TWO MENS’ JOURNEYS: FINDING FREEDOM THROUGH SELF-REFLECTION AND CHOICES
routes to redemption and transformation.
For many the journey from being active in gangs and politicking on maximum-security prison yards to programming at lower-level yards like San Quentin is not easy. Yet for some residents, it’s been the key to finding freedom and redemption — by denouncing their past criminal lifestyles and transforming their lives for the better.
One of those people is Jose Mojica, 56, who walked away from being active in gangs in 2011 at the beginning of a new prison term. “It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. It was a different world,” he said about his decision.
According to Mojica, loyalty was always expected but not always returned. “It opened up my eyes seeing things that were done to someone who didn’t have it coming,” he recalled.
He understands now that he cannot go back to his old friends or old ways — that part of his life is forever closed. Seeing that guys who used to be active in gangs are now walking on programming yards reaffirms that he made the right decision, he added.
However, he said he cannot understand why some people “come over to this side” (to programing yards) to change their lives around, but then “come here and try to do the same old crap — it doesn’t make any sense.”
Like many rehabilitated men, Mojica had to endure much hardship before realizing he was ready to get out. After he made that decision, he still had to prove to prison administrators that he was a programmer before they would transfer him to a prison like San Quentin.
Mojica’s first incarceration was in 1987. By 1992, he had received an indeterminate Secure Housing Unit designation due to gang association. Over several prison terms, he endured years of hard time in SHUs with only one hour per day out of his cell, at best. Along the way, a guard shot him with the “Big Bertha” block-gun.
Because of his refusal to “debrief” (testify) against his former gang associates, it took years of programing through correspondence courses and staying out of trouble before he moved on from his SHU designation.
While on parole, Mojica worked as a union carpenter and began raising a family. But alcohol use led to multiple relapses to an earlier lifestyle. Every time he came back to prison, his gang life was waiting for him, along with the criminal mentality of prison politics.
His release from the SHU followed several court rulings d etermining t hat it was unconstitutional to hold prisoners in isolation indefinitely or without specific evidence. Seven years after his decision to drop out, he finally transferred to a lower-level programming yard — variously called SNY, PC, or non-designated yards — where he had the opportunity to join self-help groups.
His perseverance and commitment to rehabilitation paid off. Before long, he transferred to San Quentin and is now finishing out his sentence at a community reentry program. The program includes daily work furloughs and a chance to spend time with his loved ones before officially paroling.
“I’m going to go out there and do the right thing,” Mojica said shortly before transport. “I really don’t want to come back. I don’t want to disappoint my daughters anymore.”
Another San Quentin resident, Michael Sperling, 46, can relate to Mojica’s story. Incarcerated since 2012 and serving a life sentence, he was an active gang member for 30 years before dropping out. He was attracted to the gang life for the brotherhood, but now sees that it was all lies.
“I grew up with a warped believe system. I thought I was only hurting gang members, not women and children. Yet each one of them had all of their families behind them, all of their women and children loving them, and I hurt them too,” he said.
Sperling grew up in a rough neighborhood and suffered from multiple childhood traumas, including at home. He endured severe abuse at the hands of his father, and by 12, his father was shooting him up with heroin. Two years later, he was committed to the Youth Authority for murder.
“I was the one that wanted to be a super gangster,” he said. “I was a shot caller at prisons, jails, on the streets. I was always the one being like, ‘[screw] the dropouts, [screw] the PCs.’”
Sperling explained that in prison politics you could be at the top one minute and the bottom the next. A wrong turn can be a life or death situation. He said he was severely attacked by other prisoners due to backslash from the same politics that he himself once enforced against others.
He survived the attack, but afterwards he felt betrayed. All the abuses that he had suffered from his father resurfaced, and he made the commitment never to return to the criminal lifestyle.
In 2021, he made it to San Quentin.
Since then he has participated in self-help groups while staying clean and sober. This includes GRIP (Guiding Rage Into Power), Narcotics Anonymous, and The Beat Within as well as helping to facilitate Kid CAT and Criminal Gangs Anonymous. He also takes college classes and has graduated from computer literacy, ISUDT (drug treatment program), and No More Tears.
“Dropping out was the best decision I ever made,” Sperling said. “Now I’m in control of my own life. All of my criminal thinking is gone. I help people and talk to people I would have never talked to before. I value my victims, I value human life, I value accountability.”
He feels that his support network, his faith and the coping skills he has gained through self-help groups keep him on the right path.
“I’ve learned about that moment between anger and violence and how to interrupt the cycle in that moment,” Sperling said. “Character defects will always be there, but I refuse to let them be active. Positive self-talk is a huge coping mechanism for me, and I know now that it’s OK to ask for help.”
His Christian faith has also played a crucial role in his transformation. “I’m born again through Christ,” he said. “I used to look at those who found God in prison and thought they were weak. Now, I realize I was weak and those who turn to God are the strong ones.”
Sperling’s hard-earned wisdom shines through passionate words of advice.
“I’ve survived so much — I’ve been stabbed nine times, shot in the head, overdosed from heroin seven times — and I’m still alive,” he said. “I had to ask God why I’m still alive, and now I know why: to better myself so I can help others.
“I invite and encourage everyone to take that step. Step away from negativity and step towards positivity for yourself, your family and your community.”
Many people like Mojica and Sperling are recognizing the importance of turning to self-help and rehabilitation to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones, helping to make their communities safer places for all.