I am 38 years old. I have been incarcerated almost 15 years now. I have a sentence of LWOP (life without parole) plus 25 to life for a first-degree murder with drive-by enhancement. I was raised in the Bay Area on the Oakland side of the water. My family was big. Dad’s side was Mexican, mom’s side was white.
In the 1980s life for a kid was fresh and exciting. There was music and break-dancing in the street. All the older people were fun and cool and I gravitated towards those qualities. Then, as if it happened overnight, the older people started to change. They started to look different, almost like zombies.
Some started to lose their good ways of living, some became violent, some became hopeless, some lost their homes and families. All because a tidal wave of drugs flooded our streets.
The drugs found their way into my house and infected my parents. A divorce happened. I didn’t shed a tear. I was taught to be tough. However, I consoled my sister and father when their tears dropped.
I found my refuge in after-school sports. I became state champion in wrestling at age 9. My great achievement went almost unnoticed by my family. It made me feel alone. My dad loved my sister and I, but he became distracted by younger women and a mac blast.
After this my sister and I moved in with my mom and her boyfriend. He had a daughter as well. I found freedom from the drug abuse and horrible domestic violence in our house through baseball. At age 14, I made the USA Baseball Ambassador team. Due to lack of funds I was not able to travel the world and play, but I did have a gift in sports.
However, drugs continued to plague my family. It robbed the souls of my people and allowed for violence and poor decision making to settle in.
Now, at age 15, I had a choice to make. My mom had a new boyfriend and him and the old one started to fight at our house and we got kicked out and now I was on my own. There were gangs, drug gangs, school and sports. My skill level gave me the ability to do whatever I wanted.
I was bold and could fight good, so gangs would accept me with quickness. I was mature and street savvy for my age, so drug dealers would definitely recruit me to do their hustling and benefit off my youth.
My passion deep down inside was education and sports, but little by little I started to lose confidence and self-esteem. I no longer believed I was good enough in sports, even though as a freshman I made JV football, varsity wrestling and I would have made varsity baseball but I started to skip school. With nowhere to stay, I moved in with grandma and my other cousins with the same problem.
My family was big, but I felt alone and like no one believed in me. I had no clear definition of who I actually was. I felt like I failed myself and my family because I was supposed to be the answer to my family’s problems.
So, as I walked into the streets day after day, night after night, the winds of the street culture would mold my character because I was undefined. Without even knowing it, the streets of the Bay would define me. At this young age, my mind’s eye was constantly scanning the world looking for something to identify with. There was no greater feeling than identifying with something that was homegrown because it was ours.
We had local rappers that spoke about what we experienced in the street. It felt good to hear that because I could relate and identify with it and it gave me pride. We had local athletes and they were superstars. Some were in our family and it glamorized the street life and it made the destruction of our families almost acceptable. The more and more I identified with my local street culture the more my identity became a reflection of it.
I started to sell drugs, the same drugs my parents used. I told myself I would restore the dignity and respect my parents lost. With that choice, a lot of my decisions would reflect my identity and what I believed real was. With a lot of outside influence from older people and through my observation and my perception of that observation I started to build my character choice by choice.
As I followed the script of the street, the story of my life inflated my confidence. It gave me a great sense of worth. There was instant recognition from my peers and elders; they showed me love and respect. I was fully aware I was doing wrong but it felt right and the more I did it, it became a social comfort. With drugs and money and turfs comes guns. Guns give you a sense of raw power. They make you instantly dangerous and people fear that.
See, all this I described to you, it filled the void of low self-esteem for me, but it all turned to shame. It did not last because it was artificial. Once you reach this point in life when you carry guns before you’re grown and still immature, you enter a realm of unpredictability and threat and the danger level goes all the way up into the red.
That means the potential of either you or someone else dying, either on purpose or on accident, is at its highest risk! And to think at such a young age you never got a chance to know who you actually are or who you would even become.
It’s kind of like pulling a flower out the ground before ever letting it bloom. You never know what kind of flower it would eventually become.
As you know, I’m incarcerated and the fact I would leave my house as an undefined youth, which allowed the winds of the street culture to mold me. My choices led me down a path that was inherently dangerous and unpredictable. I believe this is the greatest contributing factor to the crime I committed.
Henry Inocencio (no relation to David Inocencio below) is serving a sentence of life without parole) plus 25 to life for a first-degree murder with drive-by enhancement at the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, California.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.