Alex, 56

Alex, 56

A Running Lion
Unintended Consequences

Alex, 56
Incarcerated: 28 years
Housed: San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA

Who would ever have thought that the day would come when a lion would run from a deer? I feel like that day has truly come for me.

I was raised in a neighborhood where we were taught that fighting is how problems were solved. I was involved in so many fights throughout my life that it became my go-to coping mechanism. If an argument felt as if it were getting too tense or heated, I would take the first swing. For me, arguing caused doubt. I would cut to the chase. I now realize how wrong I was. Upon finally realizing my entire way of thinking was totally messed up, I am learning new coping mechanisms, and in doing so, I have become the lion running from the deer. I’m not writing this to glorify violence or to seek pity. I am writing to reflect on the situations which were meant for good but turned into bad outcomes. Unintended consequences became the dark cloud in my life that shaped my frame of thought and led me down a road bound for nowhere.

I grew up between Compton and Los Angeles. My mother and father broke up in 1974 when I was seven. I remember wondering why. My father left LA and headed off to the Bay Area where he took over Uncle Bob’s Auto Shop. Before he left, he moved us into a newly built apartment complex called ‘Ujema Village’. It was surrounded by a big field, and felt safe. My mom, brother, six sisters, and I were one of the first families to move in, like a pack of lions on this new ground we called ‘The Village’. As kids, we ran around like newborn lion cubs fresh out the den. For me, this place was like a giant playground. We rode our bikes, played hide and seek, dodgeball, boxed, wrestled and even had dirt rock fights in the empty fields. As more and more people moved in, the pecking orders began to form and fights drew the conclusion. If a dispute got out of hand, our parents would make us go to the back yard, fight it out, and then shake hands which meant it was done and over with. Every now and then, there would even be a family versus family fight. At the end of the day, we were all friends.

After a year of bonding with my new friends, my life took a sudden turn. The mother of my best friend, Darryl Anderson, and my mother became good friends. Darryl’s mother convinced my mother to join a church called Emmanuel Temple. My mother meant well. She had reached the point in her life where she was ready to change her way of living. She stopped drinking, smoking and going to parties. The church for me was the beginning of a very hard, depressed and confused life.

After my mother joined the church, every one of the church rules became the law in our house. Everyone but my big brother had to follow them. I had a big boy’s Market toy truck that I kept my hot wheels and toy men in. I would pretend my toy men were the different people who had picked on me. I would pretend that I was those older guys and created my own scenario in my mind where I got my revenge.
When the Andersons moved out of the village, I no longer had his help whenever I got into a fight. My brother wouldn’t help whenever I got into a pickle, nor did he allow me to run around with him. It was as if he was ashamed of me for being square. I felt betrayed before I knew what the word meant. I was so isolated that all I could really do was observe people and their different personalities. Then came the seventh grade.

Seventh grade became the straw that broke the camel’s back. My first day of Junior High school, I was laughed at. First came the look, then the whisper, on to the giggles and snickers. When I went up north to the Bay Area to visit my dad over summer vacation, he bought my school clothes. I was happy and thought I was looking good. No! Apparently, the dress code varied from city to city. So, I was a poor reader, could not spell, and my dress code was not up to par either. I couldn’t catch a break. In addition to being teased in the neighborhood, I was also teased at school. People I never knew, people I thought I knew, and girls that mesmerized me, all laughed at me for nearly half of my seventh grade year. I was becoming overwhelmed with frustration and anger. I got into fight after fight. My twin sister had $200 that she saved up from a summer job, and she bought me some more clothes. She really took a load off of me, but the damage was already done.

As I struggled to fit in with my peers, my mother was struggling to change me into a Christian. She whipped me regularly. I got my ass beat for getting in trouble at school; however, the only way to get people to leave me alone was to fight. As the church would say, “spare the rod, hate the child”. The strangest part of it all is, although I had become an outcast in my neighborhood, once I started to fight a lot, somehow I became a part of the neighborhood again. Back then, if anyone lost a fight, the loser was teased. If a person refused to fight, they would be picked on until you fought. But, if you won a fight, particularly outside of the neighborhood, that win was credited towards the neighborhood’s winning record. I was already the poster child for other people’s laughter. I could not afford to be talked about anymore, nor could I continue to put up with it. Winning wasn’t an option, it was a necessity.

I would say that halfway through the seventh grade the teasing at the school had stopped. The fighting paid off a little, but it kept me in trouble with the school and my mother. This situation repeatedly caused me to stay in a defensive state of mind. I was trapped by the repeating situation.

Because I was either stuck in the house with my sisters or at church, I did not get involved in common things such as sports. I was not any good at basketball, baseball, or football, nor did I watch it on TV. Whenever I did attempt to get involved in sports, I was either no good at it or I did not know the rules. Therefore, the teasing became non-stop. After a while, I just began to avoid sports and reading at all cost, and anything else that made people talk about me in my mind. Those two things only opened up the door for people to clown me and put me down. After a while, I preferred staying in the house and out of the way.

Godfather was one of the older people that I looked up to. He was also the leader of the village at that time. Godfather would have us all in field boxing and wrestling with each other. He made sure things were fair and he matched us up by size or skill. He was always there for me. V-Dog was another one of the OG’s who was there for me. I did not like him at first, because he used to make me fight Curtis when we were younger. High school was the changing point in my life. I was officially a gang member. I could not believe the respect I was getting and I was not used to it. The people whose respect I used to seek now looked up to me. I even drew the attention of Snake, who was the new leader of ‘The Village’. Snake was one of the most feared and respected people in the neighborhood. Snake was the type of person you did not want to piss off, and he held the knockout record everywhere he went. Snake took over the neighborhood from Godfather and took the knockout record from V-Dog when they had a fight over my sister Tracy. Snake saw something in me that only three other people had seen in me. Darryl Anderson, Godfather and V-Dog were my best friends. These three people kept my head above water, but it was Snake who took me completely out of the water and under his wing.

My first encounter with the law was when I was about 15 years old. I wanted to impress V-Dog by taking a members-only jacket from a person. My second encounter with the law was when I ended up shooting a guy in a fight. Big Darryl, who was engaged to my sister Ramona, was huge; the biggest dude I ever saw in my life. His younger brother, Tone, and I were friends and we used to race each other in our cars. Tone had a Vega; I had a ‘63 Volkswagen that my father gave me. A couple people robbed Tone and it so happened that they moved into the Village. Big Darryl wanted to deal with them but he did not want to offend my sister Ramona, so I told him I would handle it. Long story short, things got out of hand and I ended up shooting one of the guys and nearly starting a war.

I ended up in a fight with one of the guys. They pulled up and jumped out of the car. My brother was out there. In fact, that was the first time he ever helped me. My friend had a gun. I told him, “Give me the gun and go get the homies. My brother said, “you and him are about to get down,” meaning I was about to fight. I tried to hand it off to my sister-in-law but the fight broke out too fast. I was standing over the guy who I fought and his friends were running toward me to get me off of him. It was then that I turned around and fired the gun hitting one of them in the arm. I went to Juvenile Hall for 10 days. The guy that I shot told the court that he had no business fighting me and they let me go on probation.

When I first came to prison for this crime, I was mad at everybody but myself. I figured I would die in prison, so I just did not care. I caught a couple of batteries on inmates. I was in a few riots. I was making wine. We used to sit in the hole and compare our 115’s to see who did the most in the riot. That was where my thoughts were. I didn’t want any friends, just associates.

One particular guy, Kasper, broke the ice. We were opposite but the same. It felt good to laugh again. Before I met Kasper, I was on the B-yard. But after a big riot, when I got out the hole, they sent me to the A-yard. I went to the hole 3 times in that yard. One of the things that I thank God for. I now have my friends who are the four Ds and a K. All five of my friends are on the streets doing well and rooting for me to get out. I thank God because now I know I will be able to surround myself with positive people.

Now you know some of my path–let’s get back to the lion running from a deer. After coming to San Quentin, truthfully, I was so happy to know I didn’t have to make any weapons. I didn’t have to stand in one area while on the yard and I could talk to other races without finding out they got in trouble for it with their tribe. But what I did not know was that my real test had begun. One thing for sure was that we were all equal in prison, so I’m not trying to downplay any other person as if I am better. I ran into people that tried all my triggers so many times that I wanted to react. I kept telling myself, if other people can do it, then I can too. Those people and my triggers are what my new self is running from. I try to stay to myself. It is a struggle, but I got myself here and I plan on getting to the finish line.

If I could say anything to my younger self, I would say, “Don’t be scared to speak up. Tell your mother about the teasing and bullying. Tell her about the problems at school.” I would also tell myself, “Tell your father you want to move in with him to learn the male perspective of life.” I would tell myself not to search for love, but to allow love to come to me. Searching for love will not change the pain in my life. I would tell myself, “Do not turn to drugs when you are down. Things will only get worse.” Growing up in a house full of women, I was told girls are “sugar, spice, and everything nice” and boys are “snakes and snails and puppy dog tails”. I was told men don’t cry and men don’t tell. Even my household chores were called “man jobs.” I took out the trash, swept the staircase, and cleaned the bathroom. I never had to wash clothes, cook, or do the dishes. I don’t even recall being hugged by my father, not even after getting off the airplane for my summer vacation. No hugs that I could recall, and as a result of this, I became a hugger when I was in a relationship. I now realize that I lacked compassion for others because compassion was not something I saw growing up.

The happiest moment that I could recall is when my uncle Gilbert and my father would take all the kids to the beach. They both had vans, but my uncle was tall, and my father was short and buff. I was a kid full of imagination, so they were caricatures for me to mimic when I played around with my toys. Years later, as I sat on the couch watching my kids play, I had the title Dad and Uncle. I was the person they would remember as their protector.

Ronald, 48

Ronald, 48

There’s absolutely nothing wrong for loving one from afar, when that’s the best action, to keep you on the path that God intended for you to travel.

Ronald, 48

Incarcerated: 3 years

Housed: San Quentin State Prison, California

Is there a point when even God loses hope in someone like me? Like the age old saying, ‘The straw that broke the camel’s back.’ Thinking back, trying to remember some good I might have done, is almost impossible, due to the dark cloud of wrong I’m reminded of daily, especially when the cell door locks for the night. That’s when things become dead quiet, leaving only you and your thoughts. 

Where did everybody go? What happened to all the friends I thought I had? I’ve learned most people surrounding you are only there because of what you can do for them. Whether it be money, drugs, protection or simply company to pass the time. 99% of the time you possess something they want or simply desire. Being raised by the father I was dealt with, was in one hand a blessing, and the other, a curse. Trying to constantly get one’s approval, will drive you to learn similar crafts hoping for an – ATTA BOY! Which seems to always never come, but learning multiple crafts will most certainly put you in a position, where others are drawn to you. 

Being an only child would somehow prepare me for years of solitude. Most people who find themselves without the slightest hope of ever being a free man once again, having the opportunity to function, as a law abiding citizen, might have thoughts of deep hopelessness or even contemplate suicide. I, on the other hand, completely accept my wrong doings and the time behind bars I have been allotted for breaking the law. I’m actually thankful for being, “Saved from myself.” But most importantly for keeping others safe that I could possibly hurt, whether the hurt was physical or emotionally. Sadly, the hurt usually affects people I love or care about. 

The time I spent trying to gain my fathers approval has given me some bad traits. Always being the total opposite towards people than my father was towards me, and people that seemed to be a part of my life for one reason or another. I would never see them for the people they truly were, because I didn’t want to pass on the hurt of not being good enough in my eyes, or constantly pointing out their flaws. This passive way of accepting would come back to haunt me, and rip open my heart out, because I believed people were good when they simply were rotten, broken souls. Clearly, two broken people aren’t good for themselves let alone each other. “Birds of a feather flock together,” the outcome is always bad for both individuals in the toxic relationship. There’s no balance. It’s either up or down. Truthfully mostly down, but low self esteem or some form of insecurities will give the feeling of: this is probably the best it’s gonna get, so having someone is better than having no one. I could find nine bad things in a person and one good but because of feelings like: I don’t deserve better because of all the wrong I’ve done, I’m lucky to receive any amount of love from anyone, I’ll take whatever I can get. Yet, when the other broken person’s mood swings are up, down and all around, you’ll develop even more insecurities, due to the lack of emotions that should be given from both sides in a healthy relationship. But when you don’t love the person in the mirror, you truly can’t love anyone else. I’ve told women over and over again I love you, yet my actions tell a completely different story. When there has to be some type of drug to stimulate emotional, physical or any type of affection towards one another the relationship will soon become more and more toxic and damaging to the weaker of the two. I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing both the one being abandoned and the one running for dear life. Yet, the sickest part of it all is just for that one moment we felt loved, we’ll find ourselves returning to that horribly toxic relationship in hopes of a different outcome. My outcome was catching a life sentence grasping for every straw of possible hope. Do I blame her for the outcome? Absolutely not. My insecurities blindfolded my judgment of the relationship. And not only my shortcomings but her as well. I can’t think for a second I’m remotely capable of fixing another, when I’m broken as well. 

So, who do I blame?

My father never gave me the affirmation I seeked from him, or his mother, who treated him that way. Her father maybe. The blame can go back generations. One, two, three generations – who knows. 

Why was I so in need of his approval? 

Many people I’ve talked to could be perfectly okay without the approval of anyone. Well, hold on! Let me backup just a tad bit. Many have come to the same conclusion. Some sooner than others but if you’re right with God, you’ll start to like that person in the mirror more and more until the like becomes love for yourself. Then and only then, can you possibly love another, as God has loved us. Real love doesn’t keep a tab of what you’ve done for others, almost having the feeling of having to earn it. When random acts are freely given from real love, there’s too many to keep track of. Once you’ve learned to love yourself, loving others will come with the slightest of effort. Now comes the hard part. Loving others doesn’t mean accepting the parts of them that could be your downfall. Stand firm in what is right, because what is right and just will keep you loving that person in the mirror. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with loving one from afar, when that’s the best action to keep you on the path that God intended for you to travel. It’s okay to be a little selfish when it comes to loving yourself. Hurt people, hurt people! Love can heal all things but the healing must first start internally, with you and soon the love that you’ve generated for yourself will overflow to others for all the right reasons. The best reason is that, “Love doesn’t cost a thing!” But when you don’t love the person in the mirror,  you truly can’t love anyone else.

Eric, 53

Eric, 53

I have learned how to manage my addiction, along with my depression. In the process, my self-esteem has slowly built up.

Eric, 53

Incarcerated: 11 years

Housed: Sing Sing Correctional, Ossining, New York

Eager to change my life, I have acknowledged that my drug addiction was one of the contributing factors that led to my incarceration thrice. With this in mind, I decided to attend the weekly Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings the facility offers. I have been to NA meetings before, but only attended because it was mandated by parole after testing positive for drugs. It was not something I really wanted to do. A refusal, however, would have resulted in a parole violation- and a return to prison for up to a year. Since I was forced to attend, I listened half-heartedly to stories of other addicts, never internalizing the message. My heart was not in it, I was not ready to stop using. I did not believe my addiction was going to escalate, nor was I going to commit crimes to support my habit and ultimately end up back in prison. I thought this time was different, and I was in control. That reasoning was my addiction speaking. HELLO!!! THERE ARE NO SUCCESSFUL DRUG ADDICTS!!!

Volunteering for NA meant I was doing it on my own accord…for ME! It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made! During one meeting, I heard the saying, “You have to change your people, places and things.” While I had heard this saying before, it did not hit home like it did that meeting. I felt a real sense of clarity about my sobriety. For the first time, I recognized the patterns I had engaged in before. They included the same negative people, the same negative places and the same negative things. It made perfect sense to remove myself from all of the things that could potentially be triggers or pathways to doing drugs. To this day, I can not allow any distractions or outside influences hinder me from accomplishing my goal. I must PUT IN THE WORK! 

I began applying this outlook immediately. I graduated from friends and associates who were either using drugs, glorifying drugs, and soliciting drugs. This was not an easy thing to do. Some, quickly noticed, and questioned why I was purposely isolating myself from them. The only thing I could say, “It’s not you,  I’m just going through some personal shit.” Over time, my conversations with them were in passing, minimal, and superficial. I no longer had anything in common with them. Soon, many stopped talking to me completely. Good riddance’s! I then stopped going to the yard as often as I had, except to call my mom once a week. Distancing myself from people, places, and things that were associated with drugs, negativity, criminality, and even gossip, felt foreign at first, but it was working! I began to find myself either alone or with people who were doing positive and constructive things like going to school. After awhile, I felt like my sobriety was not a fantasy, but finally real. I was, and still am, fully committed to staying sober while being mindful and constantly aware of things that could potentially trigger me to use drugs.

I have learned how to manage my addiction, along with my depression. In the process, my self-esteem has slowly built up. Although my mother sounded joyful to hear I was attending regular NA meetings, and I was serious about my sobriety, I think she was skeptical at first; a feeling she was justified to have. She had heard many empty promises, several times before. I couldn’t disappoint her again. She was the only one who was there for me during all of my bids and bull$#!+. I put this poor woman through hell. She did not deserve any of this! Nonetheless, she continued to support me on my journey.

In 2015, my 24 year old son, Joshua, graduated from the University of Houston. Words alone cannot express how proud his accomplishment made me. I was, however, stricken with guilt for not being there during his graduation and the biggest moments of his life. I had spent most of his life in prison. Although he never expressed it, I know he was deeply affected by my absence for most of his upbringing. Although he does not know it, he has played a major part in my transformation. I owe a lot to him. He told my mom he could not understand why I was not in college, especially since I was in a prison that offered college. How he knew this, was beyond me. I wondered if he intentionally planted this seed for me? That statement surprised me. I earned a GED in my younger years, but I never thought of myself as college material. I just couldn’t fathom how a person who was nearly 50 could finish college or benefit from it.

Some of the new people around me were college students and told me I was wrong and that I could do it. They said if I could stick with it and get my degree,  it was almost certain I would not come back to prison. Statistically, the recidivism rate is less than 3% for people who leave prison with a college degree versus the state average of 45% of those who leave prison without one. The recidivism rate is even lower for individuals over the age of 50.

The following two years were challenging. I had not been to school in nearly 30 years. I could not enroll in college and excel in the work required without brushing up on some academics. I needed training in writing, english, math, history, critical thinking, research, to name a few. I needed to get in the habit of studying before I enrolled. First, I enrolled in the intensive year-long “Certificate in Ministries and Human Services Program” (CMP). The courses were college level work; strenuous and very difficult, with an absurd amount of dense reading. Then, there was of course writing, writing, and more writing, critical thinking, and contemplation of subjects I had never really spent time on. For me, there was no social life, no playing or sleeping in. It was a damn hard year, but I learned, and earned A’s in all my courses, and graduated with Honors.

Gabriel, 49

Gabriel, 49

At six, I saw the gruesome details of what grown-ups saw. I knew what brains looked like after seeing gray matter dripping from walls from someone’s head being blown away.

Gabriel,  49
Incarcerated: 31 years
Housed: Northwest ICE Processing Center, Tacoma, Washington

I was born with six toes. Since we lived below the poverty line, the doctor said, “It’s better to cut it off or it will be too expensive to keep him shoed.” As I got old enough to walk, shoes bothered me. Barefooted, I was proud of my stub, showing it off in a city that had yet to be fully developed. I remember nothing of the incident, but I can somehow picture a child in pain, at least the healing part, as if a warning to all the pain that would come. It was my first introduction to raw self-awareness. When I got older, I felt angry and cheated by my sense of “uniqueness.” And angry for being so poor they removed my toe. 

One day I asked my mom why I had this scar on my right hand, “It’s a burn mark,” she told me. When I was two, my mother was a housekeeper and took me to work. I was a super active, inquisitive child. I was learning to walk, and when she left the room for a second I pulled on the extension cord of the iron she was using. I have no recollection of it- all I have is a scar from my thumb, index finger and middle finger. I don’t see scars of childhood neglect, I see a young mother doing her best. All the stories my mother told me of my childhood I keep with me to understand how I have become who I am and to learn who I wanted to be. She stopped taking me to work and started leaving me in my crib with my brother Marco who was a year older than me. I began to get out of my crib and make a mess everywhere. She couldn’t afford a babysitter – my dad worked and spent all the money on alcohol. She began to tie me to the crib. My mother said I would never quit. I always ventured into something. She said my older brother Marco managed to cut the rope with a kitchen knife because I would not stop crying. My worst of fears is being physically restrained in a harmful situation or perceived danger. I remember a lot of suffering as a child.

Life was not all bad. I remember being happy when I visited my mom’s mother, Toya, who had 24 siblings. She loved me the most and let me get away with being a child. She gave us money to go to the arcade, which we could not afford. I remember having joy and being appreciative. Everything I did was for her amusement. My grandma is physically strong, but my mother is physically and mentally strong. My grandma gave me hugs and kisses, something that as a child I can not remember getting from my mom. I did not hear “I love you” from her until I was 25, serving this life term. 

My mom and dad had an argument, he threw a knife, and she was stabbed. My grandma told her, “he won’t stop drinking and will end up killing you if you stay with him.” She knew her son. My dad never mistreated us, was actually very caring whether he was drunk or sober. He put alcohol before us. I used to attend A.A. meetings with him as I got older. He tried to sober up and took me to job interviews and then got drunk. I remember the candy they gave me at the A.A. meetings. My dad once killed a rooster that attacked me when I was three. I was probably taunting it. They had to pay for the rooster. I love my dad. He taught me my first English words. Before I came to the US, “Hello my friend, how are you?” He was an educated man with college degrees, yet overwhelmed by the sickness of alcoholism. My father died from falling on his head while drunk, hitting a rock, and was found.

My mother moved on with her life. She had a new boyfriend when I was around four, who worked for the police as a low ranking officer. He quit at the brewing of the civil war since authorities had begun to get killed. We lived in a one bedroom apartment with an outhouse. By this time, I had a younger brother and a sister. Don Francisco was a timid man, non confrontational. My mother used to fight other men because they would mess with her kids. Don Francisco would be in the background. Without hesitation my mother would always stand up for us. I used to watch her get her point across, regardless of the outcome. “Don’t take crap from nobody.” She used to fight a lot because of us. 

When I started kindergarten, I broke my arm trying to retrieve a Hot Wheels that went under the cabinet. I remember crying, thinking I was going to be punished for being careless. Punishment has been a part of my life. I was a very hyper child and always exploring. I am sure I lived through good memories, but I recall more negative than positive. 

My mom was a towering figure in my childhood. I’m sure she disciplined me as a quick solution to deal with misconduct; child abuse was the trend in a culturally built method. To solve disobedience, the worse the punishment, the better the parent you were considered to be. Growing up I was short, and according to folklore, there’s a particular day around Easter when kids of short stature are to be flogged with a branch from a particular tree so that they grow taller. I got flogged once and it wasn’t the pain that hurt but the concept of such nonsense. Yet it was encouraged. By age 4, I broke my arm again retrieving a paper airplane. I woke up in the hospital with a hand to my throat as a restraint while my arm was reset. I remember the overwhelming sense of restriction. With tears in my eyes, I passed out. 

I was five when my mother, younger brother Edwin, who’s also serving a life sentence in California, sister Ana, and brother Amilcar and I went to San Salvador. Edwin had to be seen by the doctor. While we were at the hospital, my mom had to go to the bathroom. I can’t remember why, but she gave me 10 colones (about $4.00 at that time). She didn’t know we were being watched by this glue-sniffing thug-predator. He came up to me and said, “ Your mom wants you to give me the money.” I refused, so he made a reference towards my brothers and sister. It was a lot of money to give up: our bus money back home. I knew I had bought myself a real beat down for doing wrong and not standing up to him. When she came back, I told her I had given the money to that dude. She blew up, but aimed it not towards me but towards a pursuit in search of this maliante, the thug. She began to ask around and found out this dude was a spider, always there weaving webs for flies like me. My mom found his dad, who sold newspapers. She confronted him, and he wouldn’t give the money or be held responsible for his son’s misdeeds. It was not the first time somebody complained about his son. We had no money to get back on the bus. My first lesson about payback came when my mom said, “Everyone grab the newspapers when the bus gets here.” I made sure I grabbed as many as I could, got on the bus and started selling the newspaper. It was exhilarating. In that event, I learned things can be taken care of swiftly and without authority. 

Growing up in El Salvador, situations still linger in my mind. I now understand why I was who I was. I can name my defects of character from many events. The biggest part has been dealing with the emotions. Fear was plenty and came in many forms: anger, selective happiness, stolen episodes, all overlooked by a roaring civil war. In the duration of punishment, my effort to convey truth can be perceived as manipulative and exaggerated, yet it serves no other purpose other than self-healing and willingness to change. The war made my fears comatose and sedated the pain with the natural endorphins of not caring. I quit the sense of being on edge, no longer awaiting for the next fast pace threat of death or danger. 

At six, I saw the gruesome details of what grown-ups saw. I knew what brains looked like after seeing gray matter dripping from walls from someone’s head being blown away. Charred bodies were left in the public park for everyone to go see. Left there to be an example of what happens when there are allegations of being a Guerrillero, subversive terrorists. People disappeared, gunfire would spark in the afternoon while I was in school. I remember my teacher, Miss Yolanda, would instruct us to duck under the desks as the tanks and grenades went off. I would come out to the drab silence of the streets which looked like sinister endless flashing teeth with braces as tanks left their mark on black tops. People emerged from small places used by kids as hiding spots. That day we did not make it home. We were stranded and rescued by the kindness of strangers who welcomed us into their homes to pass the night. Going to sleep to the sound of bullets was now a common theme. I often wonder if early childhood or war trauma caused me to become a bedwetter. This caused me shame and expectation of punishment. That day I got neither. In the morning, as expected, bodies were sprawled everywhere – not of soldiers, but of Guerilleros. In 1984, we emigrated to the US. I was 10. I felt like collateral damage wanting to exist.

I used to speak of my childhood experiences with pride, as if suffering were accomplishments. The injustice of being poor was always a challenge, nothing else. I feel pain and sadness, recalling and writing about it. With effort I can now express my emotions, control my behavior and not just act on impulsivity. In my younger days I often failed, and when I did accomplish something meaningful, I would not be able to build upon it, but rather become destructive, as if positivity was pulling me away from my comfort zone of negativity.

As I write this, a part of me tries to evade thinking about the past and writing it down. I believe this is because I feel ashamed, sad, and fearful of not being believed. I know it is necessary to shed these emotions and concerns in order to reach a new layer of maturity. I continue my recollection of the circumstances from my mother, Elizabeth. She’s an outgoing person with qualities I admire, not believing she is part of my truth, yet because of the scar from the iron on my right hand. I know she wouldn’t lie to me.

Brian, 52

Brian, 52

In addition, I have another grandson, who I talk to on the phone, so he knows me. He calls me Blue Grandpa because he says every time he sees me I have on blue.

Receiving the invitation from Humans of San Quentin makes me feel human. This is not to say that I didn’t feel human before, but it makes me feel good to know that we on the inside are thought of.

I work for San Quentin Television (SQTV), and I’m also the executive director of the San Quentin Prison Report, which is an award-winning video and radio program that highlights the transformative work of the men inside SQ. I went from doing short-form storytelling to more of a documentary style, and I have a few in the works currently One is Growing Up Behind Bars, a dive into the lives and rehabilitative journeys of juvenile offenders serving life (learn more at I’m also working on a story about Watson Allison, who spent 31 years on death row and in the middle of quarantine received a date and went home. I’m also a part of other San Quentin groups including Day of Peace, Mental Wellness, and the SQ Basketball Program. Mostly I am a filmmaker trying to change the prison narrative.

Language is important to me, and I am passionate about changing the language of incarcerated people. As vice president of our chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), I’m working to change how mainstream media labels incarcerated people and I ask that people not use words like inmate or prisoner. We believe it is more humanizing to call people by their names or just collectively refer to them as “people.” I’m not an inmate or a prisoner. I am a person who happens to be incarcerated. We’re incarcerated people and returning citizens. Changing the language could change our narrative.


Blue Grandpa

As I sit here in 2020, looking at the pictures of me seeing my grandson for the first time, I think about 2019 and the first time I saw my granddaughter Dakota. I see my family once a year through a program called Get on The Bus, a program that connects kids with their incarcerated parents. Since 2012, it’s been my only outlet for visitation with my family.

I was so nervous and excited while I waited to see my grandbabies. To pass the time, I tried to keep busy while I hung with the SQ Basketball Program. Finally, I heard my name being called, and I couldn’t get to the visiting room fast enough. My daughter gave me a huge hug, reached down to the baby seat and handed me my granddaughter. We took a few pictures and my daughter watched me the whole time while I ate and played with Dakota. For those two hours, I felt on top of the world, and when they concluded I was at a loss. I cried while I walked back to the yard, but I couldn’t wait to show off my pictures.

Earlier this year, I was finally graduating with an AA degree from Mt. Tamalpais College, the on-site college program here at SQ. I invited my family, my kids and grandkids; I had my heart set on seeing my loved ones. In addition, I have another grandson, who I talk to on the phone, so he knows me. He calls me Blue Grandpa because he says every time he sees me I have on blue. However, COVID-19 prevented me from celebrating my graduation in their joyful presence.

I worked so hard to finally be able to graduate and COVID-19 took that away, like it took so many things from other people. Receiving so many pictures from my family and not being able to see them this year really solidified that I am overly ready to go home after 22 years of missing out on their lives.

I’m thankful to have my kids and grandkids in my life. I’m also thankful to have my fiancée Lisa, who keeps me grounded and strong and tells me when I’m right or wrong. If there’s one piece of advice I could give people out there in society it would be that when you find yourself feeling like things are not going your way or life is too hard to deal with, just think about me. I would change places with you any day of the week. Try waking up in a cage as big as your closet everyday, yet still being able to keep your head up and stay positive through these unprecedented times.

Richard, 66

Richard, 66

At 12, my Ma had me incarcerated as a hopeless incorrigible, but really she was just mad because I wrecked her car joy-riding. I didn’t even know how to spell incorrigible, much less tell you what it meant.

My mother said I could say goodbye to him at the funeral home, but it wasn’t the same. She should have told me sooner, instead of letting me believe he was getting better. I believed that for a whole year while he underwent treatment for cancer. I was ten, he was my Dad. Maybe they did try to warn me, but I’m pretty sure I blocked it out. I’m good at that, blocking things out. Trouble is eventually there’s just too much of it…like Pa’s cancer.

In any case, I was mad at Ma for keeping the truth from me and depriving me of any meaningful last words with my old man, who was also my best friend. Catching her shortly thereafter with one of the marines from Daddy’s honor guard didn’t help either. I ran him off with a butcher knife from our kitchen sink and any other bozos she brought home. After that, I was old enough to enlist in the Marines myself, which was a welcome escape from that crazy ass world where long-haired freaks smoked themselves senseless on dope and disrespected our troops. I wasn’t into that. My old man had been a hero in the war. I wanted to be just like him – joining up as soon as I turned eighteen; which also kept me out of California’s Youth Authority.

The only branch that would have me though was the Marines, Pa had been in the Army, The recruiter looked suspiciously like the one I had caught with Ma. He did a number on my rap sheet with a bit of white-out, as a favor to Ma, he said, Two weeks later I found myself on a bus headed for San Diego, where a true-life miracle occurred, “a ninety-day wonder” they called it. When I graduated, fifth overall, my mother and oldest sister were present. I don’t know who was prouder, me or them. The transformation was stunning.

After completing helicopter school in Millington Naval Air Station, Tennessee, I was assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, California. A reserve detachment where I was the only squad member it seemed who had not yet earned his stripes in Vietnam. Nor was I likely to have the chance. President Mr. Tricky Dick Nixon had signed onto the Paris Peace Accords, which began the drawdown and eventually ended in 1975 to this very unpopular war.

To say this outfit was a little bit slimy would be an understatement, most of its members were short-timers, biding their time until their final orders were cut. Each morning after formation everyone went off in different directions, only to end up all together inside the furthest chopper. Quietly, we could sleep off all the partying we had done the night before. My part was to post up in the cockpit and keep lookout for our squad leader, a hard-nosed gunny, whose mission in life, it seemed, was to make everyone else miserable.

I had made a mistake one night of trying to keep up with the heavy drinkers and party animals in my unit. Smoking bowls of ganja laced with opium and whatever else they could get their hands on, until the wee hours of the morning. One by one they would drop off to their own racks and crash. Vietnam it seemed had been such a horrendous experience, no amount of drinking and smoking could ever extinguish it sufficiently from their psyche. A phenomenon not yet fully understood, PTSD. In the morning as they were gathering themselves for another day on the flight line, they were surprised to find me still wide awake, high as a kite from the night before! “Sleep it off” I was told, “We’ll cover for you.” But sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. I was still tripping, seeing tracers and colors whilst the walls melted. I was frying and by day’s end, when I was no better, then by week’s end, my squad leader determined I needed to be evaluated for a 51/50. On the psychiatric ward of the naval regional medical center in Long Beach, I traded my clothing for a hospital gown. The doctor started me off with 300 mgs of Thorazine, when this still didn’t get me to sleep, it was raised. By the end of the second week, I was taking up to 2800 mgs of Thorazine a day and still, I was not sleeping!? Much of this period is a foggy memory. One day, what happened in the shower area though, is too clear. I would go there for the quiet and to be alone. On this particular day, I was masturbating. One of the navy orderlies snuck up on me and instead of allowing me to leave, began to reach around and masturbate me from behind. I guess I didn’t mind, not at first, but when he suddenly tried to f*** me from behind, I said no – STOP, but it was too late. I couldn’t get him off me until his co-worker walked in. Then, being chastised, he let me go. I never said anything, I was too embarrassed and ashamed it had even happened. I just wanted to forget.

After another two months in the ward I was finally sent home. I continued to self-medicate as an escape, memories of that ward, that one particular ordeal, made me question everything about my whole rotten life. Including my manhood. I became depressed and suicidal. I swallowed the whole bottle of Thorazine they sent me home with. My many suicide attempts and self-destructive lifestyle with drugs landed me in prison. I never told anyone about my nightmares from the psych ward, not until recently when I received a copy of my service records and read the psych report. It infuriated me. They said everything that was wrong with me was my fault and not one word about the rape. Surely that wasn’t my fault! That shit shouldn’t have happened to a dog! I didn’t report it, so what could I expect?

Now, however, I can’t shut up about it. I had been a good Marine up until the day I flipped out, and even that was not entirely my fault. I had joined the Corp to escape the madness, the hippies, druggies and all the rest. The early demise of my father and years that followed going in and out of juvie. Only to find life in the Marines, my squadron in particular, there were more crazed addicts awaiting me than I had left behind! Now, decades later, I feel ripped off. It had not been my intention to sign up for that scene, if I had received the appropriate follow-up care after the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” episode, I might have gotten better and avoided years of incarceration.

Rather than trying to escape our darkest past, we need to confront it and know there are people who care, who we can talk to and get the proper help. I found that recently with Humans of San Quentin, and trust me, this is far better than trying to drown everything in liquor and drugs. “You’re not alone,” they said, “We love you!”

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