Wake Up: Learning Responsibility, Behind Bars

Wake Up: Learning Responsibility, Behind Bars

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The author of this piece, Ray Sanchez Jr., is currently incarcerated at Pleasant Valley State Prison in California. He writes for The Beat Within, a division of Pacific News Service dedicated to providing incarcerated youth with consistent opportunities to share their ideas and life experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy, self-expression, critical thinking skills and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community. The Beat Within serves 5,000 incarcerated youth annually through its writing workshops, and publishes an 80-page bi-weekly magazine.


All the laughter stopped once the knife came out. The gravity of the situation cloaked the cell like a death shroud, and the glare in Chivo’s eyes seemed just as deadly as the piece in his hand.

“Sit down an’ quit actin’ like this is a game!”

His tone was too authoritative to consider rebelling against. As the three of us younger homies sat down and composed ourselves, Chivo allowed his expression to soften slightly, along with his posture, but maintained a firm grip on the knife.

I was eighteen, and this was my first time in county (jail). I thought I was on some grown man shit. Creeper was my cellie and only a few months older than I. Solo was twenty and had done two years in the CYA (California Youth Authority). Because of that, he was allowed to cell up wit’ OG Chivo from Frisco (San Francisco). He was about forty and had been in and out of the pen for over twenty years. He was usually mellow and goofed around with us, but yesterday, Solo decided to take a plea deal for seven years in the pen, and Chivo decided the fun an’ games was over. All the immature screwin’ around had no place on the prison yards, where veterans played politics that sacrificed youngsters like pawns.

Whatever game Solo might’ve soaked up during his short CYA stint, goofin’ off with a couple of youngsters like me and Creeps had robbed him of it.

We all had taken to kickin’ it in Chivo and Solo’s cell after our mandatory workout, shower and whatever other obligations one of us might’ve had. Today, as we joked and bullshitted, Chivo decided it was time for a reality check. It was time to prep Solo for what he would face in prison, and show us what we could expect from other vets who held positions in our gang structure; people we’d deal with if we chose to continue in our own careers as gang members.

So, the knife.

“Look,” Chivo continued once he saw he had our attention. “Here, you act tough and think you’re bad. You think bangin’ is cool, or all you’ll ever know. That makes you arrogant. You cop an’ I don’t give a ______ attitude, like no one can tell you nothing! But, WE can tell you what to do. So, you better start giving a shit real quick.”

He looked each one of us in the eyes, makin’ sure we understood how serious this was.

“Here (in county jail), you screw up and you get DP’ed (Disciplinary Procedure) -- punished like you a lil kid. If you fail to take seriously the lessons that go with those DP’s, that’s ‘cause you lack discipline, awareness, and intellect.”

Chivo had looked at Solo during this last bit and I snorted a laugh, which earned me a smack from Chivo’s free hand.

“You think this is funny?!” he yelled at me. Before I could respond, he jumped up and pinned me against the wall, holding the piece to my throat, forcing my chin up.

The others were up in an instant, telling him to chill, to put me down, put the knife down, but he spared them each a quick glare that told them all to “sit down and shut up.” He snapped his attention back to me and said in a menacing growl, “Here you get DP’ed. In prison, we cut you. Here,” he slid the knife down one side of my face from my temple and hooking over to the corner of my mouth. “And here,” and happy faced my neck.

Although the blade didn’t press enough to scratch, much less draw blood, in my mind I could feel a razor whacking into my face and slicing me open.

“And that’s only if you don’t screw up too bad. Really mess up, and they won’t slice you, they’ll put a knife into your kidney or liver.” He let me down without bothering to demonstrate, which I was glad for.

Chivo sat back down on his bunk and we all sat down around him with new eyes.

That sobered me up fast and I never took my life or situation so lightly ever again. Chivo taught us the basics of procedure, protocol and prison politics. We played “what if” games with scenarios and learned how to cover our ass and survive in the prison system. I realized just how deeply I was involved in the gang lifestyle that I’d chosen --- regardless how much I wanted to believe I was born into this life, I realized it was my choice that brought me there – and what the repercussions of that choice would be.

I became responsible for my own actions. It saddens me to admit I learned such things in jail and prison (accountability, maturity, the development of insight that gave me the hunger to learn, and the wisdom to know when I did not know enough) and not from parents, who did try. But having the reality of a crude, hand-made knife put to your throat awakens you to the necessity of personal growth much faster than being spanked or grounded for a week.

It was 1998. I had just turned eighteen, and gained the maturity and comprehension of a responsible adult while living in an eight-by-twelve cell with an old convict holding a shank, and my undivided attention.