provides life-skills training and temporary jobs with the California Department of Transportation.

More recently, Lewis had been working with Pasadena police officials to set up a similar program and had completed projects with New York and Michigan correctional systems.

In 1994, he received the California Wellness Foundation's Peace Prize for his efforts to treat violence as a preventable health issue.

In addition to his mother, Lewis is survived by three children, David LeeShawn Lewis, Shyvonne Monet Lewis and Zachary Bilal Lewis; and three grandchildren.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com