Historic Gang Intervention Bill introduced in Congress

Below is the text of a Gang Intervention bill, introduced on Thursday, July 11 by U.S. Congressman Tony Cardenas. This bill arose out of the Effective Gang Intervention Model that some 40 gang interventionists in Los Angeles helped create -- including yours truly -- over two years under the auspices of then L.A. City Councilperson Cardenas. In February of 2008, the model was approved by the L.A. City Council and has been used to help reduce significantly the level of violence in a city known as the "gang capital of the world." ALSO please note that on Saturday, July 27, 2013, my son Ramiro and I will be on a national Issues Call for the Justice Party on Restorative Justice and will include actionable plans to end the the billions of dollars in our prison industry and to place real resources in innovative, meaningful and cost effective rehabilitation, jobs training and engagement, arts development, re-entry, and for offenders and victims to work together for the betterment of our families, communities and country. You must RSVP. Here's the link: http://www.justicepartyusa.org/restorative_justice_issue_call?utm_source=justiceparty&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=7_24_issue_call&recruiter_id=15646 Now here's the bill: ..................................................................... 113TH CONGRESS, 1ST SESSION H. R. ll To provide definitions of terms and services related to community-based gang intervention to ensure that funding for such intervention is utilized in a cost-effective manner and that community-based agencies are held accountable for providing holistic, integrated intervention services, and for other purposes. IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES Mr. CARDENAS introduced the following bill; A BILL To provide definitions of terms and services related to community-based gang intervention to ensure that funding for such intervention is utilized in a cost-effective manner and that community-based agencies are held accountable for providing holistic, integrated intervention services, and for other purposes. 1 Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE. This Act may be cited as the ‘‘Community-Based Gang Intervention Act’’. SEC. 2. FINDINGS; SENSE OF CONGRESS. (a) FINDINGS.—The Congress finds as follows: (1) For the first time in the history of the United States, more than one in every 100 adults is incarcerated. (2) The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, with more than 2,200,000 people behind bars and another 5,000,000 people on probation or parole. (3) The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. (4) In 2007, the Federal Government spent $19,617,000,000 on police protection, corrections, and judicial and legal services, representing a 286 percent increase since 1982. This included a 475 percent increase for corrections and a 287 percent increase for police protection. (5) The growing prison system is also impacting State budgets, with total State spending on incarceration topping $53,000,000,000 in 2012, up  from $10,000,000,000 in 1987. (6) With increased prison costs, vital social programs and services such as education, job creation, housing, and healthcare are being cut or eliminated to maintain the prison industry. (7) Between 1987 and 2007, the amount States spent on corrections increased 127 percent, while the increase in higher education spending was only 21 percent (8) Over the past 10 years, the State of California’s general fund expenditures for higher education have fallen 9 percent, while general fund expenditures for corrections and rehabilitation have increased 26 percent. (9) The State of California has the second largest prison population in the nation with 165,062 prisoners under the jurisdiction of State or Federal correctional authorities in 2010. (10) According to one study, there are now 6 times as many gangs and at least twice the number of gang members in Los Angeles since the start of the 30 year ‘‘war on gangs’’. (11) The City and County of Los Angeles have been dubbed the ‘‘gang capital’’ of the Nation with an estimated 463 gangs and 38,974 gang members in the City, and more than 1,300 gangs and 150,000 gang members in the County. (12) According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, allowing 1 youth to leave school for a life of crime and drug abuse costs society $1,700,000 to $2,300,000, annually. (13) In the State of California, the average annual cost per inmate is $47,421 for an adult inmate, and $218 for a youth inmate. (14) The most recent data on overall State spending on juvenile justice programs reveals that in 1998, States spent nearly $4,200,000,000 on juvenile justice related programs, which was a 65 percent increase from fiscal year 1994. Of those expenditures, 67 percent went towards residential placements ($2,800,000,000), while 8.4 percent went towards delinquency prevention. (15) Gang and youth violence substantially decreases when governments address the root causes of gang violence and adequately fund community-based programs and practices. (16) Studies continue to prove that community-based gang intervention provides long-lasting, cost effective results and opportunities for the youth and  families most susceptible to gang violence. (b) SENSE OF CONGRESS.—It is the sense of Congress that, in developing a comprehensive violence reduction strategy, the United States should acknowledge and address larger, entrenched social conditions and issues such as poverty, homelessness, inadequate educational systems, and limited economic opportunities that give rise to gangs and gang violence. TITLE I—COMMUNITY–BASED GANG INTERVENTION AGENCIES SEC. 101. COMMUNITY-BASED GANG INTERVENTION AGENCIES. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (42 U.S.C. 5601 et seq.) is amended by adding at the end the following new title: ‘‘TITLE VI—COMMUNITY–BASED GANG INTERVENTION GRANTS ‘‘SEC. 601. PURPOSE. "The purpose of this title is to offer holistic and comprehensive support for the variety of community-based gang intervention activities that focus on and engage active and former gang members, their close associates, and gang members in and returning from confinement. Gang involved youth and their families require specialized intensive and comprehensive services that address the unique issues encountered by youth when they become involved with gangs. Community-based gang intervention involves proactive and reactive responses to gang activities on several levels, including—‘‘(1) the regional level, to promote and coordinate peace truces and cease-fires between groups; ‘‘(2) the State and local level, including community and the juvenile halls, camps, Division of Juvenile Justice facilities, county jails, and State prisons; and ‘‘(3) the neighborhood and street level, including with active gang members individually. ‘‘SEC. 602. SUPPORT OF COMMUNITY-BASED GANG INTERVENTION AGENCIES. ‘‘(a) SUPPORT OF COMMUNITY-BASED GANG INTERVENTION AGENCIES.—Subject to the availability of appropriations, the Administrator shall award grants to eligible entities to carry out the activities described in subsection (c). ‘‘(b) ELIGIBLE ENTITY.—For the purposes of this section, an ‘eligible entity’ means a community-based gang intervention agency that is a nonprofit organization with a proven track record and expertise in providing community-based gang intervention activities through a community-based gang intervention model. ‘‘(c) GRANT ACTIVITIES.—Each entity awarded a grant under this section shall carry out the following activities: ‘‘(1) Conduct street mediation by working with gang members and persons with influence over such member to defuse and de-escalate potential and actual violence internally between gang members and between rival gangs. ‘‘(2) Develop local and regional truces by creating cease-fires or nonaggression agreements between rival gangs and neighborhoods. ‘‘(3) Serve as conduits who facilitate constant dialogue and maintenance between gangs and neighborhoods. ‘‘(4) Provide services that respond to the high levels of anxiety experienced by gang members to decompress critical situations due to traumatic events. ‘‘(5) Provide 24-hour, 7-day-a-week crisis intervention services by responding to requests for violence prevention services made by gang members, the families of gang members, school officials, intervention workers, social service agencies, or law enforcement. ‘‘(6) Provide targeted training and technical assistance to violence-plagued communities after a major gang-related incident. ‘‘(7) Facilitate the development of a community response plan, including training protocols, situational scene scenarios, and emergency response. ‘‘(8) Make a reasonable effort to prevent gang related rumors from intensifying tension between gangs or igniting violent responses by gangs. ‘‘(9) Establish relationships with community stakeholders to inform and engage them in quality-of-life activities that enhance intervention activities. ‘‘(10) Serve as intervention representatives in communities by attending local meetings involving nonprofit organizations, schools, faith-based organizations, and other entities. ‘‘(11) Develop conflict resolution skills and techniques to address and resolve community concerns related to gang activity in order to improve the quality of life within neighborhoods. ‘‘(12) Work with schools to respond to gang-related issues and crises both in and outside of school. ‘‘(13) Provide support services for youth and families affected by gang violence and other victims of gang violence (including any individual who is physically, emotionally, financially, or otherwise harmed by criminal activity, and those affected by harm done to or by a family member), which may include—‘‘(A) advocating for public sector and private sector assistance and services; ‘‘(B) grief counseling; and ‘‘(C) referrals to treatment and rehabilitation for cognitive, mental, emotional, physical, or financial injury, loss, or suffering. ‘‘(14) Provide comprehensive mental health services to youth and families affected by gang violence or involvement, including—‘‘(A) integrated services comprised of individual, family, and group therapy modalities, and psychological education provided through youth and parent training programs; and ‘‘(B) gang-responsive services including skills training, assessing and servicing youth with developmental disabilities, behavioral modification, and services to address substance use and abuse, anger management, emotional regulation, traumatic stress, family violence, depression, suicide, anxiety, and educational problems. ‘‘(15) Provide public and private sector career job training, development, and placement, including—‘‘(A) job-finding and job-maintaining skills, including skills related to resume writing, interviewing, workplace decorum, interpersonal communication, and problem-solving; ‘‘(B) information about legal rights in the workplace; and ‘‘(C) financial literacy. ‘‘(16) Assist with substance use and abuse treatment, domestic violence victims, and voluntary tattoo removal of markings on the body related to gang involvement. ‘‘(d) AVAILABILITY OF VICTIMS ASSISTANCE.—An entity awarded a grant under this section that provides victim assistance under paragraph (13) of subsection (c) shall not discriminate in the provision of such assistance to an individual based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic level, or past record. ‘‘SEC. 603. DEFINITIONS. ‘‘In this title: ‘‘(1) COMMUNITY.—Notwithstanding the definition of ‘community based’ in section 103, the term ‘community’ means a unit of local government or an Indian Tribe. ‘‘(2) COMMUNITY-BASED GANG INTERVENTION AGENCY.—The term ‘community-based gang intervention agency’ means a community-based organization, association, or other entity that—‘‘(A) promotes public safety, with the specific objective of reducing and stopping gang-related and gang-motivated violence and crime; and ‘‘(B) has a history of, or experience or specific training in, effectively working with gang involved youth and their families. ‘‘ (3) COMMUNITY-BASED GANG INTERVENTION MODEL.—The term ‘community-based gang intervention model’ means a holistic and comprehensive approach to reducing gang violence that utilizes the two-prong approach of community based intervention and an integrated approach of providing rehabilitative service delivery to gang-involved youth that—‘‘(A) deploys specialists in community based gang intervention who are are trained to utilize the two-prong approach of community based gang intervention and who intercede, interact, and participate with and in the community to quell rumors, prevent and mediate conflicts, and respond to crises related to gang activity and violence; ‘‘(B) delivers rehabilitative services to gang-involved individuals and families; and ‘‘(C) addresses the barriers that gang-involved youth and their families encounter and the societal factors that promote gang violence. ‘‘(4) EVIDENCE-BASED.—The term ‘evidence based’, when used with respect to a practice relating to gang activity prevention and intervention (including community-based gang intervention), means a practice (including a service, program, or strategy) that has statistically significant outcomes that include a reduction in gang-related violence and an increased number of youth in job development, recreation, arts-based activities, or faith-based activities. Such outcomes may be determined by—‘‘(A) an experimental trial, in which participants are randomly assigned to participate in the practice that is the subject of the trial; or ‘‘(B) a quasi-experimental trial, in which the outcomes for participants are compared with outcomes for a control group that is made up of individuals who are similar to such participants. ‘‘(5) GANG.—The term ‘gang’ means a group of individuals—‘‘(A) organized by geography, culture, or activity; ‘‘(B) that have a group name, and may have other identifying characteristics of the group such as colors and nicknames; and ‘‘(C) who engage in the use of violence to defend the members or territory of the group. ‘‘(6) PROMISING.—The term ‘promising’, when used with respect to a practice relating to community-based gang intervention, means a practice that is not evidence-based, but—‘‘(A) that has outcomes from an evaluation that demonstrate that such practice reduces gang-related violence and crime; or ‘‘(B) about which a study is being conducted to determine if such practice is evidence based. ‘‘(7) YOUTH.—The term ‘youth’ means—‘‘(A) an individual who is 18 years of age or younger; or ‘‘(B) in any State in which the maximum age at which the juvenile justice system of such State has jurisdiction over individuals exceeds 18 years of age, an individual who is such maximum age or younger.’’. TITLE II—AMENDMENTS TO THE OFFICE OF JUVENILE JUSTICE AND DELINQUENCY PREVENTION SEC. 201. DEFINITION OF COMMUNITY-BASED GANG INTERVENTION. Section 103 of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (42 U.S.C. 5603) is amended—(1) in paragraph (1), by inserting ‘‘except when used in title VI,’’ before ‘‘the term’’; (2) in paragraph (28), by striking ‘‘and’’ after the semicolon; (3) in paragraph (29), by striking the period at the end and inserting ‘‘; and’’; and (4) by adding at the end the following new paragraph: ‘‘(30) COMMUNITY-BASED GANG INTERVENTION.—Except when used as part of the term ‘community-based gang intervention agency’ or ‘community-based gang intervention model’, the term ‘community-based gang intervention’ means a two-prong approach to reducing gang violence that—‘‘(A) provides specialized, gang-specific mediation and mitigation to stop or prevent violence by, within, and between gangs; and ‘‘(B) provides the redirection of individual gang members and their families through proactive efforts that increase peace and safety for gang members, their families, and their communities.’’. SEC. 202. COMMUNITY-BASED GANG INTERVENTION REPRESENTATIVE TO STATE ADVISORY BOARDS. Section 223(a)(3)(ii) of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (42 U.S.C. 5633(a)(3)(ii)) is amended—(1) in subclause (III), by inserting ‘‘, community-based gang intervention,’’ after ‘‘delinquency prevention and treatment’’; and (2) in subclause (IV), by inserting ‘‘community based gang intervention,’’ after ‘‘prevention and treatment,’’. SEC. 203. GRANTS FOR DELINQUENCY PREVENTION PROGRAMS. Section 504 of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (42 U.S.C. 5783) is amended—(1) in subsection (a)—(A) by redesignating paragraphs (7) and (8) as paragraphs (8) and (9), respectively; and (B) by inserting after paragraph (6) the following new paragraph: ‘‘(7) community-based gang intervention and gang prevention activities;’’. (2) in subsection (c)(2), by inserting ‘‘and community-based gang intervention’’ before ‘‘activities;’’ c/s
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John C. Smith, Dine Elder/Medicine Man: R.I.P.

Yesterday at around 10 am, I lost one of my teacher/elders among the Dine people (the Navajo). John C. Smith passed on at the San Juan Regional Hospital in Farmington, New Mexico. He was 85.

Mr. Smith was a Hataalii (Medicine Man) as well as a Native American Church/ABNDN Roadman, Historian, Educator, Philosopher, Herbalist, and Elder Statesman. He was of the Ma’iideeshgiizhnii (Coyote Pass Clan) and born for the Dziltl’ahnii (Mountain Cove). Mr. Smith was also a spokesperson and advocate for the Dine Hataalii Association, Inc.

For almost twenty years, I’ve been doing ceremonies, including peyote prayer meetings and sweat baths, with the Dine near the Chuska Mountains on the Arizona side of Dine Bikeyah (Navajo Nation). Medicine man Anthony Lee and his wife Delores of Lukachukai have taken in my whole family – and even adopted my wife Trini in an adult adoption ceremony, which many traditional Navajo do (and they treat these adopted children as their own).

These ceremonies have been one of the most vital aspects of my sobriety that I’ve now carried for twenty years after 27 years of drugs and alcohol (in the Rez, peyote medicine, which is not a drug, although this is the impression usually given by non-natives, is the number one way to deal with the high rates of alcoholism).

Anthony introduced us to John C. Smith, who was almost always at our ceremonies – with songs, with chants, with powerful prayers. Even though I only know a couple of Navajo words, I always felt his spirit, his intense devotion to medicine and ceremony, and was moved when tears would fall. He was a man unafraid to express the range of human emotions, generous and inviting. He was also extremely funny. His jokes, his laughter, were contagious. He knew English and Spanish, with some problems, but he mostly communicated in Dine.

John liked the Chicano Natives that would come to connect to Dine traditions (Trini and I, as well as our two young sons, my daughter, two brother-in-laws, nephews, and many friends, including Louie Ruan who was the first one to bring me to Lukachukai). It has taken a long time, but many traditional peoples have accepted Chicanos as fellow natives, even though most Chicanos, Mexicans and Central Americans have lost direct tribal ties.

It is also true that Chicanos/Mexicans have been responsible for much suffering of the Dine. When this land was part of Spain more than 200 years ago, and part of Mexico more than 100 years ago, ruling governments (during the Mexican period, the country was run by light-skinned mostly Spanish criollos) used other Mexican native peoples (like Yaquis, Chichimecas, Huicholes, and more) to hunt down and kill Navajos, Apaches and others. The old divide-and-conquer has brought much animosity between the large number of Chicanos/Mexicans and other native peoples.

At the same time, our common heritages are now being explored and many inroads have been made to bring Chicanos and Native Americans together. I have done talks to many Dine, Apache, Pueblo and Tohono O’odham youth in reservations and schools. With large numbers of tribal peoples from Mexico and Central America coming to the United States, the issue of us coming together is imperative. There are now three million Mayan people from Mexico and Guatemala in the U.S. (more than the total Native American population) – and millions more such as Mexicas (Nahuatl-speaking people), Mixtecos, Zapotecos, Purepechas, Pibils, and others.

As well Chicanos have been now trained and fully sanctioned as Mexica Danzantes (so-called Aztec ceremonial dancers) and are now a major number in most Sun Dances in Lakota reservations and others across the United States.

John C. Smith will be remembered as one who worked hard to bring our peoples together, although he did this as a Dine, using the complex Dine cosmologies to teach, the wondrous Dine tongue to sing and pray. Anthony and John also taught us how Mexicans – like the Hopi – have been incorporated into the tribe with their own clans. The Navajo know how to adapt and incorporate the world and peoples around them.

I hope what John C. Smith has done resonates throughout all the Native world, regardless of borders that have blinded us to our common heritages, histories and values. We can no longer afford to be divided.



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A new birth date, a new life

Today I celebrate twenty years of sobriety. My new birth date since the last time I drank in 1993 has been June 30. What a long painful and wondrous road this has been. I never imagined how intense this process would be. First I had to deal with seven years, from ages 12 to 19, when I was on drugs, alcohol, “huffing,” and also heroin. The latter finally getting its grips on me when I thought I’d never end up like the tecatos I knew in the barrio – usually in the alleys, chantes (“shooting” shanties) or hobo junctions along the railroad tracks.

I let all this go against great odds, against my own impulses, after getting politically engaged through the radical wing of the Chicano Movement, linking me to the larger working class, anti-war and civil rights struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I liked being on drugs, especially heroin, but I had convinced myself of the one thing I dreaded most in being in a gang, on drugs and violent – I was never going to own my life if I continued toward these pulls and webs. La Vida Loca – the Crazy Life – was a chain I enjoined to my soul and my mind. I had to let this go.

Political consciousness helps one to become self-aware, especially with the demands to be learned, skilled in words and ideas, and in convincing a world not to act the way it had been accustomed to act. I wanted to be true to myself, a difficult thing for an addict who never is. But, unfortunately, I didn’t give up on addiction—I just turned it toward the bottle, which I was good in imbibing, maintaining for a good while, and for the most part functioning, although after many years I reached a point I only thought about the bars, the women, the smoky rooms, the way tequila and rum germinated inside me, mutating my cells, my brain, my values.

Finally, when I was losing my teenage son to drugs and gangs, when I almost lost my present wife Trini, the last big love of my life, and possibly my daughter and two younger boys, I awoke to sobriety. More liked slapped into it. A year before this I had finished my memoir “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” This proved to be a powerfully healing thing. Then I found a Chicago-based recovery program that spoke to my needs, soul hungers and angers. I quit drinking the same year that “Always Running” hit the literary world like a hammer. Although I had one final terrible relapse during a poetry tour in Europe, apparently almost dying from what recovery people said was most likely alcohol poisoning (although I refused medical attention).

I kept myself sober ever since, even when I switched to Native American and Native Mexican spiritual practices, even when my oldest son ended up in worse trouble, eventually getting a long prison term, even when the family moved back to L.A. from Chicago, then trying to create a community-based cultural center and bookstore while writing more books, more poems, stories, children’s books, and a novel as well as traveling to speak, teach, and read. Even when my mother died, my best friends were taken from me (also heroin, cocaine, and alcohol heads at one time or another, two died by suicide), when I underwent some deep betrayals, and I raged and raged.

I’m still here. My body is worn – bad liver, diabetes, hypertensive, high cholesterol, eye retina tears, slipped discs in my back, kidney and gallstone attacks… but I’m still unbelievably better than if I kept drinking. I’ve made it so far. And my son Ramiro is now out of prison after a total of 15 years behind bars. He’s also crime free, gang free and drug free. In addition, my wife Trini and I celebrated 25 years of marriage this year. And my daughter is doing well, presently pregnant with my fifth grandchild, while my youngest boys are in wonderful straits – one just finished a year at the University of California, Riverside, and the other going to UCLA in the fall.

Twenty years. I have many more years to go – more books to write, more talks, more peace and healing work, more community activism, more revolutionary teachings and writings, even perhaps a political campaign or two (last year I was the Justice Party’s vice presidential candidate). And, of course, many more years as a husband, father and grandfather.

I thank the Creator, my community, my family. Nothing could be done in a vacuum, disconnected, or by following the dreaded internal pressures to give up. My biggest battle was with myself. I now have strict loyalties and principles (for fear if I fudge any of these, I’ll fall back). I’m ready for the next twenty – a new adventure, giving back more than receiving, teaching more than doing, and extending my love for family and community to the world.

Twenty years – and I’m still bleeding blossoms, perspiring poems, and an undeterred warrior of peace and justice wherever I go.


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In honor of Paula Quezada Pinedo

In late May, my wife Trini's aunt and "nina" (godmother) passed away after a hard bout with cancer. Paula Quezada Pinedo was much beloved by family and many friends. She was Trini's "favorite" relative for more reasons than one: Tia Paula held many of the family stories, many of the values and hopes. She was always quick with a smile, with pleasantries, with kind and embracing words. Trini would visit Tia Paula from time to time to share and exchange thoughts, updates, and, of course, stories. Her mother's younger sister, Trini found in Paula an example of a spiritually strong woman, rich in faith, a beloved mother, and a woman who spoke her mind, yet never brought shame or dishonor to her life or that of her family. I actually met Tia Paula many years before I ever met Trini. Just to show how intertwined our fates can be. In one of my most troubled years as a youth, at 15 I briefly worked that summer at a well-known Mexican restaurant in San Gabriel. A friend -- worried about my street life, drug use and gang involvement -- persuaded his father, who managed the restaurant, to hire me. I didn't last long, but the time I was there I worked hard. I was a busboy -- picking up dirty dishes and glasses, taking plastic trays with dirty dishes to the dishwashers, making sure people had water, coffee, and then clearing and cleaning tables. I had to be consistently on the move, walking with an eye to any customer that may need silverware, napkins, filled water glasses. There was tension between the busboys -- the low employees in the totem -- and the waiters. Even with the kitchen staff. They bossed us around. They made fun of us. They made us do extra work. I didn't like this. Authority figures generally tended to put my dignity on the line, and this was no exception. The waitresses were different. Most were nice. One or two were bossy. But the most congenial and helpful was Paula. She was one of the waitresses, with a version of Mexican-style uniform (mainly to attract the majority middle-class white patrons) that I found unreal and patronizing. But Paula always asked how I was, always had a smile, and when she saw I was distressed for any reason, always asked what I needed. I didn't trust many people in those days, especially adults, but Paula was different. She was genuine and trustworthy. Little did that I know that in around seven years, I'd meet her niece, Trini, who was active in Chicano revolutionary politics just like me. We worked together for years in community, whether in Los Angeles or later in Chicago (and now that we've returned to the San Fernando Valley). When Trini and I married in 1988 (I was 34 she was 35), I reconnected with this remarkable woman. She became my tia as well. I'm honored to have known her, to have been a witness to her grace and soulfulness. Que en paz descanses, Tia Paula. c/s
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Ending Life Without the Possibility of Parole

I was fortunate to be a judge last year in a contest of prisoner writing for a new anthology called "Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough." This anthology includes writings from prisoners and others addressing the insane and terribly budget destroying (and not much help when it comes to public safety) sentences of Life Without the Possibility of Parole. In deft language and clear argument, including with prose and poetry, the anthology lays out a strong case to end this practice of LWOP. We are the only country in the world that has LWOP for juveniles and one of the few that still has this for adults. It's definitely cruel and unusual -- or as the book title says, "Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough." I thank my longtime friend, Kenneth Hartman, for inviting to be a judge and to write the preface to this book. Kenneth has served close to 35  years on a LWOP sentence that began when he was a teenager. He is now a published writer, father, and decent human being, despite being behind bars all these years. He is a strong case, like so many others, that LWOP is just another death penalty (in both, prisoners can only leave prison in a box). Here is a link where I speak on this issue and the importance of raising funds to get this book published and distributed as widely as possible. Please donate to this important cause: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-other-death-penalty-project--2 c/s
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Books for Salvadoran Prisons -- Press Release


Contact: Steve Vigil: 718.710.2567

Alex Sanchez: 213.383.7484

Books Donated to Salvadoran Prisons to Support an Unprecedented Yearlong

Gang Peace

LOS ANGELES, CA – The Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGSPPES) is pleased to announce a donation of some 150 books to thirteen Salvadoran prisons as part of TAGSPPES’s support of the peace truce that has been in effect since March of 2012, resulting in a 40 to 60 percent drop in violence between El Salvador’s largest street gangs: Mara Salvatrucha-13 and 18th Street.

Renowned musician and activist John Densmore, drummer for the Doors, has donated the funds for the majority of these books. The book coordinator is Alex Sanchez, director of Homies Unidos, a gang intervention program in the Central American communities of Los Angeles and in El Salvador. Prisons will receive Spanish-language versions of “Tattoos of the Heart” by Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, and “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” by Luis J. Rodriguez, co-founder of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley. A few English-language versions of both books will also be sent. The City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, under the guidance of HRC president Paule Cruz Takash, as well as Luis J. Rodriguez donated some of the books.

TAGSPPES was created in April of 2012 to assess, advise and assist the current peace process, coordinated by Monsignor Fabio Colindres and former Salvadoran congressman Raul Mijango. In July of 2012, eleven members of TAGSPPES spent seven days in El Salvador – visiting prisons, including one for women and a juvenile lockup, as well as government offices, schools, non-governmental agencies, and factories. Their report from October of 2012 is available to the media.

In addition talks and report backs about the gang peace have been held in Los Angeles along with the showing of the Salvadoran gang film “Fruits of War” as well as cities such as Boulder/Denver, Seattle, Chicago, upstate New York, San Francisco, Oakland, and Washington D.C., among others.


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San Quentin Prison’s GRIP Program

I was fortunate earlier this year to visit San Quentin Prison’s Guiding Rage into Power (GRIP) program with around 35 men holding 900 years or so of life behind bars. Many of the participants are lifers, including for murder convictions. Inside-Out’s Jacques Verduin invited me to speak to and hear from the men during a recent visit to the San Francisco Bay Area. Jacques has been doing fantastic work with San Quentin prisoners for fifteen years. I’ve done other poetry readings and talks through Jacques’ former program, Insight Prison Project. I have also visited SQ with other programs about half a dozen times over the past ten years – once reading poetry with a saxophone player, drummer, and other poets in the maximum security yard (with a positive response from prisoners). This particular time was special, especially with older men who are learning how to turn their rages, their traumas, their violent acts and crimes, into dignity and nobility. GRIP helps formerly violent men become peacekeepers. It’s possible – I’ve seen this over and over again in my close to thirty five years of visiting prisons and juvenile lockups throughout California. I started in Chino Prison in 1980 and have done this in other states such as New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Oregon, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and more. I’ve also visited some stark and even inhumane prisons in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Argentina. And in Europe I did poetry workshops with Italian juvenile offenders as well as spent three days talking to prisoners in a facility in southern England. The “official” narrative from government, law enforcement, and the mass media is that these men are unredeemable, great manipulators, and a danger to society. On the other hand, I contend a vast majority of prisoners have great capacity for learning, healing and transforming. There are countless writers, poets, artists, musicians, intellectuals, and more among them. Although I was a gang member and drug addict in my youth some forty years ago – having been behind bars in various East L.A./Southeast L.A.-area jails as well as juvenile hall and two adult facilities, I avoided the  state prison terms that most of my homies were given. My way of giving back was to facilitate writing workshops in prisons under the mentorship of the late Manuel “Manazar” Gamboa, who himself spent seventeen years incarcerated and twenty years as a heroin addict. He changed his life and in turn helped changed others, including me. I have been crime and drug free for forty years. Today I try to help those men and women who have been caught up in the madness. I’ve also published poetry and other writings from prisoners, and continue to assist former prisoners whenever possible. One book to seek is "Honor Comes Hard: Writings from California State Prison's Honor Yard," edited by Lucinda Thomas and myself (from Tia Chucha Press and available online as well as from from Tia Chucha's Bookstore or Northwestern University Press). I also have family – brothers-in-law and cousins – that have been imprisoned. And as most people know my oldest son Ramiro did a total of fifteen years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Ramiro has been out for almost three years and doing well, also now free of gangs, crimes and drugs, and working as a gang prevention and intervention specialist. To learn more about GRIP please go to this website: http://www.insight-out.org/ c/s
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Passing on

It’s sad to have blogs with names of people I’ve loved or admired who have passed on. But I must recognize some important people in my life who’ve recently died. First is Los Angeles teacher Sal Castro, who passed on April 15 after a bout with cancer. He was 79.

Sal was a leader in the 1968 East Los Angeles “Blowouts” – one of the largest protests for education in the United States at the time. Schools in L.A.’s vast eastside – such as Lincoln, Garfield, Roosevelt, and middle schools like Hollenbeck, among others – had walkouts to protest discrimination and low education resources for Chicano students. Numbers ranged from 10,000 to 30,000 people involved, students, parents, teachers, and community members alike.

The 2006 HBO movie “Walkout” dramatized the incident, directed by Edward James Olmos and produced by Moctezuma Esparza, a student leader of the protests in 1968. Actor Michael Pena played Castro in the film (and other actors played other leaders and friends of mine such as Bobby Verdugo, Carlos Montes, Harry Gamboa, and the amazing Paula Crisostomo – the movie was based on her story… she was a mentor of mine in high school).

I was 13 in 1968 and walked out of my San Gabriel Valley middle school known as Garvey Intermediate School in the Richard Garvey School District, the district adjacent to the East Los Angeles schools. Although I was a troubled kid, in a gang, using drugs, and not doing well in school, when I heard about the protest this fired up my imagination – it took a while, but this opened a door to social justice and change that became a life-long avocation.

Although only five of us walked out of Garvey School – and promptly suspended – I did later participate in a Chicano Leadership Conference that Sal Castro helped organize to train the next generation of leaders. Sal probably wouldn’t have recognized me from among the many Chicano students listening to his talks and those of other leaders (although usually in cholo attire, I was relatively shy and withdrawn at the time). But I soon took part in study groups, collective actions, and by age 20 left entirely all gang and drug involvement to pursue a revolutionary life.

Sal was part of this transformation, planting a seed that has stayed with me all these years.

I also want to remember Johnny Godinez, “El Huero” from the Arizona Maravilla barrio (one of a dozen barrios in the Maravilla district of East Los Angeles). For years he was a leader in gang intervention in Los Angeles, employed by SEA (Soledad Enrichment Action). He also worked with me and forty other peace warriors, advocates and researchers in the “Effective Community-Based Gang Intervention Model” approved by L.A.’s city council in 2008 and used in cities across the U.S. (I also introduced this model to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; El Salvador; Guatemala; Argentina; and England). Johnny and I have sat on many peace panels, circles and coalitions over the past ten years. He died of a heart attack and will be sorely missed.

And today I read that Richie Havens died on April 22, 2013 – the African American folk singer and guitarist played a large musical role in the civil rights and anti-war struggles of the 1960s. He combined a unique singing and playing style with the powerful folk music tradition. He became famous after opening for the 1969 Woodstock Festival. I did not know him well, but I had the privilege of reading poetry with Richie Havens playing in the background at the Nurorican Café in New York City in the early 1980s. With me were poets like Kimiko Hahn and Miguel Algarin. He was gracious and kind to us poets as we admired the poetry he brought to his lyrics, his singing and guitar.

Que en paz descansen.


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Q & A

I was recently asked questions from one of my many connections in schools. Here are my answers -- it's about a new way of seeing work with gangs, incarcerated youth, and the loss of meaning in our time.

What do you believe is/are the main cause/s of youth violence?

There are historical, social and personal traumas in the lives of our youth. Also our culture is becoming devoid of meaning. Presently everything is in crisis -- including politics, the economy, and even spiritual matters.  The disconnections are deep. Many youth feel numb, but others lash out (both are aspects of enragement). Parenting is losing its potency as well as schooling, mentoring and elders.  We have to renew ways to see and respond to young people – with respect, meaning, and teachings, to reconnect in deep and powerful ways. Youth violence by the way is less than adult violence. How do young people learn their violence? Mostly from adults. The same government that wants to control assault weapons has drones killing civilians (and directed at us). There wouldn’t be assault weapons in our streets if not for government and business complicity somewhere along the line.The hypocrisies are increasing as the wellbeing of most people decline.

Do you feel there is a correlation between class and youth violence? What about race and youth violence?

Poverty is one of the biggest factors of trauma and neglect that also begets violence. Poverty itself is violence against people who have little or no power, against the working classes and the disenfranchised. Poverty numbs and enrages. Many youth may not know this intellectually but they feel the class differences. They know some people are rich and powerful, and they are not. They know most of this is due to injustice– social resources are not distributed equitably, and not because the rich and powerful are more valuable or more deserving. Of course well-off youth are also neglected, fed material things, and many times dispirited. This is why many go crazy in their gated community -- while the poor waste their lives in real prisons. Race is the historical means to control and disunite the working class in the U.S. and now most of the world. The violence of poverty strikes people of color particularly hard, linked to race or migration status. Racism is also violence.

When talking with incarcerated juveniles, what is the main message you aim to give them?

My main aim is to provide both the social and personal aspects of their liberation – even behind actual bars, but also in the metaphoric prisons of living this society. These liberations are linked to imagination, creativity, the arts. When young people find their own authority –their own passions, capacities, dreams, and story – they can begin to challenge with all their faculties the chains that have bound them to an archaic capitalist economic social order not of their making. Everything should be questioned, challenged, and/or renewed by every new generation. Being properly independent and authoritative means they are also properly interdependent and connected. Both are necessary. The “prisons” of their lives also include addictions, compulsions, rages, fears,and violence. They are wrapped up in the web of “the crazy life.” They need to start learning to own their own life – and not turn it over to others, to gangs, to drugs, to destructive impulses. I do much of this by telling my story.

In your experience, are most convicted juveniles willing to give up violence and be rehabilitated/helped? Are there resources available for them?

The vast majority of young prisoners can and will change their lives, but there are little or no resources or rehabilitation for this in most institutions. This is no accident. There are vested economic interests to keep youth lost, angry, criminal, and caged. When properly guided, mentored, taught, and trained (including to deal with their most destructive webs) they can become the next generation of peace warriors. This is the work I’ve done and witnessed for forty years. Late teens and early to mid-twenties is a major threshold time in anyone’s life – doors appear to open and possibilities open up. In particular the brain finally finds its shape by the late 20s. This is called attunement, a time to “tune” the harp of a person’s body. All society, all institutions, all therapies, and programs should be geared to this attunement process. While anyone can change anytime in their lives (indeed changes occur constantly even if imperceptibly), the “threshold times” (there are five major ones in a person's life) are key.

What kind of conditions do juveniles have to face inside the juvenile facilities and adult facilities?

Mostly I see institutional abuse, isolation being one ofthem. Another being placing blame on the perpetrators (when they are also victims). And the rest of us not taking responsibility for how a young person ended up in such places in the first place – ended up with a gun in their hand, with drugs in their system, and fodder for any kind of war, including in gangs. Most of this is environmental, interacting negatively with the biological (the complex interaction of nature and nurture are constant in all development). Beyond that I’ve seen or known of actual physical, sexual, mental, and spiritual abuse in such institutions. Youth are vulnerable and we make them more vulnerable, more accessible to other perpetrators and abuse. Punishment to remove the perfectly legitimate responses to an abusing, violent, narrow-ended world does not work. It becomes abuse on top of abuse.

Knowing you are against the sentencing of juveniles toLife Without Parole, could you explain your thoughts on the subject and most important reasons for being so?

No life should be wasted, pushed out or forgotten. LWOP is another death sentence – only the slow and grating one. Those with LWOP are removed from contribution, from full love, from family, from children, from the beauties of the world. This is another kind of death. Healing needs to be the key aspect of institutionalizing anyone, not pushing them into deeper folds of inhumanity. LWOP should be declared unconstitutional – a cruel and unusual punishment.

What alternatives are there to juveniles and LWOP? What do you believe works best?

The vast majority of troubled youth can be removed for a short time – perhaps three years for most major crimes and no longer than seven years for the worse. This is of course assuming real resources/rehabilitation are brought to bear. Youth don’t need arbitrary long sentences, but “enough” time to gather themselves, get attuned, get reconnected, and set on a path of their passions. Use these experiences as real initiations that in turn lead to fuller lives and a restoring of their place in family, community, work, art,and life.

How did your experience through the juvenile justice system effect you long term? To who and/or what do you credit your life turnaround?

I was detained since age 13 for fighting, disturbing the peace, and stealing. I ended up in various jails in the greater East L.A. area– the East L.A. sheriff’s substation, the Monterey Park jail, the San Gabriel jail, the Norwalk sheriff’s substation, and others. At 15, I was held for stabbing someone but released when the person stabbed (he lived) refused to identify me. At 16 I was placed in the adult section of murderer’s row in the old Hall of Justice Jail in downtown L.A. I had a cell next to Charles Manson. They were threatening to charge five of us “cholo” gang members for the murders of three people during a major riot. Even though I was lost there for five days and nights, they eventually let me go without charges. I was in juvenile hall twice for arrests, but never adjudicated, although once at 17 for attempted murder when four people were shot (again, the victims refused to identify me). These experiences only taught me to be a better criminal and addict, more violent and “untouchable” (how fear turns into stone). Then at age18, I got jumped by police and sent to the county jail, facing a minimum of six years in the state pen for fighting with police officers. This time I faced a crossroads. I was hooked on heroin, 25 of my friends had been killed by then,and I had no family or homies visiting. The only person who showed up was a youth counselor/activist who became my guide and mentor. Prior to this, however, I had begun to paint murals, go back for schooling, and become active in social change. This mentor got people to write letters on my behalf and show up in court. This was largely unheard of. A judge then gave me a break – perhaps the biggest of my life. He refused to try me for the felonies (although police clamored for this) and gave me time served in the county jail for “drunk and disorderly” and “resisting arrest.” During my time in jail, I began my first heroin withdrawals and refused to get more active in the higher echelons of barrio gang life. I left those bars committed to social justice – and I’ve never done any more time for criminal acts. I have, however, gone to prisons throughout California, the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America, and Europe, for more than thirty years– my way of giving back by doing writing workshops, readings, and talks. I’ve been active in prison reform, gang peace, and prevention/intervention as well. Unfortunately, my oldest son got involved in gangs and ended up doing 15 years in state prisons, a way of how the madness called me back by claiming one of my own.

If you were to rework the juvenile justice system, what would be the first thing you would do?

The choices are not brutal punishment OR country clubs. People should see the juvenile justice system as an initiatory experience that can turn their life around – this should be difficult and require hard work. But the premise is: Every trouble and every lost road can be a doorway to more knowledge, more soul, and onto a hero’s journey. Use mythology, stories, song, dance, writing, theater, music, even digital arts, to draw from the inexhaustible and abundant reservoir of the imagination we all carry. To teach young people the direction and innate nature of their actions, decisions, and indecisions. Punishment is not even in the equation. Such institutions should be restorative and transformative. Change is one absolute aspect of human nature, yet we act as if things stand still. Being angry and hungry are natural to all of us. We just need to give it eyes, direction, and meaning so that the real angers and real hungers (not just of the body, but of the mind and spirit) can be taken to their completion. I call this process “Hearts & Hands,” not “scared straight” but “cared straight.” Using caring and proper emotional connection (the heart) from community along with skills, teachings, and "holding the ground" (the hands) to re-imagine and recreate even stronger community.


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Truce or Consequences – a year of gang peace in El Salvador

For two decades El Salvador has been one of the most violent countries in the world, due to intense warfare between its two biggest street gangs—Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and 18th Street (Barrio 18).

The leading cause was the mass deportation of gang youth beginning in 1992 from the streets of Los Angeles, many of whom did not speak Spanish and had little or no families in the country. Since then the official response has been repression—more police and prisons. They’ve included anti-gang policies known as Mano Dura (Firm Hand) and Super Mano Dura. With billions of dollars invested into these policies, including from the United States, the gangs became larger, better organized, and more violent—recruiting from the thousands of homeless, abandoned and war-ravaged youth and children throughout the country.

However, something phenomenal emerged a year ago on March 9 when members from among MS-13 and Barrio 18 forged a peace in one of the country’s largest prisons, spreading to other prisons and the streets. Facilitated by Catholic Monsignor Fabio Colindres as well as former congressman and former guerilla Raul Mijango, gang leaders agreed to end recruitment near schools and to turn in rifles and other weapons to the Organization of American States (OAS) representatives. Most recently they’ve enacted “peace zones” where gangs would not commit crimes or violence.

In a year’s time the peace decreased violence in El Salvador from 40 to 60 percent; by December homicides went from 14 per day until five per day, according to the Center for Democracy in the Americas. The gang leaders did what no repressive plan could do—bring a badly needed respite to a country that has been in some kind of war, including a 12-year civil war, for more than thirty years.

Yet the U.S. government’s Treasury Department in the fall declared MS-13 to be an international criminal enterprise, subject to the seizure of property and assets. And on January 23, 2013, the State Department issued a travel warning to U.S. citizens that placed El Salvador on the same level of security concerns as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Honduras, and Mexico. These actions indicate a dangerous disconnect between what is possible for public safety and our government’s response.

This past July, I took part in an 11-member delegation from the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGSPPES) to assess the situation on the ground, and advise and assist where possible. The delegation included human rights advocates, a psychologist, researchers, and leaders in U.S. gang prevention and intervention programs from New York City, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Washington D.C. area, and London—Chicano, white, African American, Puerto Rican, and Salvadoran.

We talked to government officials in the departments of health, education, and public safety including heads of the country’s prison system. We visited factories that hired gang members as well as schools, nongovernmental agencies, indigenous communities, and six prisons and a juvenile lockup.

Tattooed-faced men and women greeted us from behind razor wire as we were able to see firsthand the miserable conditions they lived under, including in facilities housing women and their children, also locked up in worn cellblocks, often without running water or electricity, in overcrowded cells and lacking decent food and medical attention. They told us that they were not “lost causes” or “without hope.” Many had children of their own—they didn’t want them enmeshed in the same level of violence they grew up with and in many cases participated in.

In September of 2012, TAGSPPES issued a report of our trip that concluded “all stakeholders must take part in a broader peace building process.” In other words, the gang peace must not just benefit gang members, but the whole of society, including establishing the necessary structural changes for real jobs, education, trauma treatment, housing, and humane prison conditions. Due to our efforts, clean potable water is being directed to many prisons. And books are being brought in to start libraries in these institutions with the support of people like musician and activist John Densmore, formerly of the Doors.

The peace building process will entail the backing of the international community as well as businesses, law enforcement, and the general population. Many in the present Salvadoran government agree, including Minister of Security David Munguia Payes and President Mauricio Funes, both of whom have challenged the official U.S. position.

For peace to last, it’s evident this will also require the backing of the U.S. government.

The United States does a major disservice by placing its resources and energies at odds with the immense possibilities brought to the table by gang leaders themselves, who are tired of the violence and now want to contribute positively to the development of their lives and their country.

It’s been proven that the single best path towards peace is when gang leaders turn their lives around, when they commit to raising families, when they dedicate themselves to working and educating themselves; and when they become the leading agents for making peace viable for all. Here’s an idea that now needs traction, something I have seen in my forty years of doing gang peace work in the United States and other countries: Sometimes from the most violent can come the most peaceful.

Give gang leaders a chance to make their own peace.


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