Robert Gratton, a former member of the Nuestra Familia who dropped out and cooperated with FBI investigators, describes how gang affiliation is determined.
When an individual ends up in the prison system, depending on their race and their beliefs, they will have to side with a prison gang or a group based on race. You have your white gangs. You have your black gangs. And you have your Mexican gangs. There's what they call the "Big Five" prison gangs. That's the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nazi Low Riders, the Mexican Mafia, the Nuestra Familia, and the Black Guerrilla Family. These are known as the Big Five. When you go to prison, depending on your race, you will have to side with one of these groups and in doing so, you start to receive information about their ideologies, their beliefs. So once the new inmate starts to be indoctrinated into the gang and they decide that's something they believe in, they have to make a blood oath commitment, which means "blood in, blood out." "Blood in" is when an individual joining the gang spills the blood of the enemy. "Blood out" is the consequences for leaving the gang. So there's no in between.
Lt. Steven Perez giving an address to graduates at Pelican Bay's gang dropout program. Perez is using the story of St. Paul to describe the challenges of leaving the gang.
Let me tell you one of the things that he shared, very quickly here, three very interesting points that he makes. The very first point that he makes to everyone in the letters that he writes to the people from within the prison. He says, "You've got to have a mind that is transformed." You've got to have a renewal process. You've got to think differently. You've got to evaluate things from a different perspective to the point that you're able to truly understand what is good, what is purposeful, what is acceptable. "Think differently," he says.
The second thing, and he drives this point home, you've got to understand that intellect in and of itself is not enough, but you've got to be a person who's willing to sacrifice their very life for something of value. That you're body has to be connected to your brain making contributions, making investments into the communities that you come from so there can be a difference in people's lives.
And the third point that he makes, which is really radical from most philosophies that you'll ever read, he says that when you do those two things, don't do them with the attitude like you're doing something exceptional. Quite the contrary. What he says is that when you take the mind and you become transformed, and you take that new ideology that you have, and you begin to apply it in the community, remember, it is the reasonable thing to do. It is the responsible thing to do. It's what you should be doing anyway. From within prison, this man, this former gang member, wrote letters still impacting people's lives today.
Let me tell you how he died. Not as a hero. Very quietly. In a life of insignificance. He was chained up, taken out, head put on the chopping block, and they cut it off at the neck. He was executed. But what he did in that short time, in his life, from the day that he left the gang to the day that he died, he never once took the attitude that my circumstances preclude me from contributing. And that's what I want you to understand. That's what we hope that you grab hold of. That regardless of what your circumstances are today, that you will take this basic education that you have and that you will grow that, you will increase that, and you will have a sense of maturity that comes and says to you that "I've got to do something with my life." Not just to have ideologies floating in your brains, but actually making contributions back into the communities and having the courage to do it at all costs.
That's what it means. That's what it really means to be a man who's disassociated himself from the gangs. I'm gonna be real with you. These guys will tell you, the choices you make, the choices you have made, you're life hangs in the balance. The reality is this. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. So do something and make your life count, no matter how it ends. That power, that choice, each and every one of you looks at. Congratulations. Congratulations. You've made some significant, important decisions in your life. My hope is that now you'll have a sense of purpose for what the future holds for you. Thank you.
Danny Knight directs the physical education program for former gang members at Pelican Bay. He spoke to graduates of Pelican Bay's gang dropout program.
I'm going to make this short and sweet. I guess with being in 20 classes, there are individuals in here that I used to stand at the window and watch wreak havoc on the yards out there. And now there are people sitting in here that have taken their life into their own hands. They're their own man now. Nobody's directing them to do anything. They're calling their own shots for them, their family or their loved ones. And all I have to say to each and every one of you, is that at no time, when you're walking by yourself or with your family, do you have any need to lower your head to another man for whatever reason you're here for. Alright. That's all I've got to say.
"Luis" is a former member of a Latino gang. He says pride is the biggest obstacle to quitting the gang.
Michael Montgomery: Most of the guys I've talked to say the hardest thing about leaving a gang is, in debriefing, is leaving the guys you were close to behind. Is that the hardest thing?
"Luis": No, the thing is your pride. Anybody around here will tell you it's your pride. When you leave a gang, other gang members are going to look at you like you're a punk, you're a coward. And you used to have the same type of beliefs: people who leave the gangs are a punk, a coward, whatever. They can't rock and roll no more, they ain't man enough no more. So when you leave that gang, you have these beliefs in your head still thinking, 'I'm not a man no more. People are gonna look at me like a coward, some people are gonna look at me like a punk.' So, once you leave that gang, you're doubting yourself, but it's something that a lot of people to this day, they're still struggling that they didn't come this way, they still fight within themselves. So that's one of the biggest dangers: your pride, which you have to deal with. But once you drop that and you start to recognize certain people that want their education, want to go to college, even though they got 16 to life, they still want to go to college and get something to the parole board to recognize that they're doing something to rehabilitate themselves. Then you recognize that we're more a man than they are back in the SHU because we're actually doing something, making us to where, when we do get out there in the streets, we'll be able to live a productive lifestyle, or help others from living that destructive lifestyle that they're living right now these days.
"David" is a former member of a white gang who entered Pelican Bay's debriefing program and is now paroled.
Telling on other people, that was hard for me as well because there were people that I actually had bonded with, that I had been on yards with. And we had gone through things together, and I was really close with them and it was just - even becoming comfortable talking to a police officer about our business was something that I had to get used to. The step that made it so hard for me was actually admitting to myself that I had thrown away the last 12 years of my life. That I had devoted myself whole-heartedly to this so-called cause, and in reality, all I had done was not only hurt people who I loved, my family, but I had hurt myself, and I had wasted years of my life that I will never get back.
Here, "David" talks about the emotional toll of debriefing.
When I entered the process, I broke down and I cried. With the first time I interviewed with the officer that was doing my debrief. I'd never cried like that in front of other grown folks other than my family, and I couldn't help it because as I was talking to her, I realized that right now, I'm throwing away my whole career. Everything I've ever done, I've stabbed people for doing what I'm doing now. It was enormous. Several times when I was in the block where you debrief, on shower day, they would give us our razors, and I would think that morning, all day before we got our showers, I would think, 'I'm gonna go in there today and I'm gonna break my razor and I'm gonna cut my wrists and my throat,' because I was so desperate to find out who I was since I had just thrown away everything. I was miserable.
"David" says he can respect those who choose not to debrief.
When I decided to debrief, three or four months prior to that, if anybody had tried to talk me into debriefing, they would have gotten nothing out of me. I would have thought they were crazy if they told me I would drop out. It sounds weird, but I can respect the fact that they don't debrief because I understand how much of themselves they've given to what they're involved in. And I think that 70 percent of them, these older guys that have been back there for a long time, they know that it's all crap. They know that the organization is nothing that it's represented to be. They know that what they're involved with is not what they thought it was when they got involved. But what's tying them in there is their pride and their loyalty, not only to themselves, but to the one or two people who have been true to them. And that's what hurts. It's not really disassociating yourself from the group. You're always going to have one or two guys who you've grown up with in the system and you guys have been through a lot together and you might not want to abandon that person and that might be the only thing stopping you from debriefing.
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