A lifer reflects on the past, and the second family of his choosing
As I walked across the stage to receive my graduation certificate from the Guiding Rage Into Power self-help group, I looked out into the crowd and saw my best friend Christian’s parents, Ron and Barbara. They couldn’t know how much their presence meant to my rehabilitation. Nobody in my family had ever celebrated any of my accomplishments. Now, here I was in prison, with my second family smiling at me.
I smiled back.
Christian and his family are models of goodness. Their kindness changed the way I felt toward people, and the world in general.
Christian and I met in 1994, working at the San Jose Country Club. He was 20 and a part-time lifeguard; I was a 26-year-old maintenance assistant. He grew up in San Jose and attended James Lick High not far from where we lived. We actually lived across the street from each other.
I moved to San Jose in November 1993 to improve my quality of life. I grew up in the unincorporated area of North Richmond; my neighborhood had its own culture. There were drugs, prostitution, and violence. I thought my neighborhood was a place to achieve success. But I was terribly wrong. I had a past that was plagued with all sorts of criminal behavior. I never discussed the exact nature of me moving to San Jose with Christian. Actually, he never asked. Deep down I believe he knew. I told him a little about my struggles, but he never judged me. He embraced me like family, despite the fact that we had such different backgrounds.
I had issues with trusting people because of my experience as a young child with domestic violence and physical abuse. My mother disciplined me in a way that taught me that fear controls people. This was the worst lesson I ever learned. Whenever the school or the police called my mother, she expressed her love with a belt. She was a tough woman and loving at the same time.
I learned growing up that self-preservation by any means is how you survive in this world. People in my neighborhood always had some type of angle, for instance, benefiting from other’s losses. People would always boast about what they got and what you did not have. They had the goal of putting others beneath them and often had ulterior motives. People in my old neighborhood were selfish. They would advance themselves at others’ expense. I remember my father saying, “Don’t let people in this neighborhood see you counting money.”
When my mother passed away in June of 2007, she was the last one left from my immediate family. My father and four brothers preceded her in death.
Christian and his parents were able to attend my mother’s funeral-representing me. This meant so much to me. They actually drove to my old neighborhood, where crime happens by the second. This gesture of
traveling to an inner-city neighborhood to pay respects to someone they never met made me feel connected to them. This thoughtfulness reminded me of the kind of unconditional love that I believe family should show each other. There is not a day of my incarceration I do not think about them. Losing family members while in prison can be devastating without support. Having an extended family saved me. Thank God for that second chance.
I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I could trust my second family. Ron and Barbara were very nice and polite. I could see where Christian got his character traits. They always cared about other people’s welfare. They were not judgmental at all. Christian’s parents welcomed me into their home without any hesitation. Whenever they did something together, I was included. This gesture of inclusion made me feel like family. One day they were going to visit some friends and asked me if I would I like to go. I tried to resist as much as possible, not knowing anything about their friends. But Barbara kept on insisting, so I gave in. I never knew where she worked, but I knew she was an advocate for juvenile offenders. They treated me with the type of respect and kindness that I needed — something I was not use to having. We all got into the family car, and when I met their friends, it was a reflection of how Christian and his parents treated me. They were just as nice as Christian’s parents. I guess birds of a feather seem to flock together. The parents of my old friends never really cared about anyone but themselves. This was different.
My communication with Christian and his parents went into hiatus for a few months, between the time I was transferred from Santa Clara County Jail to California State Prison Reception Center in August of 1996. My first prison was Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad California, a maximum-security facility. There was not too much kindness at this prison, I would see or hear about people being stabbed, and assaulted in many different ways. I felt as though I was doing time in the wild. At one point, I did not know if I would survive 35 years in this type of environment. I later learned how you conduct yourself plays a significant role of surviving in prison.
One day while at Salinas Valley State Prison, I decided to call Ron. I felt such relief to hear his voice. I was not sure what direction my life was going in. I had thoughts about getting into a riot and ending up seriously hurt. I had already seen people getting disciplined, beaten until they gave up. I did not have any idea if harm would come to me; I did not know the culture of prison. Despite being on the phone, I still had to be aware of my surroundings at all times; violent attacks can occur when a person is most vulnerable. I explained to Ron that on the inside, we had to adopt basic survival skills. I told him we used soap as glue, and we washed and sewed our own clothes. We had to keep an extra food supply, just in case we went on lockdown and were restricted from shopping at the prison’s canteen. He was amazed at how I was adapting. I did most of the talking, but it was comforting to talk to someone who listened, because people in prison do not want to hear your problems.
I was transferred to California Training Facility in 2004 because my security level decreased. I mentioned to Ron that I wanted to become a drug counselor, so he paid for my tuition for a Drug Treatment correspondence course at Strafford Career Institute. This was the first time someone actually invested in me. I wanted to become a drug treatment specialist/counselor because many years of my life were consumed in drugs. I wanted to give other addicts a specialized understanding of drug abuse. I completed the course in three and half months, within the 90 percentile. I later discovered the neuroscience of the brain activity when under the influence of drugs. My security level was constantly dropping, because of my model behavior.
Seven years later in 2011, I was transferred to San Quentin State Prison where self-help programs were more available. I enrolled in Addiction Recovery Counseling — a 16-week drug-counseling program. This program introduced me to Narcotics Anonymous. I would always tell Ron and Barbara about how things were going with my reform and they said to me, “We are proud of what you are doing.” I do not think they knew how much their encouraging words meant.
In 2012, I enrolled in the Patten University, now called Mount Tamalpais College at San Quentin. I was in pursuit of a quality education; I kept a GPA of 3.53. Barbara said that I had a better grade point average than she did. I do not think that’s true, she was just being supportive. The first thing I learned in college was how to think critically. I had trouble explaining in-depth my past history to Christian and his parents, but after a while it became easier. I shared most of my thoughts in stories and essays. I was encouraged to continue to writing.
I have not seen Christian since he visited me in 2006. He did not like visiting me in prison. I believe Christian did not like seeing me locked up, so he only visited once. He moved from the Bay Area to Boston, Massachusetts to start a family. As years went by we communicated via mail. He sent me birthday greetings, money, care packages, and pictures of his wife and kids. Christian’s parents Ron and Barbara have visited me frequently for the past 27 plus years. In 2020 during the pandemic, I suffered from Pulmonary Embolism, an illness that affected my lungs. It was hard for me to breathe; when I got out of the hospital, I received a video visit every weekend from my second family. Even though my illness almost cost me my life, they were there for me. Growing up I did not have this much support, especially when things got tough. I have accomplished many things with their support.
I often think about reconnecting with Christian, what it would be like. We had the love of basketball in common. We loved the game so much; we once played in the rain at night, and use a car’s headlights so we could see. Christian’s father Ron put the basketball hoop up in the driveway of their home. His father shot hoops with us from time to time, he had a good shot. Christian and I once played some guys in a game of basketball and he was such an unselfish player. This type of inclusiveness not only helped me become a better basketball player, but a better team mate. Christian and I became friends instantly. We just clicked. I believe a part of Christian’s character rubbed off on me.
Christian was easy to talk to. Having a friend with a positive demeanor was new to me — something I was not use to being around. I’d love to see him now, we would just sit back and reminisce about the old days, maybe take in a Warriors game? I wonder if his wife and kids would accept me? Will it be like when we first met?
I plan on traveling to Boston, putting on a Golden State Warriors Jersey, and challenging him to a one-onone basketball game, bad knees and all. I might get more than I anticipated because Boston is enemy territory for a Warriors fan. They beat the Celtics in game six on their home court in the 2022 NBA finals, but it would be good to see my old friend again.