Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. It sits quietly within a valley of Sylmar, surrounded by concrete walls and barbed wire, much like a maximum security adult prison.
As I entered through a series of steel doors and security checks, I couldn’t help but reflect on my past experiences in the justice system. At some points I struggled to keep from crying and tried to focus on my purpose there.
We were there for a chapel service, during which the CFSY was presented with a letter from Pope Francis, which he wrote in response to the hundreds of letters he received from people serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as children. As the lines of youths shuffled toward the chapel, I could hear the guards demanding that they remain quiet, and in straight formation. The kids complied, and once in their designated rows, they sat straight up with their arms extended, palms on their knees, and facing forward. Some had a look of disdain, others seemed dazed in disinterest; most looked pleased to be out and about instead of being confined to their cells.
I was scheduled to speak after the prayer, and as my introduction neared, I became more and more nervous. I have done countless presentations, but I was particularly anxious because this time I would be talking to the “young me,” the lost and confused children sitting in those seats who reminded me so much of myself as a child. As a youth, I was detained in the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago on several occasions, stemming from 19 arrests and 7 convictions including armed robbery, aggravated battery, weapon possessions, and other gang-related offenses. These led up to my final charge of first-degree murder at age 13. I would attend chapel while in detention, and pray for an early release. As my court date approached, I would try to make deals with God. I once promised God I wouldn’t go to my “hood” for two weeks if I got out; sadly, as much as I meant it during that time, the allure was too strong and returned to the streets the same night.
The truth is that I desperately longed for love and acceptance; the only source of love I had ever felt in my youth was from my gang. It was not that my mother didn’t love me, but she struggled with mental illness—perhaps in her inability to be affectionate, I sensed that no one else really cared. My brother also dealt with mental illness, and my stepfather was a non-English-speaking factory-working immigrant who drowned his misery with alcohol and imposed his own sense of manhood by beating my mother and often abusing us. Much like most of the youth I spoke to at Sylmar, I came from a poor community that limited children to a multitude of negative options, and violence, gangs, and drugs were glorified in my neighborhood—much like they were on television and in music.
I now realize that my lifestyle and my childhood propensity toward impulsive and destructive behavior made it hard for me to appreciate the words of those who tried to help me in the past. So I wondered if I would be able to touch the hearts of the kids I was facing, the hearts of kids who simply do not know better, and whose worst enemy is their own underdeveloped minds. At the end of my presentation I told them that although this is intended for me to be a positive role model for them, the truth is that, “I wish I were you. I wish that I could go back in time and start over again.” I never had an opportunity to grow up outside of prison, but that is still a possibility for them.
After I delivered what I hoped was a powerful and impactful presentation, I could see their little eyes light up, waiting to shake my hand—perhaps wishing they could ask questions, hear a little more—but mass was over and they had to return to their units. I can only hope that something I said will stay with them in a positive way. I hope that when they are faced with important decisions in life that they will reflect upon something I told them and make the right decision.
Next we visited the “juvenile transfer” compounds of the facility. There, in what was like a prison within a prison, I met children who were facing “7 to life,” “15 to life,” “25 to life,” etc. One kid named Jesus had recently been found guilty was given “80 years to life.” He was 15 at the time of the offense and he was accompanied by older codefendants. He struggled through his broken English to ask me, “is it true, that when people do good, we can go home before the whole time?” He was still trying to figure out what his sentence really meant, and it broke my heart.
I knew that his sentence meant that unless we change our sentencing laws and legal policies this child will never see freedom ever again; he will someday wake up a mature and grown man, but will never be able to prove he is better than his worst act.
After a momentary loss for words, I told him that there are many people in free society who are fighting so that he and other children like him can someday have another chance, but that he also had to do his part in this fight by trying to staying out of trouble and changing for the better.
He smiled and shook my hand.