When I knew there was a chance that I could reach out to you young men and women in the Modesto Juvenile Hall, I was ready for the opportunity. You see, back in 1998 and ’99 from age 16 to 17, I was in the max unit, and in 1999 I spent some time in the boys’ unit too.
Back then I weighed about 150 pounds. But I felt a lot bigger because I carried within me a lot of resentment, loneliness, fear and rejection. All of this spilled out into the world and the people around me in the form of anger. I was a very angry kid.
I covered up my feelings by blaming everyone else for what was messed up in my life and for the things that kept me in a vicious cycle of bad decisions. Worse, I had the perfect outlet for my anger: gangs. It allowed me the chance to take out my anger on people I believed to be different from me. In making them lesser, I thought I became important, which made me feel better about myself. This was shallow.
Back then, I wouldn’t admit this to anyone. I had low self-esteem. I didn’t think much about myself. I hid my low self-esteem behind a mask of toughness that shed no tears. Before I knew it, I was so deep into making mistakes that I could see no way out. Not seeing a way out, I felt my life was over because of all these mistakes.
So I just continued to do what I was doing because there was nothing else left. I had failed school, let my family down over and over again, and lost my family’s trust. By then, I didn’t care anymore. My life became all about the neighborhood and my friends. Whatever worries I had in life were drowned by the use of drugs and alcohol.
In my mind, it didn’t matter whether I lived or died. That is no longer the case, but it took me a very long time to understand those things about my life, a life that many of you might be living today.
Understand that if you are in that lifestyle that does not mean you are irredeemable. I certainly don’t judge you. For many of us, drugs, gangs and crimes that cause us to end up in juvenile hall, group or foster homes, or sent to prison are considered normal in our communities. Sometimes, it is all we know in our young lives.
Where I grew up, the negative influences of these things were strong and outweighed the good. So understand that even if you are in juvenile hall or on your way to prison and have made mistakes, the world too has failed us in many ways.
The mask or identities we create are our way of coping. It is what will allow us to survive the hardships that we experience in life, things we have no control over. By the time we are 15 years old, many of us have seen a lot of violence or have even been victims of violence or have used violence ourselves.
Many of us have grown up with substance abuse, physical abuse and maybe even sexual abuse in and around our lives. We have seen and experienced very unfair things that should not have happened. This is the sad truth. A lot of us take this sadness and think that there is something deep down inside us that is broken, that we’re not worthy of love or a future.
However, we do the best we can with what we know. Sometimes we have the right to be angry, but we don’t have the right to take it out on the world or ourselves. We still have to own up to our wrongs. Unfortunately, people who have control and judgment over us often make decisions about us without considering the totality of our painful life experiences, but only the one single act that has been committed.
My goal is not to preach. I don’t think I have an answer to the madness that fills our lives. But if there were an answer, I would have to say it is inside of you.
When I sat in the max unit I did the best I could with the way my life was headed. I was there for a murder that I committed at the age of 16. I sat in the chairs you sit in, ate the same food, played volleyball in the concrete yard and stayed up late at night by myself in a small cell stressing and trying to make sense of my life. But I still wore my mask and hung out with the guys in the unit and tried to act tough so no one could see what I was going through on the inside.
I remember staying up late one night in my cell crying. I couldn’t control it. I was just letting it all out. On that night, I hardened my mind and heart, and vowed never to allow the world to break me.
That was the worst thing that I could do, but I believed it would help me survive having to live with a life sentence. I thought that because I was going to a hard place, I had to become just as hard in order to survive.
But this further disconnected me from myself. There were juvenile hall staff that treated me kindly and saw the pain that I was experiencing. I allowed some in, but I pushed others out. I would hope that they are there and might be doing the same for you. If they are, I hope you let them into your life. After 18 years in prison, I still remember them and the positive encouragement they gave me.
My last day in the max unit was in early 1999. I was sitting in my room when I was called over the speaker for release, but it was not to get out. The sheriffs were picking me up to be sent to the Public Safety Center. They shackled me up and I hobbled out of the juvenile hall doors.
Though I was only 17, I was sent on my way into the adult prison system. The sheriffs booked me in and placed me in the max unit because I was still 17 years old. It was in one of those cells that I turned 18, and I have had all my birthdays in prison cells since.
What I want to leave you with is that you are not broken. You are important and your life is valuable. This is not the end of your life, and though it might be hard you can overcome anything in life. There is a survivor and fighter in all of you.
But ask yourself, who are you fighting for and why? When will you begin to fight for yourself and your own future? You are not a bad person; you are not a bad kid that deserves nothing from life but prison or death. You each have a passion inside of you and the potential to do great things.
But a lot of us have stuffed that deep inside and created identities that we no longer recognize. Take the time to think about where you are, where you are headed and what you can do to regain some control over this spiral that has sucked you deeper and deeper into the system.
There are a lot of people that will think you are the worst of the worst, a low life with nothing to offer society. They might view you as just another gangbanger, addict, thief or teen mother or father.
But as I write this to you and I close my eyes to imagine you I don’t see any of that. I don’t see the reasons why you are here or any of the mistakes you have made in life.
I see great minds and people. I see people who when they become their own person will be powerful and change the world around them. The day that you discover this for yourself will be a beautiful day, and will make you feel like it did for me the first day of a new life.
Miguel Quezada was convicted of second-degree murder at 16 and sentenced to 45 years to life. He has earned a GED, high school diploma and an associate’s degree in social science. He is a founding member of Criminals and Gangmembers Anonymous and works from San Quentin State Prison to empower fellow juvenile lifers and youth through The Beat Within writing workshops and journalism.
David Inocencio founded The Beat Within in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in many California juvenile halls. The model has been replicated in six states and Washington, D.C. They welcome submissions and new partners. Write to him at email@example.com.