BOSTON — Twenty-two years seems like an awfully short time to already be talking about redemption. But the young man sitting on the velvet couch in the splendor of the Omni Parker House Hotel’s mezzanine is living proof that for someone who has survived the juvenile justice system in America, there is a fine line between ending your life and turning it around.
DeAngelo Cortijo sat noiselessly mouthing the words of his speech — a dizzying childhood of crime and imprisonment and intermittent homelessness, surviving the streets and long stretches of solitary. It’s a hectic and fractured life the boyish-looking Cortijo has crammed into a 40-minute talk.
As he prepared to deliver the keynote closing address at the inaugural symposium on probation system reform in Boston in early April, reflecting on his life so far momentarily left him trembling.
About an hour before Cortijo took the podium, he considered his bookends of his young life: the near-suicide of his mother, which sent him to the brink of despair, to the flushing of drugs stuffed under his door in solitary, which sent him down the path of redemption. He broke down and wept.
“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping tears from his face. “I still get a little emotional.”
Even though he was only 2 ½, he can still summon the details of seeing his mother on the brink of death; scampering into the kitchen to find her unconscious on the floor amid empty pill bottles.
“I just so vividly remember sitting in the back of their [Child Protective Services] white city car with city logo stamped on the side looking out the back of the window and seeing the stretcher, fearful as hell, hauling my mom from that house and into the ambulance and that feeling: I’ll never see her again,” he said.
It was that fundamental desire, a son’s longing to reunite with his mother, that led Cortijo to frequent acting out, which led him into the labyrinthine systems of foster care, probation and juvenile detention in California.
He told his story in the hope of inspiring the professionals to remember that their clients, with all their problems and posturing, are just kids at heart, no different than their own.
After days of statistics, and deep diving into data, of digging into the nuts and bolts of system reform and the latest in evidence-based practices, it was no accident that the symposium organizers ended the event not with an expert or academic but with the stories of young people who went through the juvenile justice system and came out the other side different people.
John Tuell, executive director of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, which organized the symposium, said part of its mission was to challenge the professionals in attendance to improve the outcomes for the youth they serve. Thus, he felt it was crucial to turn the podium over to Cortijo and Margaret Samuel, two youths who had firsthand experience, good and bad, in the system and could speak about what they learned.
‘When delivered effectively, these voices inspire us both emotionally and logically to more diligently lead or direct positive change within our youth-serving systems,” Tuell said. “We wanted the audience to be enveloped by their accounts of pain, harm and negative experiences while simultaneously seeing the face of resilience, resolve and victory from these extraordinary young adults.”
From bowels of system to dedicated reformer
Cortijo said he didn’t know what the word resilient meant while he was on the inside doing stints in detention youth facilities up and down California in his teens.
“I didn’t know what the word meant but I knew that basic principle, I learned it and lived it inside. I applied it to my situation. I made that choice sitting in the cell. It wasn’t all peaches and cream. I had to work through a lot but I made a choice, and I stuck to it.”
But that knowledge took a while to acquire, and it was hard-earned, after countless fights and nights in solitary, bouncing from group homes to foster homes to housing projects and, finally, a string of juvenile detention facilities.
Cortijo spent years living by his wits on the streets of Oakland, losing and winning countless fistfights, stealing cars before he knew how to drive. In fact, he said, the only reason police officers pulled him over for one of his first arrests was because he was driving at night without his headlights on.
After that he was thrown into numerous youth homes and detention facilities he broke out of, all by the time he was a young teenager. All of it, the pain and the tears and the blood and the lonely nights in solitary, driven by one of the most basic of human needs: the love of a mother.
One of the lowest points in his ordeal, Cortijo said, was visiting day, no matter what youth facility he was in. It seemed like every other kid in the joint would get visits from his mother, or there would be calls, or thoughtful letters at mail call.
But not for him.
He would metabolize that disappointment into unadulterated rage, which would lead to another fight, another spell in solitary, letting the disappointment marinate into something darker.
Cortijo would coil with rage and resentment and look for an opportunity to unleash it on somebody. Often, he said, the mocking treatment of staff would be enough to set him off.
To Cortijo crime was never about getting free stuff or some twisted desire to hurt someone.
“It was to get attention, to get back to my mother. If I was getting picked up by police she’d come to me and that would be a reason for her to love me. I constantly thought that would happen, being that young.”
He thinks his mother visited him three times in the five years he was incarcerated. Every time someone else would receive a visit from their mother, or get a letter, it would “retrigger” his trauma, he said.
He would cycle through the same soul-crushing questions: I’m not different than them. Why can’t I have that same thing? Why can’t I get letters? Why can’t I get visits? Why can’t I have a family that loves me?
Replacing anger with hope
But that changed one day when he was in solitary in a youth facility in Stockton. Cortijo had reached the point in his young life when, like his mother, he had decided to end it. He was thrown into the hole after another fight borne of frustration, he said, and his thoughts took a dark turn.
“I was just thinking my life can’t get no worse and I just wanted it to all end,” he said.
A cousin who was serving time in the same facility had stuffed a plastic bag of marijuana underneath his door.
“The weed is in my hand,” he said. “It’s in my hand! And my mind just pivoted. I said, ‘You know what? Fuck this shit!’ And I threw it in the toilet and flushed it — and that stuff was valuable in there. That was it, that was when I started shifting the way I began thinking. I just literally shifted the way I was thinking.”
Cortijo said it wasn’t easy, but he stuck to this new way. No more fights. No more bad behavior. He was about to turn 18 and couldn’t act like a kid anymore. He said he developed a way to cope with his bouts of rage.
“I completely was able to mentally capture my anger when it happened and replace it with,” long pause, “and replace it with, like, hope. And the hope was this: ‘If I do good I can still get out before I’m 25, and I can still go to college and have a full life.’ That was my motivating drive.”
When he’d feel the anger start to swell inside him, Cortijo would counsel himself.
“I’d be like, ‘Man, I want to go to college, I hate this place,’” he remembered. “Whatever I have to do to put myself in a situation to get out of here even if it means sitting here and not saying a word then I’ll do it.”
And he was provoked constantly, he said, but remained the calm center of his universe. Even when he was attacked, he said, he didn’t fight back.
“I’m done,” he resolved. “There’s nothing in it for me.”
Perhaps the only thing more stunning than Cortijo’s journey through the system is the life he has lived since he has been out. Since staring down death in the hole in Stockton, Cortijo said he never looked back. He went from wallowing in the bowels of the juvenile justice system to working to reform it in the committee rooms of Sacramento, the California state capital.
As soon as he got out, he volunteered at the National Center for Youth Law. He received a grant to help with prisoners looking for assistance writing appeals or sentence reduction. He created a spreadsheet on best practices of juvenile justice systems from across the country.
He lobbied the California legislature on two bills, one to limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and another to change the standards for psychotropic drug prescriptions for children in state custody. He testified as an expert witness in the statehouse. He worked for five months as a field representative. But he said he preferred working as an advocate than as a politician.
“Politics,” he said with a wry smile, “is not for me.”
Weathering life’s storms with the A-Team
It is hard to reconcile Margaret Samuel’s electric, infectious smile with her story of abuse, violence and juvenile detention. Like Cortijo, Margaret Samuel’s life was marked by trauma that sent her reeling into the juvenile justice system. In this case it was not the lack of love from a mother, but physical and sexual abuse and other incidents she euphemistically refers to as “unfortunate events” at the hands of her father that left her a broken person. It was a story she told after Cortijo spoke.
She was the only daughter of seven children. “Growing up I felt lonely, isolated and often had to fight to be heard. I grew up in a household with an abusive father, school and friends as an outlet of escape,” she said to a rapt audience. “Yet the instability at home caused me to have behavior issues at school.”
Those issues led to a physical fight at school that led to criminal charges, indefinite probation, time in a juvenile detention center and frequent appearances in court.
“I had probation violations from missing curfew, running away from home for weeks at a time,” she said. “I felt the court system was another entity which tried to control me and not help me.”
Samuel said her life was saved by a group of counselors, advocates and probation officers she described as her A-Team. It was an inside joke for all the people who helped her work through her trauma and turn her life around.
They, like all the probation professionals gathered in the ballroom, were there to “weather life’s storms,” she said. And she was grateful they were there for her. When she was sent to Foundations, a probation facility for girls in Fairfax, Virginia, she was able to see life differently, she said.
”When I wanted to give up they reminded me of the light at the end of the tunnel,” Samuel said. “I knew that I needed help. The safe environment allowed me to put down my mask and carefully tear down the brick walls that I spent years putting up. For the first time in my life I was in a space where I could learn about myself and grow. I saw the possibility of living a different life so I decided to work toward it.”
Now she is studying psychology at Northern Virginia Community College, working as an artist and making plans to build a therapeutic youth center in her home country of Sudan.
She joked that without the A-Team: “I don’t think I’d be the well-rounded, beautiful, intelligent, motivated, and did I say awesome, young woman that I am today.” She laughed and added: “All of you who helped young people weather the storm please give yourselves a round of applause.”
And they did.
After the symposium’s official end, both Cortijo and Samuel were not done speaking. As members of the hotel staff hurried around, hustling dishes back to the kitchen, they could be seen deep in conversation with professionals who wanted tips. Cortijo and Samuel were dispensing advice, and the adults were listening.