Manny 3

“Pack your stuff, you’re out of here.”

At the stroke of midnight on Manny’s 17th birthday, his cell is opened and he’s transferred from a juvenile only minimum security unit to a high medium security yard. No time to say good bye to the young men he had lived with the last two years. He has to start all over forging relationships with new guards, new inmates. The inmates in the new yard are older, tougher, and guilty of more violent crimes. Gangs rule.

Ex cons talk of being forced to join gangs or face harassment including beatings or worse. One Anglo client of mine told me the two years he was in prison he never left his cell other than to eat. Joining a gang is not a choice. Gangs like Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, MauMau are based on ethnicity or race. Racism is rampant in prison.

“I have better things to do,” Manny said.

He refused to join. At first the inmates wouldn’t leave him alone. But with determination and his mantra, “I have better things to do,” he earned their respect and was left alone. “I treated everyone the way I wanted to be treated whether they were black, brown or white, inmate or guard.” Even in this environment, Manny tried to fight against racism. Perhaps because of this an Anglo inmate may have saved Manny’s life when he pushed him in a room out of the way of a riot.

After his arrest and once Manny sobered up enough to understand what he did and the consequences he began writing to high school students. “Don’t do what I did.”

During a jail visit, Manny asked us how he could reach high school kids who might be in trouble. From that conversation, my husband, Kenney Hegland and his colleague, Andy Silverman, made a video called Choices. The film juxtaposed Manny and men and women from minority or poor backgrounds who became successful. Why do some people make the right choices? The video was seen by thousands of teens nationwide. High school kids wrote to Manny after viewing the video. Manny answered every letter. An unintended consequence of the video was Manny had something ‘better to do’.

“The guys I hung with in high school never visited me.” Manny found out the hard way friends who were so important to him disappeared.They didn’t come to his court hearings. They didn’t write. They didn’t visit him in prison.

Manny had family support. His mom, dad and sister visited. A friend from childhood who was in the military visited every time he was in town. Many inmates have no one. Some families want to come but can’t. Other don’t bother. Girlfriends drift away. Even wives with kids give up. Inmates are transferred from one yard to another or one prison to another without warning or reason. Judges can request defendants be placed near their families, but the prison administration doesn’t have to listen. Maybe, if your son is in prison 30 minutes from home, the family will come, but if he is transferred to Yuma, the 4 hour drive will be too hard. Visits can be frustrating. You and your kids are searched. There’s lots of time standing in line and waiting. Contact is often not allowed. There are many rules that change often. Every phone call an inmate makes is collect.

“Hi Manny, it’s Karista.”

Every Thursday evening Manny called home. One Thursday Manny’s mom said. “An old friend wants to say hi.”

Karista was Manny’s high school girlfriend.His first love. Shortly after they met, they learned both were born the same year, the same day, 5 hours apart at Tucson Medical Center. They started going together at age 13 and were still together when Manny was arrested. Karista believed they would spend their lives together.

After Manny’s arrest, Karista had to change schools, harassed by friends of the victim. She wanted to visit Manny, but it’s hard for a minor to get on a visiting list if she’s not family. Time passed. She married and had children. She divorced. Karista always thought about Manny and was delighted when she ran into his mom.

Karista asked Manny to put her on his visitation list. At first Manny was unsure why she came. His whole life was focused on survival. He took classes, he worked. Romance was not his first priority. Eventually the old magic resurfaced. They married and Manny had a wife and 6 stepchildren.

At a recent event Manny spoke to high school kids. One asked, what made him take responsibility for his crime. A good question. Many people never own up. They have lots of people or circumstances to blame starting with “I’m innocent.”

“I was talking to a cell mate who asked me about my crime. I told him, I was freebasing cocaine that night. . .”
“I understand that, but you still did it,” my cellie said.
“I was really high”
“I understand that, but you still did it.”
“I was really drunk.”
“I understand that but you still did it.”
“My homies asked for help.”
“I understand that, but you still did it.”
“My parents ignored me.”
“I understand that, but you still did it.”

Manny paused, “And I realized all those reasons were bullshit. I did it. Because I made bad choices I was in prison 20 years and will spend the rest of my life trying to make amends to my family, the victim’s family and the community.”