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Deciphering Rene Enriquez

Enriquez with American RadioWorks producer Michael Montgomery.

I first heard about Rene Enriquez while working on a documentary at Pelican Bay State Prison, the feared, high-security lockup set incongruously amid the forested beauty of California's north coast.

Pelican Bay is home to the state's most dangerous inmates ("the worst of the worst" in prison parlance). Most inmates earn their way to Pelican Bay having failed at other prisons, usually because of violent attacks on other prisoners or staff.

Rene spent 10 years in Pelican Bay's notorious Security Housing Unit, where he was confined to a windowless isolation unit 24 hours a day. Yet somehow he thrived at Pelican Bay, and persisted in running street operations for the Mexican Mafia. His exploits were the stuff of legend. Guards and inmates spoke of Rene in respectful, almost reverential tones. "You've gotta meet this guy," one of the prison's gang investigators who'd spent years trying to unravel Enriquez's secret networks told me. "And just listen to the way he talks."

One of the strange discoveries of working in a prison, especially in a system as troubled and violent as California's, is witnessing the respect some inmates and staff afford each other. In fact, the inmate who's risen highest up the criminal ladder, like Enriquez, often has the most cordial relations with staff.

I witnessed this phenomenon in an improbable exchange between a guard and an inmate serving a life term for murder. The inmate was considered extremely dangerous. He was being investigated for ordering the murders of gang rivals from his lock-down cell (months later he was indicted by federal prosecutors). The conversation between the inmate and guard couldn't have been more courteous.

"Why create more problems than you have to?" the guard later told me. "I don't respect the guy, but I can show him respect. And he responds. It's part of the culture."

Of course, prison staff could really respect Enriquez because he dropped out of the gang and spilled the beans on the group's secret operations. Staff found Enriquez's ability to talk about criminal life so refreshingly candid that they sent videotaped interviews with him to the legislature and governor.

There was clearly a powerful story in Enriquez. Here was a convicted murderer who had outwitted one of the country's highest security prisons, apparently thriving in bleak isolation in the process, and at mid-life, decided to leave the gang and turn his life around. The story would be about his struggle to change his life. But could I trust Enriquez to tell the truth? Or would he spin a self-serving story aimed at enhancing his chances for release?

One of the challenges in reporting from prison is inmates' remarkable ability to tell you what you want to hear. I learned at Pelican Bay that an inmate will quickly decipher the context for your questions and then give answers that fit that context and leave you satisfied with the inmate. For example, if my questions seemed to imply that I thought conditions at the prison were unduly harsh, an inmate would emphasize how difficult it was to survive, how many other inmates had gone nuts, and so on. On the other hand if the question seemed to focus on the inmate's ability to thrive in the tough conditions, the same person would give a very different answer, negating the harsh conditions. This switch would happen within minutes in a single interview.

Another bigger challenge was getting to Enriquez. California prohibits face-to-face interviews with inmates for broadcast, unless they are encountered "randomly" in a prison-guided tour.

Rene was transferred out of Pelican Bay months before I arrived there, so I missed a "chance" encounter with him in the prison's special program for gang dropouts. So I wrote Enriquez in his new home, a prison located 60 miles north of Los Angeles on the sun-baked fringes of the Mojave Desert. He sent me a courteous response saying he was interested in cooperating on a radio documentary about his life. He said he learned to appreciate public radio during his many years in isolation (most inmates still have radios and televisions). Months later, I arranged to meet a group of gang dropouts. Rene was one of them.

I met him in a special section of the prison for gang drop-outs and other inmates who would be targets of violence in the general prison population. It's called a "sensitive needs yard" or SNY. Rene was dressed in prison blues and well-groomed. His many gang tattoos crept out ominously from his shirt. (He lifted up his shirt to show me the most important tattoo, a black hand stamped on his chest). He had just shaved his thick mustache, a trademark from his gangster years when Enriquez was known, and feared, by his nickname "Boxer."

But any menace seemed to have disappeared with the mustache. Rene was friendly. He was enjoying the simple pleasures of being able to walk without shackles, breathe fresh air, and sit under the open sky.

He was disarming and self-deprecating, but still proud. I liked him.

"This is a retirement center for ex-mobsters," Rene joked as he scanned the prison yard during a cigarette break from our long interview.

A number of men, some former rivals, nodded respectfully toward Rene. We watched black, white and Latino inmates battling on the basketball court, their sweaty tattoos glistening in the desert sun. This kind of racial mixing is unheard of in most of California's high security prisons, where a strict segregation of whites, blacks and Latinos is enforced by the gangs.

In contrast, the Sensitive Needs Yards were once the hope of California's troubled prison system: a place where inmates could live without fear of violence and focus on rebuilding their lives and enhancing their chances of making it on the outside (a shocking 70 percent of California inmates who are paroled return to prison).

But the SNYs haven't lived up to their promise. Beneath the brotherly exterior, the units are awash in drugs, violence and intimidation. A week after my visit, one inmate had his throat slashed. During Rene's stay, two inmates were murdered. And in recent years, a new gang has emerged here, drawn from the ranks of men who've defected from other groups.

Two things stood out from our interview. First, Rene was not in denial about his long career as a criminal. He spoke cogently about the thrill of killing, the satisfaction of beating the system (especially from lock-down), the way gang life harnesses ambition and thwarts individuality, and how it all eventually burns you out.

The second notable element: Rene seemed to miss his life as a mobster.

"I did things in the organization that some people had never done," he said forlornly. "We pushed this towards being a financial success. We started thinking about intellectual progress, business progress, the infiltration of society. And I know this sounds so deviant. This guy is talking about the creation of an organized crime group and he's proud of it. But that was my life. It was who I was."

In our first interview, he never referred to his former gang in the third person, "they." It was always "we."

So he missed the big time. Maybe a sign of a weakness. But his account of gang life was compelling and the details matched what authorities had told me. I still liked him. But was he telling me everything?

He was not. I later learned Rene didn't tell me the truth, at least in terms of his condition. He was high on heroin during our interview. He later admitted that he had fallen back into drugs. What's more, he had connected with a network of gang dropouts who were dealing drugs for money and favors.

In some ways, it's good I heard about his drug abuse only months later. Had Rene told me during our interview that he was using heroin, I probably would have ended the project then and there. But we stayed in contact. Rene got transferred again, this time to a jail in Los Angeles where he began cooperating with police in several gang investigations. Rene says he never used drugs again, and drug tests support his claim.

Our collaboration moved forward. In Los Angeles, he recorded a remarkable series of audio diaries that captured his new life as a government informant and the slow process of, in his words, "becoming a man." On tape, he forms a deep bond with an L.A. sheriff's detective. And he marries an old friend. He now has a faint hope for release.

I believe two things changed Rene's life: He took responsibility for his actions, which allowed him to stifle his drug habit and lust for power. And he was allowed to build relations with other people that weren't based on lies and deceit. That gave him hope.

But Rene insists the first step must come before the second. That is, to regain hope for one's future, an inmate first must take control of the world in front of him, however small the universe feels from inside a prison cell. For Rene, this idea was reinforced through a book.

Long ago, when Rene was a young teenager sneaking out to get high and cause trouble, his father tried to get him to read an old self-help book called As a Man Thinketh. The basic idea of the book, which was published in 1902, is that our actions are determined by our thoughts. Man's character, according to the book, is the complete sum of his thoughts. "Man is manacled only by himself."

Rene says he ignored the book, as well as his father's entreaties to join his business. Instead, Rene followed his older brother into the local street gang.

Years later, As a Man Thinketh came back into Rene's life. He was in solitary and contemplating breaking with the gang when his younger brother sent him an old copy.

In our last interview he recited a favorite passage from the book.

Mind is the master power that molds and makes.
Man is mind and evermore he takes,
The tool of thought and shaping what he wills
Brings forth a thousand joys, a thousand ills.
He thinks in secret and it comes to pass.
Environment is but his looking glass.

Rene's hopeful coda is that there is humanity in all of us. "Every man is more than the worst thing he's ever done."

Some people will dismiss these thoughts as the delusions of a violent man who deserves to remain locked up for the rest of his life. However, Rene is the first to admit that such a sentiment doesn't entitle him to freedom. And so begins the hardest part of his transition: balancing the hope for freedom against the possibility that he will die in prison.

In contemplating a life forever in prison, it's impossible not to think about our mortality. A blank, empty cell evokes death's infinitude, its nothingness. Recently I saw for the first time grainy video of the small jail cell where Rene Enriquez lives. In all our meetings, I had never been allowed to visit Rene in his cell. The images were striking for their emptiness: bare, bone-white concrete walls. It's depressing, and yet I marvel. In this space, Rene has created a new universe, and one that is slowly growing larger.