Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series on the cost of earning a reputation in prison.
A person can earn a bad reputation in prison for any number of reasons: being a snitch, a drop-out (former gang member), a child rapist or a homosexual.
Prisoners with those reputations are often ostracized, assaulted, extorted or even murdered.
On some cases, it can lead to real-world consequences. From the age of 12 to 18, 41-year-old San Quentin in- mate Richard Solano attend- ed 22 funerals of his fellow gang members.
“Ten months before my current incarceration, I was identified in my neighbor- hood as a drop-out in prison and was shot by members of my former gang,” said So- lano, 41, on his sixth term of incarceration. “I was given a code to live by when I became a gang member. I knew the ultimate consequences of breaking that code could mean being murdered by my own gang. This code applied in prison and it applied in my neighborhood.”
Solano joined a gang at age 12 and was the third generation in his family to do so.
“Being a gang member was all I knew growing up, and it was a full time job,” Solano said. “It entailed protecting our neighborhood from rival gangs, committing retaliations, selling drugs and collecting debts.”
“By living up to the expectations of the gang, you earned a reputation as a solid individual; this, in turn, earns you respect, position and opportunities to make money,” he added. “However, when you fall short of those expectations, the consequences was getting ‘checked’ by your peers. This meant getting beat up or placed on a mission to reclaim your reputation as a loyal gang member.”
The severest punishments are reserved for those who snitch or leave the gang; a member could be murdered for either.
Solano accumulated 10 arrests between the ages of 12 and 41—four as a juvenile and six as an adult.
“When I first came to prison at 18 years old, it felt like a homecoming,” Solano said. “Old enemies in the street were now my best allies—we were all united.
“On the flip side, being a member of my gang in prison meant that we were aligned to a bigger entity with one purpose – to generate money for a larger criminal organization.”
After successive prison terms, Solano began questioning his gang allegiance.
One of the turning points for Solano came when two of his childhood best friends from his gang were murdered by three of his other childhood best friends.
“I was devastated by the loss of my friends, and it made me realize that there was no loyalty in my gang,” Solano said. “I really regret- ted not having enough courage to set aside my pride to live for my family and myself sooner.”
During his third prison term in 2004, Solano renounced his gang affiliation.
His wakeup call came when he was sent to solitary confinement for conspiracy to traffic narcotics. While there, he ran into his older brother, who was in protective custody. Solano started reaching out to him, but his gang told him that he couldn’t talk to his brother.
Active gang members are not permitted to associate with “non-active” gang members—even if they’re family.
“After I got into a fight with my cellmate over this is- sue, I made a decision to join my brother in protective custody,” Solano said.
“When I made that decision, I set myself free from the bondage of my gang, but I also knew I would have enemies.”
After dropping out of his gang, Solano remained in the criminal lifestyle.
“Being a drop-out didn’t affect my activities when I got out of prison. I still sold drugs and people kept com- ing to me, knowing that I had a reputation to handle my business,” Solano said.
His continued criminal lifestyle led him to his latest incarceration.
In spite of his prison status as a protective custody (Sensitive Needs Yard-SNY) inmate, Solano found himself being integrated back into general population in his re- cent return to prison.
“I was told by my counselor that they had been sending SNYs since January to San Quentin, but when I arrived, long and behold I was one of the first,” he said.
As of Jan 1, San Quentin became a non-designated prison where general population inmates and SNY inmates are housed together.
As a “non-active” gang member, Solano and others who are known as drop-outs were targeted by active gang members when they first arrived.
Since his arrival in April, Solano has been in multiple fights, once against three active gang members.
In spite of these confrontations, Solano expresses gratitude for being in San Quentin.
“After 41 years, I finally rediscovered myself in here and, in the process, I’ve also found my voice,” he said.
Solano served as a member of the Men’s Advisory Council in San Quentin, advocating for SNY inmates.
Solano’s leadership helped reduce conflict between SNY and general population inmates.
“When I was younger, I tried to build a reputation as a solid gang member, but this resulted in multiple terms of incarceration and getting shot,” Solano said. “This time when I get out, I’ll work on giving my life back to society and steering the youth in the right direction,” says Solano. “At the end of the day, only your family truly matters; their love is unconditional.”
Solano paroled in September. Is the pursuit of a “good” reputation by prisoners out of touch with society?
It is not, according to a study conducted by psychologists at the University of North Carolina.
In its online survey of 111 Americans, it found 53% would choose immediate death over a long life as a suspected child molester; and 30% would take immediate death over a long and happy life followed by postmortem rumors of child molestation.
Additionally, 40% of those surveyed said they would choose a year in jail and a clean reputation over no jail and a criminal reputation.
“Incarceration is directly harmful, but reputation is what helps you gain access to all of the things you want in society,” said Andy Vonasch, lead psychologist in the study.
Any inmates interested in receiving the KidCAT curriculum must ask the Community Partnership Manager (CPM) at their facility to contact the CPM at San Quentin. As of February, 2019, KidCAT’s curriculum can only be distributed to inmates through their CPM.