Jesus Cortez, 23 years inside
Released after 23 years
Diane: What went through your mind when you heard you were found suitable?
Jesus: I didn’t think I was going to get a grant because of the nature of the crime, which was on an officer. Once he said, “We find you suitable for parole,” I started crying from the weight of the hearing. I thought of my mother who passed in 2018. I thought about my daughter, my sisters, my family, everybody who stood in my corner. I just started sobbing like a child. I was just so grateful and told the commissioner, “Thank you very much, you’re going to hear good things about me, I promise you that.”
Diane: What happened next?
Jesus: I was given 140 days, but the governor sent my grant back to the parole board commissioners asking them to review it again. He didn’t want to sign off on my release. On July 18th, the panel had a hearing and people showed up to advocate for me. They decided that my grant was appropriate and scheduled my release. I was no longer a threat in society. The emotional response it elicited was so real, I felt it big time. I was cautiously optimistic, only because my story isn’t one of those regular cases. In prison, I was deeply immersed into negative danger, so I can empathize with the governor’s concern. My thoughts were, even if they didn’t release me, I’d be OK because my peace isn’t dictated by my physical freedom. When the officer said, “Roll up your mattress and leave it right here, you’re being released tomorrow morning.” That’s when it hit. That’s when it really hit me. I was going home.
Diane: I haven’t heard someone talk about being at peace and transfer it to not being released. Your emotional intelligence is so admirable.
Jesus: Yeah, thank you, but you know the beautiful thing about it, right? I didn’t know I was doing that. I had already prepared my family in the event the panel sided with the governor. They would express to me that they’re praying for my release. I would always remind them that they didn’t have to pray. I did not want my family to be devastated.
Diane: When you talk about your family, who are you talking about?
Jesus: My daughter. She had to grow up without a responsible father figure in her life. I carried that with me for a long time. I’m also very close with all my sisters and their kids. For my first parole hearing, my sister wrote a letter to the panel. In that letter, she said something that just tore me up inside, she said it didn’t matter where I was moved. She said nothing was gonna ever hold her back from having a relationship with her brother and making sure her children had a relationship with me too. Even though she knew I wasn’t doing good, she would constantly be like “Hey, knock it off.” She always had hope I was going to snap out of it. My sister made it happen, where I was able to meet my daughter for the first time. She brought my daughter to a surprise visit. Little did she know that surprise visit would be my turning point.
Diane: How was that your turning point?
Jesus: I was back in the hole after I had assaulted another human being with a weapon. Exactly a month later, my daughter showed up for the visit. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the process of these visits, but they take us through a little booth, and you’re on the other side of a glass window from your loved ones. They see when they’re taking the handcuffs off as soon as you walk into the little booth. I noticed that the same little girl that I was writing to throughout all these years was sitting down right there on the other side of the glass window. She picked up the phone and put her hand on the little table on the other side of the booth. She put her head down and cried. For the first time it hit me like, damn, what am I doing? What am I doing? This little girl cried with so much pain. I went back after this visit, and I cried like I’ve never cried since I was a child. I sat down, in the little cell, in the hole, and I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I just started writing. May I share it with you?
“I was blessed to meet the beautiful angel that in my dreams I had always just seen. A seat on the other side of the glass window took her beauty and her bravery, my soul was shook. She was filled with so much pain that if it could scream, it would sound so loud.”
Diane: That’s beautiful. I would love to publish it on our poetry page on our website, if that’s OK with you.
Jesus: I’ll send it. It’s just hitting me right now. I don’t know, but maybe it’s all these people and all this freedom. In the poem, she cried for me, and I wish she hadn’t. “Her strength and courage helped her fight through her tears like a warrior, with daggers, with spears. Our hearts will forever be connected like the prints on our palms. The proof will never be rejected. I love you daughter with all my heart.” That last line slapped me right in the face, because my whole identity was tied to my gang associations there. I was searching for love in all the wrong places. The true love that I was seeking was under my breath. My siblings, even my father, my mom, everybody. It was the perception that I had of not being loved and not being cared about that caused depression to manifest within myself through violence and substance abuse. I needed to make a change. When I met my daughter, I was immersed in gang culture. I was viewed as somebody very influential in prison. It was an internal battle between “Hey, I can’t let this go” and “Look what you caused your daughter.” My sister said, “What’s going to happen if you’re released back to the main line, the general population?
One of the things I left out – I was barely released after doing time every year in isolation. She asked me why. My response – they disrespected me. She said, what’s going to happen if somebody disrespects you again when you’re released? I told her, I’m not going to let myself be disrespected, and my sister looked at me with disgust in her face. Jessie, you’re doing the same thing you did. You are hurting your daughter like you did in 1999.
I broke down. I told an officer I needed help. I wanted to let go of all this identity I had cultivated, this gang identity that gave me everything. The wall of lies is fragile when it hits with the hammer of truth. I didn’t know how to communicate. I didn’t have tools; I didn’t have conflict resolution skills. It was difficult for me to ignore those impulses, but everything I was experiencing whether it was disrespect from another person or from another inmate, I was looking at it through the lens of how is this going to affect my daughter and my siblings if I do something stupid.
Jesus: When I started taking classes, I soaking it up like a sponge. I knew one of the main things I had to do, that I’d never done, was be vulnerable. I remembered how my daughter cried and what my sister told me. The more I learned through these classes, the easier it became. After three or four years of learning and practicing my tools, it became second nature. That’s what I shared with the commissioners the day I was given a grant.
Diane: How is your relationship with your daughter today?
Jesus: Today we have a relationship based on communication. I value her. I hear her. Today my daughter can speak to me about anything because we have a relationship that’s founded on trust and she trusts I’m not going to do anything stupid.
Diane: How do you know she trusts you?
Jesus: She has expressed it to me herself. Being transparent with her has strengthened our relationship. The night of my incarceration her mom was eight months pregnant with her. She asked me not to go out, not to leave. I said I’ll be right back but I chose my gang over both of them. I made it difficult for this child. Even before she was born. When I expressed that to my daughter, she stood in silence for ten minutes and said, dad, thank you.
Now I believe if every human being could understand the impact of what they did to their victims, they wouldn’t be doing a lot of things they are doing today.
Diane: Self-awareness, right? What was your crime? It was against a police officer?
Jesus: Yes. It was the gang mentality I was adhering to, I felt offended and betrayed by my friend. I realize now it was never what he did or the feelings of betrayal. They were the same feelings I felt towards my mom every time she sent me back to live with my father, knowing he abused me. I blamed everybody else for what I was going through. Now I have a beautiful relationship with my father, through dialoguing with him, I’ve been able to help him see why he was so angry and took it out on my siblings and me.
Diane: You’re a living example of how people can change.
Jesus: My father had a lot of problems coming over to a country that was foreign to him and not being able to speak. A month after he arrived, his father was murdered in Mexico. He was carrying around a lot of unprocessed trauma when he met my mother. My father was so angry. He taught us how he was treated. How he was brought up. My mom didn’t want to have more kids. She already had two kids and it was difficult for her being young, raising them on her own so she made it very clear to my father that she didn’t want any more kids. But my father deceived my mother and next thing you know, shes pregnant with me. After they separated, my mom was very short with me. Every time she looked at me, I was reminding her of a lie. I was reminding her of my father.
Diane: You stopped the intergenerational cycle of violence. Please elaborate.
Jesus: When my girlfriend said she was pregnant, my grandma was there and asked me, if I wanted a daughter or a son?” Immediately, I said I wanted a daughter. In our Mexican culture, it’s not macho to hit a woman. So in my mind, if it’s a girl, she’s going to be safe from me. If it was a boy, I was scared I was going to raise him like my father raised me. When I shared this with my father, he just broke down. My girlfriend gave birth to my daughter when I was in prison. We didn’t ask about her, which contributed to the downward spiral I was on. The Lord has blessed me to go on. By God’s grace I’ve been able to be effective working with at-risk youth. It takes someone who’s been through it to reach somebody who’s going through it. This is my passion and what I’m pursuing today. This is one of my dreams and I can’t wait to help pay it forward with these youngsters because it’s a crazy world out here. God willing, they’ll be able to contribute.
Diane: How was the day you were released?
Jesus: My sister, her family and my daughter came to pick me up. The officer driving us to the gate says hey, no loitering. I was like man, I want to be able to hug my family. It was very overwhelming and we all just broke down crying. Right there, right there in the parking lot. Then we drove to see my family, over 34 of my siblings, nieces and nephews were there. It was just beautiful. I was only able to spend an hour with them, but just to be able to embrace everyone who came into this world, while I was in prison. It’s a day I will never forget. Tears of joy and when they hugged me, it was a tighter hug, like they didn’t want to let me go. It was very beautiful. Thank you for asking.