Somebody’s Homie

This essay first appeared in The GroundUp, in October 2013

I wouldn’t write about oppression unless I had something important to say. I didn’t think it was a contest, but it seems like somehow the Xicano Files got deleted and the homies all got cheated. And sadly, to my knowledge, there is no civil rights group which advocates on our behalf. Honestly, I am sure there are causes more worthy than me and the homies, but I read somewhere the oppression is pervasive and hurts all of us. Also, I’m not hearing our stories told in an honest, constructive, or politically useful way. I wouldn’t normally consider myself the one to tell our story, even though I am a community activist. My community is plaqued up across my body multiple times, and it don’t get no more active than that. So, if you will suffer through my poor grammar, I will write something authentic about the oppression that occurs in my life.

I’m doing a life sentence, actually, life plus ten fingers and three toes. I’ve been down for about eleven years on this conviction, but I’m still relatively young. I pled not guilty, and I stand by that. Most people view my homies and me as a destructive force, and collectively, there is no question: we have made ourselves hard to love. So, I am not an “innocent” kind of person, but fuck if I let the system jack my life and punk me out of the truth. Touchy subject, and I digress, but my point is that is that in many respects, I am not so far from being everyday people. I am a believer in personal accountability, so I would not hide behind the banner of oppression or help anyone else to do so.

Still, I keep noticing how the homies getting trapped in the system are similar, Xicanos and Mexicanos raised in poverty from an early age. Whether we deserved it or not, all of us were targeted by police and thrown in the system. We mostly share the same interests, listen to the same music, and have similar family histories. Beyond the actual guilt or innocence related to our cases and trials, official misconduct is usually involved. Occasionally, our cases speak of oppression; sometimes we just bullshittin’. Our skin color is a lighter shade of brown, and that may have nothing to do with why we were sent to prison, but it’s a similarity that shouldn’t be ignored. In my opinion, the thread of oppression runs through all this and sews it all up like Betsy Ross did.

Conventional wisdom is that prisons exist for public safety. I think too many people allow the local media to pick through and choose which information makes conventional wisdom. This culture makes it easy for the government to systematically oppress groups of people. One of the groups being oppressed is the homies who are in trouble with the law. I won’t question if their situations were the real crime, nor will I suggest that many laws are corrupt in spirit and application. I’m just talking about the homies going to prison.

To begin, they usually get sent to a Level 4 yard or higher. The Level numbers indicate the security level: higher number, higher security. Level 6, called supermax, is the most restrictive. Level 6s are locked down for 23 hours a day, and the homies usually end up there for years. Levels 4, 5, and 6 have drastically limited access to legal help and materials. One of the consequences of that is prisoners cannot effectively challenge their placement or their conditions of confinement. Theoretically, almost every prisoner is able to work his way down to a Level 3 by keeping clear conduct. Most prisoners want this, but it is out of the question for anyone ever labeled as being involved with a “security threat group.” Level 3s have access to pretty much every legal service available to prisoners, education, work, rehabilitation, and Lump Sum Awards (LSAs or “good time”) programs.

Level 4s get almost none of these. Level 3s get family visits with immediate family members, contact visits with all approved visitors, and they can attend prison chapel services so their spiritual and family needs are accommodated. Level 4s get none of that. There are many different kinds of Level 3 prisoners nowadays, but you would typically find more rapists, child molesters, and baby killers there. So, those guys get out quicker and keep more access to the public. So much for conventional wisdom.

Taxes on the public are like an involuntary investment in government programs, i.e. prisons, etc., right? I don’t know about infrastructure like schools and highways, but with prisons, you’re getting the Level System. The state’s justification for the Level System will depend on who is asking. I doubt you could get an honest or complete answer. But what does the Level System actually accomplish?

Preventing Oppression Ends Misery

Preventing Oppression Ends Misery

This is what I have seen: eventually, almost all the homies get out. Currently, prisoners are separated to an insane degree. The Level System is as closed as society is open. Upon release, former Level 4 prisoners will have to sit in parole offices next to former prisoners from all Levels, including former Level 3s, protective custodies, and any kind of gang member in the Free World setting. Previously, it would have been unthinkable to mix these people. Furthermore, I am not a psychologist, but the homies getting out are mentally unstable.

Everyone is different, but an atmosphere of frustration and hopelessness leaves most prisoners paranoid and unprepared to function in “normal” society. Most homies already were, but many become drug addicts during their stay. Most become predatory, impulsive, and disconnected from their family and friends. Most pose a threat to themselves and others. The only thing most of the homies are prepared to do upon their release is be an example of why the government needs tougher laws and more funding for prisons. Some of your taxes are investments in people who you will need to pay others to protect you from later.

I don’t believe that prisons should exist at all. If I could, I would open every cell door. But for argument’s sake, let’s say prisons are a necessary evil need to rehabilitate people who won’t follow the important rules of a civilized society. If that’s what’s up, then it makes sense for security to be a top priority, alright, but after security, prisoners should be rehabilitated. Serious steps should be taken towards encouraging the release of strong, well meaning, employable, and responsible people. Homies should have a voice in the systems which govern their lives. They should have strong ties to their communities through family and friends.

There are plenty of staff and existing rooms through the New Mexico Department of Corrections which could be used for furthering those ends. Level 4 prisoners have been subjected to this bullshit since the Levels began in 2000. When prison administrators have been pushed to justify their policies, they have usually done so by recounting events from a past era: incidents from the 80s; the debacle of prison privatization in the 90s; and the end of the Duran Decree in 2000.* Pictures of bodies and gang members with tattoos distract people from the notion of businessmen who figured out how to turn a quick profit off incarceration. I believe time will reveal prisons to be the most dangerous staple of the American economy.

The Level System is messing up prisoners’ lives. Not only that, but it breaks up families and targets oppressed people. Hopefully, this information reaches voters, someone in the legal field, a journalist with integrity–anyone that can help change the situation. Social Justice activists ought to activate for the homies, for the youngsters in the hood, juvenile justice, women in domestic violence shelters, or women and men in the adult prisons, because it’s all together.

I’m just writing about what I know best and deal with day to day. I’m not writing anything that can’t be proven or isn’t self-evident. There are many gangs stocking the shelves where I dwell, but I say “homies” because the casualties of the Level System are all somebody’s homie. Thank you for hearing my voice. Respeto.