Saturday, December 10, 2016


I went to prison today.

I am alternately feeling hopeful and extremely pessimistic. Our prison system is so careless; there are so many lives wasted. At the same time, I think it might have saved someone's life. Let me explain.

When I was teaching, I made a point to tell my students, many of whom had few stable adults in their lives, that they would always be "my kids." Today, that meant driving two hours (a friend drove me which was wonderful because I was really nervous) to Mule Creek State Prison to visit "Jorge" who has his own chapter in my book.

I am not going to go into Jorge's whole life story because he has his own chapter in my book, Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom. The very abridged version is that he was born to a 14-year old illegal immigrant who quickly developed a drug problem, if she didn't have one when he was born. He had to take responsibility for his family his whole childhood, and was mainly raised by his grandmother. He saw his friend murdered when they were 13, the police put him in danger and treated him like an adult perpetrator rather than a child witness who had just lost a friend and been traumatized, and he went off the rails. That's all in the book.

After I lost touch with him, I learned today, he started using meth and joined the Norteno gang. He said his initiation into the gang was for them all to beat him severely. He used meth up until he was arrested at 18, for shooting at a police officer, and got a sentence for attempted murder (thank God he didn't hit the officer).

Going to jail made him get clean out of necessity, and he spent I think almost two years at Santa Rita. I don't remember the order of the events, but two things were essential to him turning things around, at least in his mind and intentions. His mom died tragically in a fire, and around the same time, he was "jumped" while eating by a rival gang and no one in his gang in the prison helped him out. Something (if you know me, you know I believe it was God), gave him the strength to leave the gang.

I want to be clear: this is not a kid who has been used to making hard decisions for his benefit. He's the kid who friends would make hold the drugs when the cops came because he needed to belong and wouldn't stand up for himself. THAT KID left a gang in prison, putting his life in danger.

He said that when he made that decision to get out, he got put in "the hole" (solitary confinement) for two months, I believe until he was moved, for his own protection. Now he's totally on his own; he said "I'm my own man."

I'm heartbroken that this child—he's 21, feels like a child still to me—could be in prison until he's 37. He will have trouble for the rest of his life in finding a job or finding acceptance. I'm encouraged that he is growing up and making good decisions, in a time that most people absolutely do not make their best decisions.

I was nervous about seeing Jorge for the first time in eight years, in prison, with him as an adult. I shouldn't have worried. He's bigger, and his hair is really long, in a ponytail, and he lost a tooth in the gang fight at Santa Rita. But his eyes are the same. He has always had incredibly beautiful eyes and would probably be highly embarrassed by me saying that, but it's true. And he has a beautiful soul. He has always cared far more about his family than he should have to, and had to be their protector. It was too heavy for him, and you could see that when he was just a little kid.

I'm so thankful he's alive and I'm so sad he's in prison. It's a tragedy that he's in prison, but the route his was going... he probably would have died if he hadn't been arrested.

This is the child who asked his second grade teacher how he could learn to be good when he didn't have anyone to teach him. In third grade, he said to me, "Ms. Harris, I've figured out it. When your mom's on drugs, she forgets she loves you. She still loves you but she forgets."

I was really worried that he would not feel respected in the book. I did my best, but he was not an easy kid much of the time. He said I did well. And he was so proud of being in the book dedication. He said he was showing it to everyone.