I am native on both sides. I’m the product of a Mexican mother and an African American father, so I’m all kinds of ‘gorgeous.’
My mother ran away from home at the age of fourteen due to her stepfather molesting her youngest sister. Her father, my grandfather, was in prison. My mother eventually turned to the streets of Los Angeles and joined a gang called the “Lost Girls.” She started selling drugs, then using and soon she started committing robberies. She used to break into empty hotel rooms by putting me into the window to unlock the door. She would turn tricks if need be and do whatever she had to do to keep me and my brother fed. My mom did the best she knew how to do and I will always respect her for everything she did.
Mom exposed us to most shit people only see in movies. Seeing her beat by different boy friends, my big brother and I learned how to fight like cage fighters. I’ve stabbed, shot, and ran over her dudes. But to this day, I’ve never raised my hand to a woman, and I never will. Mom met her second husband, a Crip, when we were living in LA. This is a time when gangbanging was really gangbanging. Most mornings I’d wake up on the floor to keep out of the line of fire from the drive-by shootings. To top it off, her husband was Black and my mom looks like she’s Mexican and Indian.
On their anniversary, I’ll never forget, my aunt was watching us when she got a call from the cops at the hospital. Seven Southsiders had jumped my Mom and her husband for being a mixed race couple. They were coming off Santa Monica beach when it happened. Oh, don’t feel bad, my Mom kept an ice pick in her hair. One Southsider died, one suffered brain damage for life, and the others were either beaten up or stabbed after being disarmed from their own knives by my Mom’s husband.
After their divorce, my Mom, brother and I moved back to Sacramento and lived with my aunt and uncle until we learned my uncle was beating my cousin, his stepchild. My cousin would get beat until he bled. Off again we went. There were times we didn’t have money for food. Mom would walk us into stores and we would open bags of chips, cans of soda, and make sandwiches. We would walk around eating unbought food, and then just walk out.
At 11, I joined a gang and started gangbanging. My uncles and cousins in Southern California, from Norwalk, Pico, and parts of East L.A. are all Southsiders,
gangbanging was not a way of life for me, it was life. -Joe Crauter
Now I’m telling you this so you can better understand who I was, who I am now and what I’ve been through to become who I am.
I grew up wanting love from my father but hating him for putting hands on my mother. I was fucked up. As I said, what makes me is the pain and suffering I’ve endured, but yet, I am strong enough to still find beauty in life.
Now of course I’m skipping some things I can’t talk about, but before I started gangbanging I had seen too much death. At eleven I was put on the head.
I told myself I was going to be bigger and badder than my father. To prove that point, we did a mail in DNA test, called Ancestry Tree, and, believe it or not, ‘Geranimo’ is related to us in some way. I mean, how I was raised, no joke, to this day King Kong could’ve called me out for a fight and in my heart and soul I will find his weakness and beat him. Truly, I only fear GOD, one of my downfalls. Anything you can think of gang-wise I was a fucking nutt. I could pull out guns on my older homies and this behavior only got worse. Couldn’t no one tell me shit, until my baby brother died right in front of me, in my mom’s arms, choking on his own blood.
At 14, I was charged as an adult for a home invasion robbery. I was given bail at 15 and I fought my case for eight months and lost. I didn’t go to the California Youth Authority, I went from juvenile hall to Tehachapi State Prison. It was a level four facility, which is the highest level of security within the California prison system. Prison to me was like a game or a movie and I was the lead actor. I learned real fast that gangbanging in prison was radically different.
After back-to-back fights, gang and race riots, and a broken hand, I was placed in solitary confinement for two years. I did 18 months in “The Hole.” I was moved to a level three yard that we were beefing with the Southsiders and the Correctional Officers.
There were riots, deaths, stabbings and I remember writing my mom a letter and telling her, “Mom, I love you” just in case I didn’t make it home. Well… she called me a sorry ass, punk-ass bitch and said I had better stop talking like a fucking punk, that I had no choice but to make it out or she was going to kick my ass. That’s who my mom was.
Although I was still winning head-up fights, I learned in riots that if you don’t move right you will get stabbed. Well, I was then transferred to Jamestown level three yard, which was still rocking, but it wasn’t shit compared to Tehachapi’s. To me, it was a walk through the park.
After a few riots with the Southsiders and gang riot in Jamestown, I paroled with new found knowledge. I was always sharp-minded and crossed paths with some real good older guys that told me, “Don’t go back to the head, you know what it offers, you’re still young, turn your life around.” I paroled from a level four with a gang file and I was considered high-risk. I was told if I got caught anywhere near my hood I would be locked up.
I got out of prison and had my own car waiting on me courtesy of my Mom and brother. I got a job six days later at a care home. I’m a people person so I took care of the people as if they were family. The patients called me Uncle Mark.
I met my wife one week after her twenty-first birthday. She probably thought I was crazy. I told her this might sound crazy but in a year from now you’re going to give birth to my babygirl and we’re going to get married.
She’s all I ever wanted in a woman. To this day I’ve never seen anyone with eyes like my wife’s. I mean the most beautiful brown eyes I’ve ever seen. Her eyes have orange and gold flakes and in the sun they tend to change different hues of color.
She’s beautiful, smart, kind, warm- hearted, and has strength and is self-motivated. She was putting herself through college at Sacramento University. I was amazed at how focused she was on becoming a teacher. All I said came true. My wife, while pregnant, continued college and obtained her Bachelor’s degree. Sadly, I caught my case while she was four months pregnant.
Once our baby girl was born it was too difficult for her to get her Masters degree. She’s the best mother ever. My wife has been by my side from day one. She teaches for a living and home-schools our daughter and son. I’ve never spent one day with my baby girl outside these prison walls; this prison is all she knows. You’ll have to forgive the tears…I get emotional thinking about my family. So it’s hard, our daughter wakes up crying for me or is in a bad mood after a visit, and the list goes on.
There’s only so much emotional support I can give over the phone, so my wife is there to deal with her emotions, and our son’s emotions too.
When my family hurts I hurt. It’s hard, real hard when my daughter misses me a lot.
At visits she sits on my lap, laying her head on my chest the entire visit. I fought back my tears when I held my baby.
So my wife is my hero, she’s my superwoman.
She keeps our family together and helps us all with our emotions while dealing with her own. I’m very much involved in my daughter’s life. She’s a dancer, she’s been dancing since she was four. She’s a ballerina, and she is very good at it. Well, this takes me into how I came to be in solitary confinement’. I spoke to my wife and kids three times a day and got visits every other weekend. So, as Covid-19 worsened they shut down visiting. Mind you, that’s the only way I get out to see my babies. Then the staff and officers would shut the phones off and the situation only worsened. All my daughter knows is that contact with her loving father stopped. I was worried because I didn’t know what was happening with my family. I thought of my options, and although it was wrong in some eyes, I knew people with cell phones and I started using one to reach my family. My daughter loved it. She couldn’t see or talk to me for at least a month before I made the choice to take that risk.
During my first call she was crying and asking if Covid-19 was going to kill me. I made sure she understood I was strong enough to fight through it if I caught it, but it didn’t help that on the evening news people were dying all over and still are. So I kept using a cell phone to talk and check in on my family. After getting caught with two cell phones a couple months apart I was placed in the ‘hole’ and put up for transfer. Would I change my choice if I could go back in time? “No!” It provided reassurance to myself, and my wife and, most importantly, my children.
Crazy thing is, in the ‘hole’ we got more programs, showers, and phone calls than on the mainline. We showered every other day, yard every other day, and got phone calls once a week. When I was in general population showers were every three to six days, and if I tried to get on the pay phone ever, all I got was yelled at.
So here I sit in the hole. I miss taking college classes, which helped me transform as a man, father, husband and as an all around human. The mental walls put up by indoctrinated prison politics and street life no longer existed. Sitting in a class with ex-skin heads, Southsiders, the very worst gang members you could think of, and yet everyone through higher education is searching for answers and realizing we’re all the same. I mean, I’ve had the most difficult, yet intellectually eye opening conversations that would never take place in other prison yards. Funny, I talk to some of the people that volunteer here, folks like teachers and tutors, and when they hear just pieces of my story they’re in tears and want to write about it. Before programs were shut down, I would leave class and race to call my wife to share what I learned. I’d be as excited as a little kid at a park.
About a year or two ago at San Quentin, Mount Tamalpais college put on an academic conference and without knowing what it was, I chose to attend. In one of the rooms a panel of women shared their stories about being locked up. A trans-woman spoke about her struggles. It really was brave of her and it got my attention. I started to ponder on hate in different forms.
One form of hate we are all familiar with is racism, I would like to draw a parallel if you will. Black people have struggled with equality, it seems, since forever. We were looked at as different for our skin tone along with other features. We know we were born the same, breathe and eat just like others. We don’t like being beaten, or called names for the way we were born – that we can’t change, right?
I took a cultural anthropology class a few semesters ago. I learned we can’t control the way we are born and that’s what makes everyone beautiful, unique, different and the same all at once. No one likes to be an outcast, discriminated against or hated for how they’re born. No matter your skin tone or sexual preference, we all deserve respect, empathy and equality. In truth we all have more in common than not.
Time is the most precious gift to those of us incarcerated, because we lost so much of it. For amazing teachers to volunteer time out of their lives to teach us is beyond me. Helping further our education means the world. Ten years ago I didn’t have the education that allows me to think on a whole entirely different level. It’s said with age comes knowledge. The new-found knowledge I acquired leaves me thirsty for more.
Three days after I arrived in San Quentin my mother passed away. Her passing during my incarceration was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to face. But, my time in San Quentin has made me feel as if I am richly blessed. Blessed because I had the opportunity to attend self-help groups and college and I’m a few classes shy of an AA Degree. Then, suddenly, COVID-19 hit and all positive self-help groups stopped. It stopped everything. I thank the university staff for my success. As a student, I generally receive A’s and B’s. Another group that I attended was Prison to Employment Connection , I eventually became a facilitator for their group. Members of Prison to Employment Connection helped prepare people to re-enter the workforce and brush up on everything they may need to find and keep a job. They offer a 14 week job preparation course that ends with a job fair. In another group that I was proud to be a part of was San Quentin Utilization of Inmate Resources Experiences and Studies (SQUIRES), where I was a mentor for troubled youth we share our upbringing and help redirect the youth onto the right path and help them deal with their issues.
Mount Tamalpais College and staff, I thank you all. And if you’re reading this and have a loved one in San Quentin, or if you’re a youngster, please take advantage of what’s being offered here. Your views and outlook on life will change and you’ll be given tools to make better choices in life. Speaking of tools, I plan on telling the world how to become trained to be a SQUIRES member. SQUIRES helped me save my son’s life. I was able to redirect his path from wanting to hang out and become part of a gang- to walk the straight path.