After Twenty-Six Years in Prison: Reflections on Healing
At age nineteen I killed a rival gang member and went to prison. I got out two years ago, after twenty-six years. At first, inside, when I learned how the American system stacked everything against us urban African Americans, I got real angry. I did most of my first five years in solitary, “the hole.” But I came to find out that my violence was hindering my progress, more than helping. I had to seek alternatives to violence. I had a spiritual awakening. I had to change my mindset. Today I work with All of Us or None, a project of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an advocacy group for the rights of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.
We’ve fought on many issues, like our campaign against the shackling of pregnant prisoners, even during labor — but California’s governor at the time, Arnie Schwarzenegger, vetoed it. We fought to “Ban the Box” to remove the question about prior convictions on public employment applications. We give away thousands of dollars worth of gifts to children of prisoners. We campaign against solitary confinement. Did you know that the hole is torture? It literally is, and this country does it right now to tens of thousands of people every day. In my spare time I work for restorative justice, mentoring young people. I thank God I’m alive and working to end violence.
Becoming a Crip
I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, at 69th and Main, a few blocks from where Raymond Washington founded the Crips. It wasn’t Beverly Hills.
I thought racially when I was coming up — I mean I was aware that there were racial divides in this country. But I just didn’t know what it was about, whites and their privilege, because I used to look at white kids and the way they looked at the world and how I looked at the world. When I looked at the world, my thing was all survival, and I used to look at them and it was like they were comfortable. The world was hostile to me. It wasn’t hostile to them — it was almost like their world, their place. At one time my mother had to have me bussed, they had to start a bussing program to desegregate the schools. She got the bright idea to put me on a bus — why I don’t know, with my attitude! — to a school called El Camino Real out in the San Fernando Valley. That was my first real contact with a large portion of the white community. Everything was different. The school didn’t look like jail, it looked like college. The staff didn’t talk to students like inmates in the wards. I used to wonder when I was a kid: “you got to be putting on a show, is it really this comfortable for you?” But when I got older and I began to understand and was being taught, one of the things that helped to infuriate me was that yeah, they felt like that because in their world they were privileged.
I got into the gangs gradually. A lot of people believe you join by going through a ritual, but most people who are caught up in the gangs grew up in that particular community so it’s like an evolution.
Because of the limited resources available we were in the streets a lot, with no type of structure. Our childish banter soon grew into delinquent behavior. Our loose group got called the 69th Shack Boys, after the garage where we hung out. I would have been around eight or nine years old. That was when we started doing little petty delinquent behavior like vandalism, or stealing fruit off people’s trees. We were just going on this little voyage around our community, getting to know ourselves and our environment. We would play against other neighborhoods and streets in football, basketball, baseball, and that’s how we really got to see our strength and gain the respect of a lot of other communities, because we were pretty good. We played really rough. We played on the blacktop and had to break when traffic drove through. As we grew older, this loose bunch of kids became like a gang. Our delinquent behavior earned us a reputation as a little rough bunch. Then we joined up with the Crips, as part of a fraction called the East Coast Crips, and that’s where my criminal behavior got real serious.
I wasn’t one of the main people in the Crips then. I was just a member and I did some of the stuff that gangs do: I fought, I ran with the crowd sometimes. But other times I hung with other people and did other things. I was trying to fit in. But I got caught up with the justice system as a juvenile, because with gangs it was first about fighting with fists, sticks, pipes, chains, box cutters, and stuff, but then guns entered the picture. I don’t know where they came from or how they did, but people started coming up with guns, so we had to acquire guns. By this time, I was about fourteen years old, and so I had to go do burglaries to get guns. I got caught for two of these burglaries and went to juvenile camp and that’s where I started to get pretty shook up. Delinquent behavior, that’s not something I wanted to do.
Trying to Make the Dream
When I came out of juvenile camp, I formed my dream. It was maybe childish. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to go into, but I knew that I wanted to be financially well-endowed by the time I was twenty-one. I thought I would go into the military. So I came back from camp and graduated from high school. I had to pay to go to a private school because I had missed a lot of regular schooling. My family didn’t have the money so I sold marijuana to pay for my own schooling. After I got my high school diploma, I went into the military.
But the military was nothing like I thought it would be. You had all these guys howling at you, telling you what to do. It was just like jail. So I thought, maybe I’ll try this later. I saw how the treatment was different for officers and enlisted men. I was flirting around with the idea that I had a little intelligence, so I said maybe I can go back and go to Officer Candidate School and come in as an officer. I don’t want to be the lowest one in the ranks. This was when I was doing my basic training. I told them I wanted to go back to school. So I had myself transferred to a reserve unit with the National Guard. I was only seventeen-and-a-half. They agreed. You weren’t supposed to be able to do this. But I had a guy who was pretty slick who transferred me to a National Guard unit, first to Oklahoma, then to California, to get me back home. I was training and practicing so I could study for the test and score high and then go back into Officer Candidate School, or so I could go to college through the ROTC program.
I thought I was above the gang stuff, I was through with that foolishness. But I never thought about how I was going to finance this. My family was pretty poor, so I resorted back to what I knew best. I went to Southwest College and started selling weed again. I took a few minor jobs, but they weren’t paying. I couldn’t get stable employment. Weed became the basic form of my financial support. That brought me back in line with guys in my gang, because every place in Los Angeles that sells drugs is controlled by somebody.
I sold drugs in my community. If I’d been selling to the white community in the suburbs, I’d have been in jail a lot sooner. The whites and other races came down to buy weed from us.
One night a rival gang member approached me while I was on the street. I was just about to leave. I had moved up to where I actually didn’t sell the weed. It was too dangerous for me to be selling it myself. So I would purchase it, bag it, and supply it to a little crew of salesmen that I had. That night I was collecting the funds. This rival gang member approached me and we got into an altercation. I thought he had a gun. As he charged me I shot him. That’s when I realized he only had a knife. I couldn’t tell if he was hit because my gun was small caliber. I thought I’d missed him. I tried to tell him to back up. I told him if he continued to rush at me, I would finish him. I said, “You’d better go about your business because really I don’t care about the gang stuff, I just want to make some money. Leave me alone.” As he walked away he made some threats: “I’ll be back and kill you, motherfucker” and stuff like that. So I shot him. He died. And that messed up my whole little thing. I ended up going to prison for that.
It’s sad that two young African American underprivileged youth played out this scenario. It happens almost every day in the United States. One goes to his grave and the other to the penitentiary. It’s horrible. It’s something I’ll never get over. That’s what brought me to do the work that I do now with young people, because I feel that first of all in life there should be certain boundaries you don’t cross. I crossed those boundaries by taking the life of another human being.
In our community, threats aren’t taken lightly because people pretty much intend to carry those threats out, especially in the gang life. So I had a choice to make. I could have let that guy leave. But if I had it would have been a violation of my gang. Either they would kill me or he would have returned and tried to kill me. If a rival gang member comes into your neighborhood and threatens you, it’s like an insult to your gang. So you have a choice to make. You can leave the state, but you’ve got to have funds to relocate. And my whole family was in LA. They would have come after my family if I had disappeared. There are cases where guys turn themselves in to the mercy of the gang to protect their families.
There are two things you can’t do: betray the gang through cowardice or snitching.
Prison: the Bitter Years
So I went to prison. Because I was there for killing a Blood, I got a certain status. I had a lot of anger on my shoulders. Everything I had thought about, my goal to be financially endowed by twenty-one, was over. The sentence was fifteen years to life. I was angry at the system, at our community, at the whole social structure. I saw how limited my choices really had been. You play things over in your mind, over and over, and try to figure out what other course you could you have taken. And every time I played it I came back to the same thing. I could have let him walk away and tried to leave the neighborhood and even the state, but I was concerned about my family. Sometimes the gang kills a family member just to bring you back for the funeral, so they can hit you. Or I could have let that Blood go and try to follow up on him later; but you can’t go into his community and try to hunt him down, that never goes right.
So I started blaming the structure. I looked at things that didn’t give me a fair shake, like the educational system. Intervention programs didn’t exist in my community, not as they should have. And there was the economy: one person born rich and another born poor; one born white and another born black. I thought this world was just so fucking unfair. So I became real bitter when I was in prison. I threw myself into the gang and became one of the leaders inside. I rose through the ranks. I did my first five years going back and forth to isolation, because of my attitude. I was fighting mad almost every day and I was catching disciplinary riders for having made weapons. I never actually got caught for an assault but I did some, including race riots, anything you could think of. Mostly those were against the southern Mexicans. Every once in a while it would be against the whites, but not too often. The whites are disproportionally few in prison and they usually paid the Latinos to fight their fights for them. They’d give them drugs and they’d fight. So it was basically between the Mexican Mafia and the African Americans.
We made knives from anything we could: glass, plastic, paper, sticks. We made spears, zip guns, bombs, gas, explosives, and all kinds of stuff. I was trying to learn it all and I did learn most of it. I learned a whole lot more criminal skills in prison than I had outside, and basically within a short four-year period. Then, in my fifth year, I really had to do some soul searching.
All that I was blaming on everybody else was only half true, well not even half. Maybe 85 percent of what happened to me I did have control of. Some of what I was blaming on the U.S. social structure was authentic, but the majority of it, I had sold myself out to it. I had made decisions. Yes, I only had limited options within those decisions, but there were still decisions I made. A starving man, thinking about stealing that last piece of bread, even he has a decision to make, but it’s a tough one, considering he’s starving. My family always did provide the basics, so my case wasn’t as extreme as the starving man’s. But in a sense it almost was because we lacked the right structures and accountability and I was not able to turn toward positive reinforcements; they weren’t intact, other than my mother, and she wasn’t the one who had to live out and maneuver in these streets. My father and mother separated when I was four or five years old. He died when I was about fourteen. So I believe if there had been more positive influences out there, of course I would have done better.
Learning to Hate the System
But after about five years in prison I changed course. I became more politically conscious, about the whole U.S. political structure. I became culturally conscious, and I had a spiritual awakening. This was all within the same process. Talk about lacking the bare necessities — when somebody locks you up in a room where there’s nothing there but you, a space to think and contemplate and reminisce on your life, you start to put that system to real serious use. This was in the hole. In the hole you had to study to survive because everything had changed. Reliance on just my neighborhood wasn’t enough any more. Now I had to understand the whole infrastructure of my neighborhood and then the political ramifications.
They’d coach you on it: “Why are you Black?” “What is this thing ‘Black’?”
When I grew up I knew I was African American, a Black man, but what does it really mean to be Black in America? And we started studying, believe it or not, and a lot of the stuff we studied was on socialism and the Communist manifesto. This was informal instruction from older guys in the Black Guerilla Family, a political group inside prison. For most African Americans, even if you were a Crip or a Blood, those were the grandfathers, the scholars. They were the ones who taught us and trained us. The Black Guerilla Family (BGF) still exists today, but most of them are locked up. Most of it came from the Black Panthers. The BGF was started by George Jackson. They were the ones who were more informed, more educated, and they started educating us.
For me it was infuriating, because I had to learn about the degradations that my people went through. A lot of it was like military training all over again, teaching you why you should hate your enemy. And that enemy was not whites or Mexicans, it was the structure, the system that had created slavery and bondage and poverty. They’d say the majority of white people have the power within the system, but it’s not being white that makes them the enemy. They recognized there were white people like the underground Weathermen and other groups like the SLA [Symbionese Liberation Army]. Even in the Panther Party you had different races. So it really wasn’t a race problem; it was more of a systemic problem. So in prison although we saw the Aryan Brothers as a focal point for a potential threat, they weren’t the threat — the threat was the system itself that created that belief system in them of being superior. Our objective was not to destroy the Aryan Brotherhood; in fact, we saw them and the Mexican Mafia as a result of that system. We knew they were struggling for their own too. They just really believed in separatism. As long as they didn’t cross our boundaries, we weren’t taught to seek them out and try to destroy them. Our thing was to try to dismantle the system.
As a gang member, a Crip, in prison, I didn’t buy into all the BGF contentions, but I had to recognize some of the systemic problems to be authentic. I didn’t buy wholly into the racial thing. I recognized who the Aryan Brotherhood was, who the Klan was, as well as the overall systemic thing. But my enemy wasn’t just them, it was anyone who crossed up on what we, the Crips, were trying to do. We were trying to build a power structure for ourselves inside our community and within this country. So I guess what the BGF was doing was having an effect on us because we weren’t just thinking about 69th and Main, we were thinking about our place in the world, in this country at least.
But there was always something missing for me. They tried to reinforce my hopelessness, because the system had full control and we had to fight for control. I’ve always believed, or wanted to believe, that I had some type of control, but I just didn’t have the faculty or the full knowledge of how to really take control. African American children do the delinquent behavior in the city because our feelings of hopelessness lead us to give ourselves over to happenstance. We think that whatever’s going to happen will happen, but in the meantime I’m gonna get mine. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. I came to believe that the majority of things that happen to you, you do have control of. It’s just that small percentage of things from the outside that you don’t have control over. Sometimes in extreme cases you have to take some extreme measures. For instance to tell a black child in the inner city, especially a gang member, that he has to learn to walk away, some things you just gotta walk away from, is almost tantamount to saying punk the game, give up your manhood. As an adult, you learn there are things that are outside of your control, almost like the Serenity Prayer. So recognizing the difference, you realize some things are outside of your control, and you got to surrender that to a higher power.
A Spiritual Change
Now we come to my spiritual experience. First of all I had to do something with my anger. The anger became a passion to try to do what I could, but, as in the Serenity Prayer, to accept the things I can’t change. So I humbled myself. I reached inwardly for strength and spiritual guidance. It brought me back to my Christian beliefs. I was raised in the church but I turned my back on it. I saw I wasn’t charged by God to take the problems of the world on my shoulders. I was charged to live right according to the way of my spiritual guiding counsel. The first thing that really hit me after understanding that the burden of the world wasn’t mine to shoulder, was that I only have to take my growth one step at a time, and that if I continue to do things to improve my growth, that humanity will benefit too. So I started carrying myself differently. I had started reading all that rhetoric, which was upsetting me and frustrating me. Now I started offsetting it with some spiritual reading.
It took me some years because I had some things to work out. I still had attitude problems. I couldn’t stand authority, somebody telling me what to do. I had to learn how to deal with that, how to cope with and process it. That was one of the first struggles that I succeeded in. I learned to respect authority. If you learn to respect God, you can learn to respect authority. I’m gonna put it in more harsh terms so maybe you understand: it wasn’t that I respected the pig that was in front of me because the pig was still a pig — you had some officers that were so corrupt, so unfair — but there were those who were fair, and it’s easy to respect the authority of someone who’s being fair. It’s hard to respect the authority of someone who you felt was being unfair to you, but if you look at his overall authority, where it’s coming from, you can say OK, I can tolerate this. You understand he has the uniform, the badge, the power behind it, the structure. My goal was not to topple the structure any more, my goal was to try to heal myself, and then my community and then my world. And in order to be in a place to do that, I’m going to have to accept his authority. I don’t respect him but I accepted his authority. That helped me get over my attitude problem with authority.
Then I had to get over my attitude problem with just foolishness. I had a very, very low tolerance of foolishness. That’s what got me in a lot of fights. So I had to realize that, again, I didn’t have to control everything. Some things I just had to submit to. So, as an example, you’ve got this guy, he just has to walk on this side of the compound when we come out, this is his part: OK, respect that. “You have it, it’s your space, brother.” But coming from a position as a gang member inside prison, from a leadership position this wasn’t so easy a lot of times, because now people started to question where my loyalties lay. To do it subtly, as I thought I was going to initially, is not easy: you’re not given that kind of space and time in prison by the administration or by your peers. So I had to just be straightforward, cold turkey, “I’m through with this, this is how I’m living now, don’t bring that to me.” After a while people started to respect me for that position.
I did fight some. When I first started, when I didn’t know to really deal with it, I was someone for whom every situation has only one solution: knock ‘em down. I went from that position to realizing that maybe I need to kinda gauge this a little bit more. I can’t be knocking my head against every stubborn knucklehead you-know, so I learned to walk away from foolishness.
The Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) Program
I did a lot of programming in prison and got two associates degrees. The program that maybe made the most difference for me was the Victim Offender Education Group. It’s a weekly class that runs for about a year, and then there’s a second stage for another year. One thing it does is get you ready to talk with your victim, or your victim’s surviving relatives, if they should ever want to meet with you. It’s all about accountability, and empathy: you have to learn empathy for yourself before you know what it means to have it for your victims.
What the VOEG program did was to put the human quality back in this whole structure. The criminal justice system to me erases the human factor, just as the criminal behavior itself erases the human factor. It’s like when you train a soldier. Maybe it was easy for me to see this at the time because I had a military background. When you go into combat they teach you those aren’t people you are fighting against, those are “chinks,” those are “gooks.” The same exercise was being used in our court system. When I go to court I’m no longer Jerry Elster, it’s the State of California against the defendant. Everything is geared toward dehumanizing. The person who was assaulted or fell prey to this crime is not that person no more, they’re the victim of the crime or the plaintiff: I didn’t violate the rights of any individual. I violated the rights of the state. So what VOEG was able to do was to humanize that process again. Jerry wasn’t a defendant, Jerry was a person who violated the rights of another. He crossed the boundaries without permission. Jerry was a victim who victimized. Jerry was a victim of his circumstances and situation and he became so frustrated that he became a perpetrator. So it helped me to put Jerry back into that place and to accept full responsibility. OK, so I had limited choices and we all make excuses, but no, in effect I made a decision. Jerry made a decision to assault another human being.
VOEG is a tough program. Accepting responsibility — a lot of things went into it. It’s a long, arduous process. A lot of these guys are not talking about spiritual growth or self-accountability, they’re still blaming the system. If you haven’t accepted your part — at least your part — of responsibility for your crime, it’s hard for you to walk into a room and say, “I violated the rights of another”; they don’t feel they violated the rights. Or because of the system that they know is harsh, a lot of the guys haven’t admitted to their crime. If you want to go to VOEG, you’ve got to admit your responsibility. If you’re not accepting responsibility for your crime, you’re not a good candidate for VOEG because the whole objective of VOEG is to help you understand your full culpability and work through that to heal from it.
I don’t think VOEG really takes a wide perspective of the system other than the restorative justice approach, other than saying the system is in error in how it deals with the problem of social crime. I don’t think VOEG goes far enough: it helps individuals move forward with accepting their accountability, but it doesn’t help the system or society move forward with theirs. There’s torture going on in prison, but VOEG’s not going to sit the warden down or the staff and tell them you got to be more accountable with how you’re dealing with people from a restorative justice approach. It says the system’s flawed but it doesn’t hold the system accountable. It almost treats the system like those street kids I mentioned who think things happen haphazardly: they treat the system as a freak of nature, as though it’s not responsible. I don’t think VOEG purposely does that, I think it does that in its attempt to operate within a system, to bring the human factor back to the criminal. It deals with individual acts of violence, not with systemic acts of violence toward whole groups of people. I do believe there’s a space within VOEG that leaves room to discuss some of the social ills, but I don’t think it really forces the system to accept responsibility. But I do believe it begins a process that could reach that.
VOEG could invite corporate leaders into the same type of programs to learn how their systems corrupt our communities. When you have a community that’s economically impoverished already, and then it’s feeding your whole prison system, that says something about your legislature, your judicial system, and about the way money is spent in your community. If you go to somewhere like Brentwood in the San Francisco Bay Area or Belair in Los Angeles, you’re not going to see a bunch of police cars around. If they have a social problem within those communities, they’ll find a way other than incarceration to deal with it. VOEG could sit down with those people and talk with them about how their corporations are contributing to the problem. Chevron is right here in Richmond, California — next door to it you feel like you’re in Soweto, people living in squalor. Violence is when you deprive people of their basic liberties, including their right to be safe, or to be healthy.
VOEG is pretty young — the restorative justice process is young. VOEG does not yet empower individuals to be able to challenge the system. Not at this time. Maybe in the future.
My Mission Now
I want to hope that I can go to my community, the environment I believe I have expert knowledge of, the inner city, and to try to at least start the healing process through programs like VOEG: teach young men and young women within the community how to recognize each other for their full value, and recognize boundaries, and start that healing process. As the Bible tells you, treat people like you want to be treated. I want to stop violence, stop violent crime. I won’t live long enough to see that happen if it’s even possible, but I don’t think that my God requires of me that I see the possibility of it but that I do the work. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, that’s the prophetic message in Hebrews.
One of the things that I think was a factor in my delinquent behavior was having no structure, no examples, no people living what they were saying. If I’m living right, if I’m talking the talk, walking the walk, then I should be able to set an example and not just sit there and talk at a child. If I start living right and I teach other people around me, then I believe the same disease that is called crime or violence — a disease that is started and perpetuated throughout my community — can be abated. Violence can be abated by people starting to be more humble, more respectful of others, recognizing their boundaries, and being a little more insightful about what’s going on around them. I think that teaching is just as contagious as violence, if not more so.
So these days I’m going into Juvenile Hall, I mentor young adults in Richmond. I went to the people who run juvenile youth centers, and we exchanged ideas, and they said “I need you to talk to my kids.” That’s how I met these young men I’m mentoring. I think there’s not enough of me — not that I hold myself in such high regard, just the opposite. I know I have a working knowledge of a lot of this, through personal experience, but there are a lot of other people within our community that have it too, and I don’t think the community’s utilizing or relying on them. So I go to youth centers, juvenile halls, places where I know they’ve got that population there. I volunteer, and I do it.
The formal curriculum that I’m working with is something that I was able to come up with when I was at San Quentin, for a group I created called No More Tears. No More Tears is a response-to-violence model geared toward changing the mindsets of individuals. So I go in and try almost from a cognitive behavior point of view to get young men to see the error in their ways. I believe my thinking is what put me on that corner that night and made me do that crime. Why wasn’t I thinking, “this is a human life” and “there are boundaries”? The guy I shot made statements, but there are still boundaries you don’t cross. If I’d thought like this before it happened, I’d have had some structures in place to stop me from going overboard. Last night in Alameda County Juvenile Hall I had eleven youth, all boys, and we were working on the impact of violence. My objective is to teach these youth to become facilitators of this type of curriculum, the response-to-violence curriculum. Like VOEG, the overall goal is to try to enhance the restorative justice approach toward the justice system.
I know a lady named Linda Mills who wrote a book called Insult to Injury, mostly dealing with intimate crime. This was the first time it was really brought to me, in about 2001, when we formed No More Tears. We sat down and had a talk with her. We were talking about adopting a restorative process, but the prison system interfered with it and stopped it because they wanted control: they don’t want anything that’s come from outside of the institution controlling anything, and they saw this as maybe a threat. Maybe we would have stopped some of the riots that were going on, I don’t know, but they stopped our project. Linda Mills is a teacher at NYU. Her thing was the healing circle. I think she took her example from the South African tribunals, which included the whole community. That was the first time I heard about it. That was an idea that was so dynamic to me — to even think that it was possible, they put hope where things to me were hopeless. I had to talk with the youth last night about it. It can start with one individual, and that circle is symbolic.
Of course, youth crime isn’t the biggest problem. When we talk about corporate crime and Wall Street crime, we’re talking about the elites of the United States, and that would be a part of holding that system accountable. But when you say holding them accountable, I think it’s about individuals holding themselves accountable and if you can teach the upper echelon in our society to hold themselves accountable, I’m sure that’d make matters a whole lot easier for community counselors and guys like me. Because then you would have those structures in place.
Look at our community down to the offenders on the street, the delinquents: our structure pretty much replicates what’s at the top. The CEOs, and all of it — we replicate it. It’s easy for me to relate to some of that, also from the military perspective. I learned it from a kid: you’re told “you watch the block; don’t ask me why, that’s your job.” You didn’t question.
The conditions of slavery still exist today. If you look at prison today, it’s a picture of what the perfect slavery system would have been. You take a child of twelve or thirteen who has done some pretty horrible things and you say, OK, we’re just going to throw your life away now. How many kids have been on the road to doing something terrible and somebody corrected them? As a child you do not have the mental capacity to think like an adult. So why would you hold a child accountable to adult standards? I went in at twenty and by twenty-five I had started asking questions. People mature. That child at twenty-five is not going to think anything like he thought at twelve. We are too quick to punish and to throw away. There are other things we can do.
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Elster, Jerry. 2012. After Twenty-Six Years in Prison: Reflections on Healing. Web-only article associated with Tikkun 27(1).