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The first time I got arrested and put into handcuffs, I was eight years old. I grew up in Los Angeles, first-generation Mexican American. My parents had just come from Mexico. Two other kids and I were caught with spray cans and they accused us of stealing them from Home Depot.
The people at Home Depot told the police that nobody stole the cans, but the cops still took us to the station. I remember one cop saying to us, “We’re going to take you to the station because we’re gonna prepare you for your future.”
That really left a mark on me.
When I was thirteen years old, I joined a street gang. I grew up in a community where gang violence existed. By the time I was thirteen, it was already normalized. I started selling weed, then went on to sell crack.
In 1996, I was arrested for kidnapping, carjacking, and robbing a drug dealer. On my eighteenth birthday, I was sent to prison with a sentence of fifteen years and two felonies. I ended up getting transferred to Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), an isolation unit within the maximum-security facility in California.
It leaves a mark on you. Incarceration is a traumatic experience.
I was in my cell twenty-two and a half hours a day. I could talk to people through the vent or the toilet, but seeing somebody was very rare. We were allowed to come out for an hour and a half by ourselves into a small concrete enclosure with walls that were about eighteen feet high.
The hardest thing was understanding that the place was built to break you. Mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Through the wall, I started talking to a man who had been incarcerated since 1977. We got to share a lot of our ideas. He asked me what I like to read and I told him I preferred history books and books with facts. He told me that I should give fiction a try. That had a very big impact. The first book I read was Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. After that I think I might have read The Grapes of Wrath. And then Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And then Candide, which was my favorite one.
I enrolled in a GED program, and after I received my diploma I took correspondence courses through a community college. After serving fourteen years, I was released from prison. I came home with about forty-eight college credits.
I was accepted to UC Berkeley, and on the first day of school I met Steven. I told him something about feeling uncomfortable around all these young people, and he was like, “Yeah, me too, man!” And I told him about how I’d been away from school for a long time, and he was like, “Yeah, me too.” And I told him I was in Pelican Bay SHU. And he said, “Literally? Funny. Me too.”
Steven spent most of his teens and twenties in the prison system. When he got to Berkeley, he was socially isolated and looking for a place to find a community. Together, we recognized a lack of resources for formerly incarcerated students on campus. So in 2013, we created the Underground Scholars Initiative to support students impacted by incarceration.
One of the results of incarceration for people coming home is having to live with the stigma of being the boogeyman, being the bad person, being the animal. It leaves a mark on you. Incarceration is a traumatic experience. People coming home should be able to access some type of help to cope with what they went through.
I was resilient enough to overcome the trauma that solitary confinement imposes on an individual and use it to my advantage. I want to be a resource for people. To be able to put people in positions to excel after incarceration.
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