“From then on, whenever the cell doors closed for the night, I’d start writing. And the crazy thing was, I was in jail, but when I was writing, I felt safer than I ever felt at home.”
My life has been a journey. Growing up was hard in my neighborhood. The things that I now know are wrong, those are the things that worked for us back then. So I grew up thinking the rules we lived by were right. Those things were not really supposed to be in our heads. They messed us up. Growing up, you’re supposed to be taught right from wrong. I used to think material things were what mattered: cars, clothes, who had the best bike, etc. It turns out, those things are so small and they don’t even matter!
My neighborhood was so bad. In the 90’s, we had older dudes in the neighborhood who were like fathers to us. But gradually, they just disappeared. They got locked up or they were killed. Without men to teach us, we looked to television and movies. And that was all fake. We thought it was real life. We modeled our behavior upon things that didn’t matter, and people that weren’t even real! That’s how little guidance we had!
I know the exact day that I was lured into the streets. I was eight years old and I was outside. A car drove up with a bunch of people and a man got out. He grabbed me and tried to put me in the car. I have never been so scared in my life. I thought I was gonna die. I pulled away and ran. But I got a good look right at his face. I will never forget his face. I ran into my house crying and screaming for my mother. I wanted to hurt that man. I was so scared and embarrassed. But my mom wasn’t worried about me. So I grabbed a kitchen knife and ran out the back door. Remember, I was eight years old! But right away, the older guys in the neighborhood were running behind me telling me they had my back and we’d take care of him. They all had guns. They didn’t even know what had happened, but they were willing to stand up for me. Right then, I felt that they were my family and they would protect me in a way my mother wouldn’t. The man was gone, but as I grew up, I stayed around these men because they wouldn’t let nobody hurt me. By the time I was 12, I was in the streets all the time, staying out late, skipping school, carrying guns and being bad.
I never thought I’d go to jail. Instead, I was sure I would die. I never expected to grow up.
When I was 15, I was arrested and charged as an adult. The crazy thing is that jail itself wasn’t scary. There were so many people at the DC Jail who I already knew. They all respected me, so I was comfortable from the moment I arrived. And as time passed, I was just cool with where I was. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. You’re not supposed to be cool with being in jail!
I met Free Minds when they started coming onto the unit. I just loved the books they brought us. Reading took me away from the jail. It made me feel like I could be anywhere. Far away from jail and far away from the streets.
One night I was in my cell and they popped my door open at 3AM. I was confused and thought maybe it was time for me to get up to work detail. Instead, the C.O. took me to the phone. It was my mother, calling to tell me my best friend had been killed. All I remember is going back to my cell, falling to the floor and crying. I couldn’t move. I didn’t leave my cell. Not to eat, not for rec time, nothing. I just couldn’t. I was the only one on the unit that had a window that wasn’t painted over. I remember one night looking out and realizing I could see the blue water tower in my neighborhood. I just kept looking at it and thinking about my friend. I sat down and started writing. And writing helped me heal. I couldn’t say anything to anyone, but I could write. From then on, whenever the cell doors closed for the night, I’d start writing. And the crazy thing was, I was in jail, but when I was writing, I felt safer than I ever felt at home.
I love to write! It’s crazy because I never thought I’d be a writer. Now I write before I do anything! I don’t use a computer, I always just use a pencil and paper. When I see the lead forming my words I feel whole and focused and nothing else matters. And when I read what I’ve written, I’m like, Dang! I really wrote this! It’s changed me.
My favorite book is The Hunger Games. It reminds me of living in the hood. Because living in the hood is something like martial law. When I was little and someone got killed on our block, the police would make us all go inside our houses. Loud helicopters would be shining bright lights all over the neighborhood. In The Hunger Games, only one person makes it out of the game alive—everyone else dies. It’s just like the hood. I wasn’t supposed to live past 18 years old living in my neighborhood. Like in the game though, if we team up and help each other, we can beat the system. We have to help everybody make it out.
I did a total of seven years behind bars. I grew up in jail. The whole time, Free Minds stayed with me. They sent me books and asked me for my poems. Free Minds helped me find peace. They helped me learn to control my anger and think before I act. Through books and writing, I’ve gained so much understanding. If not for Free Minds, I’d be in jail or I never would have made it home.
Now that I’m home, all that’s on my mind is how to make it better out here. I want to do something different for the young people coming up under me to show them a better way. A lot of people just leave without helping. But I can’t do anything else. I’m trying to help this next generation to feel different. If we all help each other, we can help them get out of the streets.
I just finished a four-month training program and received my 6G Pipefitter/Welding Certification. I love welding. When I see the different things I create when I bend the metal, it feels like I can change the world! I got my GED. I’m doing everything that people said I couldn’t do. People in my neighborhood doubted me. They joke about it. But I tell them I don’t have time for anything negative. I’m done! Now I know who really cares about me. I know who I am. All those things that I once cared about: getting money, going to clubs, driving a nice car? Those things ain’t nothing to me now. I don’t want to leave this earth with no legacy. I want to be someone who helped other people live a better life.
I work with Free Minds in the community because when people hear my story, I believe they understand. I’ve been through the struggles. I hope that the good I am doing now will overpower the bad things I once did. I used to be quiet, but now people want to listen to me. It makes me feel so good! It feels like people understand.
My dream is to be a fulltime underwater welder. I plan to start my own welding school. I want hundreds of young people like me to graduate from my school and become great welders. I want to help them off the street. That will be my legacy.
Sergio is one of the featured writers in the Free Minds literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison. The following is an excerpt from his essay, “The Color of My Skin,” on page 125:
“I am proud of who I am. Being black gives me my confidence and my character. Some people look at me and assume I’m in the streets or that I dropped out of school. When I walk behind a white person they act nervous or they don’t hold the door for me when they see that I’m black. It used to make me mad. But now I’m just motivated. It’s like a challenge to me. I want people to know that just because my skin color isn’t the same as yours doesn’t mean I’m better than you, or you’re better than me. I want to do something big to better the world.”
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