Friday, February 13, 2009
Finding Perspective In Federal Prison
I read an article in a news magazine that intrigued me. It described a young gang member from Los Angeles who was struggling to reform. The gang member was covered in tattoos and he was participating in a program to remove the tattoos through surgery. That was a step he needed to take, the gang members mused, in order for prospective employers to give him a chance.
The article would not have interested me prior to my confinement. After having served time in Taft’s Federal Prison Camp, however, I’ve spent a lot more time in contemplation of the social problems that affect our society. Whereas I had lived my life somewhat isolated from the struggles that so many other Americans endured, in prison I share relatively tight living quarters with people who know nothing but hardship for their entire lives. By spending time amongst them, I became more tolerant, more confident in each individual’s capacity to change.
Although I understood the former gang members motivation to remove tattoos, real change would require a deep commitment. I saw such commitment in many of the young men with whom I served time at Taft Camp. One of them was named Rito Garcia.
Rito told me that he had begun serving his sentence soon after his eighteenth birthday. He had been reared under conditions that would have challenged anyone. Rito’s mother passed away before he reached his teen years. His father was working but poor, Rito never advanced beyond the eighth grade, and during his teen years, the bad influences of his environment sucked him into the vortex of drug trafficking.
Prior to having met Rito, it would have been easy to judge him as a criminal. The more I contemplated the struggles he must have endured as a child, however, the more I began to empathize with him. I realized the veracity of the adage, “but for the grace of God, there go I.”
What truly impressed me about Rito was the responsible manners in which he responded to the 10-year sentence his judge had imposed. Rito began serving his term inside a higher-security prison. Those razor-wire topped fences contained many gang members and negative influences. Rather than succumbing to the presence of continuing that path to continuing problems with the law, Rito chose to change his life. He didn’t limit himself to external changes, like removing tattoos. Rito invested years to educate himself, to improving his diction, and to preparing himself in every way to emerge from prison successfully.
By the time I met Rito, he had completed eight years in prison. That length of time seemed unfathomable to me. He had earned his GED and gone on to earn an associates degree from Taft Community College. He was scheduled for release a few months before I was scheduled to walk out of Taft, and he had a solid plan to carry him forward. Rito secured his admission to California State University Fullerton, where he intended to continue his studies and earn a four-year degree.
In Taft camp, Rito had led a responsible adjustment. Administrators rewarded him with a job taking photographs in the visiting groom, and his affable mannerisms made him a favorite of my mother. She always appreciated his warm greeting, his welcoming ways. Rito had a natural gift of charm, and together with the discipline manifested by his adjustment, I felt certain that he stood ready to make real contributions to society.
In serving time alongside prisoners like Rito, I had more reason to believe that a person’s background did not have to determine his future. Such a perspective would have escaped me had I not gone through these months of confinement