There have been significant prison reform efforts in recent years in California. Reforms have addressed issues around sentencing of non-violent crimes, the trying of juveniles and greater scrutiny on the use of solitary confinement. But not all prisoners will feel the effects of these reforms. Some will fall through the cracks.
Pedro – not his real name – is a man who is slipping away unseen in the prison system, forgotten long ago.
Seeking a Friend
Finally home after a tiresome day, I walk to my mailbox. Inside are two envelopes, both rubber-stamped with the words, “Mailed from Corcoran State Prison.” The guilt sinks in – a guilt I have felt before. Ever since I became pen pals with Pedro, it has been hard to keep up with the influx of letters he sends. As a prisoner sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, Pedro has a great deal more time and motivation to write than I do.
I first wrote to Pedro over seven months ago, after becoming interested in policy surrounding incarceration and the use of solitary confinement. The stories of so many prisoners in pain and isolation left me distraught. I thought the least I could do was write a letter to someone in need of compassion and words of encouragement.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, about 129,000 adult men and women were incarcerated in state prisons as of November 2015. The number of incarcerations has been decreasing since the 2014 passage of Proposition 47. This California ballot initiative reduced penalties for non-serious, non-violent property and drug crimes by mandating a misdemeanor sentence instead of a felony. The proposition also worked retroactively, reducing the felony sentences of those imprisoned prior to its implementation. At the time of the fall 2015 report, over 4,500 inmates had already been re-sentenced and released from prison as a result.
Pedro’s sentence will not be impacted by Proposition 47, given the violent nature of his crimes. Based on court records, Pedro was involved in the murder of rival gang members. Although he did not pull the trigger himself, his verbal encouragement of an associate was considered enough of an implication of his intent to kill. Sentenced with first-degree murder, Pedro was locked up for life, with no chance for redemption, at just 20 years old.
I found Pedro on the Write-A-Prisoner website, an organization established to help prisoners connect with free pen-pals from around the world. Among the thousands of prisoners on the website hoping to speak to anyone who will listen, Pedro stood out to me. Despite his life sentence and his placement in solitary confinement, where he was confined to his cell from 22 to 24 hours each day without phone calls or visitors, Pedro appeared positive and focused on bettering himself. He is articulate and intelligent in describing his passion for social justice issues.
Although my life appears bleak,” wrote Pedro, “I remain steadfast in my pursuit of meaning. Truthfully, I just want to be able to see the world and live, even if it’s through pictures and letters, a life full of experiences outside these walls. Whoever is willing to open their lives to me will be accepted with gratitude for their friendship.”
I filled out some basic contact information, wrote a short message introducing myself, and waited for his response. About a month later, I received my first letter from Corcoran State Prison. It read:
Your letter was a pleasant surprise to receive. I am real thankful for your time … I’ve been slammed down (validated resulting in segregation) for quite some time already, and I feel closed off to the world. Your letters can be the ray of sunshine to light up an otherwise bleak situation.
A Childhood Undone
I have learned a lot about Pedro since we started writing. Although I have never seen a photo of him, his words paint a picture of a young man, hardened and branded by the streets of Los Angeles.
Pedro is “Mexican Chicano” and has large tattoos on his head and forehead, which cover a scar he received when he was assaulted by rival gang members. I imagine he is rather fit, as he told me working out is one of the things he does to stay occupied. He does “18 hundred [pushups] every three days,” to be exact.
I know superficial facts about Pedro, like the things elementary children share with one other when deciding whether they should be friends. His favorite color is green, and he’s pretty sure Tupac is his favorite musical artist. He loves the Raiders, rocky road ice cream, and watching cartoons to relieve stress.
I also know that Pedro grew up in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood the L.A. Times ranked as having one of the highest rates of violent crimes; a culture Pedro is acutely aware of:
I run with the criminal minded. I’ve buried cousins murdered at 16 homeboys at nineteen and twenty and most people I know are addicted to some type of drug. But I love them people, and I see the beautiful humanity of them.
Pedro’s mom gave birth to him when she was only 16 years old, and lost him to the foster care system that same year. At the age of twelve, Pedro lost his dad to a heroin overdose. His family members are “all products of the ghetto,” he explains, and participants of a “taboo sub-culture.”
“My families [sic] been on the news for drug peddling. All my friends are locked up or dead. I know how it feels to live on welfare checks. I’ve seen people I love beg for money so they can shoot up heroin. I love them people, still.”
Pedro’s childhood, although tragic, is not uncommon. Los Angeles County is home to the nation’s largest child welfare system and homeless population. According to the Alliance for Children’s Rights, there are currently 28,000 children in foster care in Los Angeles County, and 50 percent of them will end up homeless or incarcerated upon emancipation from the foster care system.
In Los Angeles, foster youth can receive services until the age of emancipation, which was extended from 18 to 21 when California passed Assembly Bill 12 in 2010. Through this law, L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services receives federal funding designated to provide youth, ages 17 to 21, with services to aid in their transitions to adulthood and independence. These services include the education of independent living skills, and assistance in seeking employment and further education. Pedro was arrested and incarcerated before 2010, though, so he wouldn’t have been eligible for such services.
Like many foster children who grow up in violent communities, Pedro found solace in the seemingly supportive structure of his local gang. Sadly, it was Pedro’s gang involvement that ultimately led to his arrest. AB12 and other measures, such as the recently passed law to raise the smoking age to 21 in California, suggest that that our society is moving the marker for when childhood ends and adulthood begins. In the justice system, though, anyone over the age of 18 is considered an adult. And so, at just 20 years old, after acting as an accomplice to a murder, Pedro was tried and sentenced as an adult. In effect, he was told he would never have a second chance.
But in a culture of drugs and violence, had he ever been given a first chance?
My Friend the Spider
Now in his eighth year of imprisonment, Pedro is in solitary confinement. He was involved in a fight, resulting in segregation from his peers. Pedro often worries about the state of his mind. He worries about his ability to create, and expresses a fear of being stripped of personal outlets. Solitary confinement is hard on the mind.
The New York Times chronicled a 1993 study by a psychologist, Craig Haney, on inmates in solitary confinement at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. The study showed that isolation can worsen mental illness, and even degrade the mental well-being of those originally considered “psychologically robust.” Prolonged exposure to solitary confinement results in what Dr. Haney calls a “social death,” when an inmate withdraws so far from reality that it becomes unrecognizable to them. They begin to struggle not only with the physical conditions of their plight, but the psychological conditions of their mind.
Pedro has only served eight years of his life-sentence, but I feel him struggling to keep his mind occupied. Recently, he wrote about his observation and befriending of a spider:
I like that animals are so foreign sometimes. You can sit there and watch them doing things for hours and not know what’s going on in their heads. For instance; I have a black widow on my window seal [sic]; I can watch her for hours as she weaves her web, hunts a fly or mosquito, chases her lover (another spider away) or even sleeps. I can get so intrigued by trying to figure her out it an easily take a whole day away right from under me.
Pedro details his conversations with this spider – a companion that will listen, but offers little in return.
At the federal level, President Obama recently ordered a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons:
“How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity,” Obama said.
As of September 2015, California agreed to overhaul the use of solitary confinement for all prisoners, not just juveniles. Prisoners have been advocates in this reform through the participation of hunger strikes since 2011, strikes that Pedro has participated in.
It is unclear why Pedro remains in solitary.
And due to a recent relocation, Pedro has lost the companionship of his friend, the spider.
I left my black widow in my old cell. After all what was I supposed to do, throw her in my pocket? Right before I left I think she killed another one of her boyfriends. She’s so heartless.
I sometimes wonder if Pedro sees the parallel between himself and the spider. Except he is not the spider; he is the creature in her web. The spider’s system leaves its prey trapped, wasting days away. Sometimes those creatures are released. Sometimes they are consumed.
I do not know if future prison reform will eventually find Pedro. And if it does, whether the reforms will come before he loses the ability to contribute to society – a society he desperately wants to be a part of. All I know right now is that he anxiously awaits my letters, yearning, desperate for contact. Because, unlike the spider, at least I am paying attention. At least I talk back.
I will be anxiously awaiting your letter, Annie. Think about me. Your friend, Pedro.
Ps. Write back soon.
Annie Levine recently graduated from the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy with a Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Victoria Rocha is a Master of Public Administration student at the Price School. They collaborated to write this story for the class Media for Policy Change.
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