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41 JUNE 2002
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voices of youth

Growing up in prison

Tony Rios, a youth who was locked up at age 13 and, two years later, was transferred to an adult prison. Tony shares his experience of being socialized by older inmates within the prison culture.

In March of 1992, I started an 8-year sentence for the crime of aggravated assault, with a suspended sentence of 20 years for the crime of first-degree manslaughter. I was just barely 15 years of age when I walked into the prison. At first I was still in a state of shock, desperately trying not to believe that this was truly happening to me. But it was very much real and true.

When I first came in, I was strip-searched – for security reasons, I was told. About this point, I was dazed and confused and felt so alone. I feared what the prison had in store for me. I had sat in the “fish tank” for 1 day when an inmate walked up to me who was 6'4” and weighed at least 275 pounds. I was glad to see him because he was my stepfather. He was allowed in my cell, and we exchanged hugs and tears.

After 2 weeks in the tank, I was sent to the minimum security prison because of my age. I stayed there for 9 months with nothing but time on my hands. I was too young to qualify for any of the classes or trades they had to offer, so I started to get a lot of minor write-ups because I had nothing to do. This resulted in my being sent to the main prison, where I had never been. After about 2 months, I got into a fight with three inmates, in which I got badly beaten because I refused to be strong-armed or bullied. I couldn’t tell my stepfather because he had gotten out. This happened just before my cousin was stabbed to death in the same prison by an out-of-state inmate.

At this point in time, I began to miss my family and my mom, but they were too far away to come console me. Before I was taken to the hole (because of the fight), I attempted to take my life. I felt as if no one cared anymore, so why not? After I got out of the hole, I started work in the kitchen. While working there one night, I went out to the recreation yard. A riot started, and I became involved to “make my bones” with the other inmates. I knew I could be charged and face life in prison, but it was better than having anyone pick on me. Even though I was in a gang now, the gang members weren’t always around to protect me, so I chose to be involved in the riot. After the riot was over, I was placed in the hole, where I stayed for 14 straight months. Then I was placed in administrative segregation for 10 more months. At this point, I had spent my 16th, 17th, and 18th birthdays in the hole and in administrative segregation. I didn’t care what I did, or if anything happened to me or those I was related to. I had learned to shut all emotions off, because that way I wouldn’t feel the pain of loneliness for my family. I was always depressed and suicidal, and because of that I was constantly on psychiatric pills that dulled my thinking as well as my ability to hurt myself or others. I felt alone, confused, and depressed, and the feeling of an emptiness still haunts me to this day, 4 years later.

At first this place changed me into this unremorseful monster who would fight at the drop of a hat and didn’t care about myself or anyone in general. It hardened me on the inside to a point that no one could get through to me with anything about where I was going in life. There was no one I could talk to who would listen with an open heart instead of an open book listing rules and prisoners. All I ever wanted was for someone to listen, someone who would understand what was going through my mind.

Most of the kids joining gangs or getting into trouble today don’t have a warm home environment. No one notices the good things they do, so they do the bad things to gain someone’s attention, which to me is a plea for someone to be there. Gangs and gang life are like a family, where youth can seek protection and a never-ending love. When you join the gang, you are always welcomed with open arms, and there is always acceptance among the members. Kids show their gratitude and hardness by doing things for initiation, such as doing a drive-by, robbery, or assault, or killing or maiming an enemy. If parents were more open-minded about their needs, spent more time with them, and were more involved in children's lives, rather than just putting a roof over their heads and food on the table, kids would most likely feel an acceptance and family-loving atmosphere, rather than finding it in a gang life or a life of crime. I know I would have. Many kids are just a product of the type of environment that they are growing up in. Ninety-nine percent of these children do not live this lifestyle by choice, but rather for the inner need to feel loved and accepted or to get someone’s attention. In many cases, it is the wrong attention to get. Some kids may do it for the mere enjoyment of the carefree lifestyle it offers them.

Today, children who commit serious crimes against people and property are considered incorrigible and, instead of rehabilitation in the juvenile system, society gives up on them. They are sent to an adult prison, which becomes a training ground for the life of a hardened criminal without a care in the world for who they hurt and what they do.

Many inmates believe they can get away with crime because they will be more confident next time. They become the harbingers of things to come, the next generation in our so called great “Amerikka.”

Building more prisons and juvenile facilities won’t work as a deterrent to crime. The money that is being spent for all this building should be used for better education and counseling for those youth who are falling into the wrong tracks in life.

Prisons are a training ground for the young people who enter their gates. Once these kids graduate, they will commit more heinous crimes because they have received advanced psychological training in the criminal way of thinking.

Tony Rios is a Native American youth who spent his early childhood on the Northern Plains and in the Southwest. His most recent bid for parole was denied.

This feature: One of the “free pages" of Reclaiming Children and Youth: The Journal of Strength-Based Interventions.

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