Leon, 45

Leon, 45

Meet Leon…

 We are both successful service dog trainers and recruited to be featured in fundraising videos, which have had thousands of views on YouTube. It was the sibling rivalry that ignited our ongoing competition…

Leon, 45
Incarcerated: 18 years
Housed: Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington

It was in the depths of hardship and struggle when our unlikely friendship formed. Since 2007 we have lived, learned, grown, failed, and celebrated many successes together behind the fences of several different prison facilities. Most incarcerated people hold the philosophy that, “I came to prison alone,  I’m going to leave alone, and I’m not here to make friends.” We also felt that way, but over the years, we developed a brotherly bond as well as what you could describe as a sibling rivalry. We are both successful service dog trainers and were recruited to be featured in fundraising videos, which have had thousands of views on YouTube. It was the sibling rivalry that ignited our ongoing competition that led us to our current bet for which one of our videos will be the first to reach 20,000.

It became a daily taunting match. Mine has been out since 2016, so it had a significant number of views by 2018 when Randy’s was posted. Cleverly, Randy contacted a very popular dog rescue company in 2019, and they shared his video through their network. Randy’s video shot up to 9,950 views by 2020, while mine hovered at around 6,400. Calculating the current rate,  it will take Randy 21 years to reach the goal, but I will reach it in a little over 14 years. Randy still has some tricks up his sleeve and I have become wise. It is doubtful that our video views will continue to grow at the current rate, but what will remain the same is the unlikely friendship that we formed through commiseration during hard times. In addition, the competitive rivalry of our brotherhood will likely be with us for life. Therefore, the bet is on and the competition is unbending. To see the videos for yourself, go to Summit Assistance Dogs Monroe Partnership on YouTube.  (Leo’s is 2016, Randy’s is 2018)

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.

Pedro, 32

Meet Pedro…

You can choose to learn in here or not. In the beginning I chose not to care, but as I got older and saw what prison was becoming, I started seeing the light. Not only for my sanity, but for my family and my daughter.

Pedro, 32
Incarcerated: 5 years
Housed: Washington Corrections Center, Shelton

I grew up in a violent environment with gangs. My life started going downhill at 18 when I lost my brother to gang violence. My story starts there. My life was ok until I saw my little brother pass. It cost me who I was and my mind for a little. I can say prison saved my life. I’ve been in and out. I almost got 25 to life for what I was charged with. It changed my mindset. You can choose to learn in here or not. In the beginning I chose not to care, but as I got older and saw what prison was becoming, I started seeing the light. Not only for my sanity, but for my family and my daughter. 

What is one thing you want to change about yourself? 

To stop feeling sorry for myself. That’s the main problem some of us have. Once we let that go, life comes to us with blessings. I have learned these things by having good brothers in my Native Circle. This prison term was my blessing. I was saved and I found who I am 🙂 

Do you talk to your family?

I do talk to my family all the time. I’m very family oriented. 

What do I miss about the outside? I miss the river and sledding in the snow. 

What do you dream about?

I’ve always had the thought of a two story house white fence 🙂 

What gets you through every day? 

Thinking about my lil girl 🙂 

What would your family be surprised to know about you?

How much I’ve changed from a young runt into a grown man and how I’ve learned to love myself and others.

I hope my letter will help someone in my shoes. God bless.

Jarel, 45

Jarel, 45

Meet Jarel…

Social condemned people are humans too, who made some very poor decisions. Maybe befriend one of us. You may never meet a more loyal friend.

Jarel, 45
Incarcerated: 16
Housed: Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington

One of the biggest trials was becoming introduced to a wheelchair. I have not let this disability let me down. It has strengthened me mentally more than anything. I was young – 19 when I was incarcerated for the first time. I learned to grow up quickly. Drugs and prison gangs became second nature. Three years later I was released with a drug addiction and a big chip on my shoulder. After four more prison sentences, I ended up committing a heinous act of violence to where someone lost their life. I ended up in the place I hated the most, the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. I was sentenced to 30 years and lost everything I ever held close. My family, the woman I loved and my freedom. It took me several years of going back and forth from solitary confinement to intensive treatment units to finally pull my head together and search for a positive meaning in my life. Then, I started the very long process of mending all the broken fences. The first – myself and my addiction. For a long time I hated myself and was bitter. I pushed everyone away, especially the ones that tried to help. As a “socially condemned” person and incarcerated I started to build healthy relationships and take self-improvement classes. The teacher for a redemption class changed my life. I jumped in fully and after graduation I was invited to start the process of taking the classes needed to start facilitating the same class I took. It was an eye opener and showed me how to connect back to becoming a good person. 

Besides self-improvement I have found a new love in my life as well and that was accepting God fully and placing my life in his hands. I have found the strength to walk away from prison politics and to start mentoring younger people.  I have had blessing after blessing fall into my lap, as well as trials and tribulations. I now know how to deal properly with these trials. I have been clean and sober for over 13 years and have built a beautiful reconnection with my family, my beautiful fiance that I lost years ago and we are due to become married very soon.

Jayme, 31

Jayme, 31

Meet Jayme…

My mind tended to use my internal turmoil to fuel thoughts of violent aggression.

Incarcerated: 10 yrs
Housed: Airway Heights Correctional Center, Washington

Waking up day in and day out filled with anger and rage, compounded with the hopelessness of a 45 year sentence, I found myself doing a lengthy stretch in the “hole.” Isolated and left alone with my thoughts I became frustrated. Discovering my train of thought seemed to always roll down the tracks of hurt, pain, and anger, I grew tired of spending my days dwelling on the negative. I recall asking myself if I were crazy. My mind tended to use my internal turmoil to fuel thoughts of violent aggression. I was convinced this was just who I was, subject to the whims of my thoughts and powerless over my mind. It wasn’t until I picked up a book on Buddhism and learned to meditate, that I began to comprehend that my brain is a tool and not the other way around. This epiphany is the cornerstone of the transformation that developed me into the man I am today. I began to understand that the chain of events making up my life experiences were heavily influencing my current thought patterns and how I was choosing to perceive and engage them, was causing me to perpetuate my own suffering. The deeper I dove into my own past, viewing my experiences from a stance of compassion, I noticed a shift in my mentality. One morning looking out the window in my cell door, I spotted a rival gang member pacing the dayroom. Typically my thoughts would gravitate towards how I could cause him harm, but this time was different. As I watched, I started questioning the life experiences that made him who he was. I began wondering who he was, and if we struggled with similar things. My heart was open to compassion and I started seeing my enemy for the human being he was. I asked myself if in some other dimension, would we be friends? That moment it clicked what I had just done. I rehumanized my supposed enemy. I knew with this new lens, I couldn’t continue down my old path, so I chose to walk away. This was the revaluation leading to the renewal of my own mind. The first step in reclaiming my own life, starting anew, and taking another direction. This was the moment I learned that I could change. I wasn’t hopeless.

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