Before I was indoctrinated and officially associated with the Nuestra Raza gang in northern California, I existed on the periphery of that universe as an underdeveloped, impressionable young satellite, on the outside looking in.
For a time, I actually wanted to be a city planner—I liked the idea of being able to create the ideal living environment, perhaps because mine was so unattractive.
But that notion soon faded and I began to emulate local ‘hood legends, sociopaths with names like Cisco, Green Eyes and Shotgun. I creased my jeans like them. I listened to oldies, drank malt liquor and tallied up sexual escapades with the more promiscuous ‘hood rats, some more than twice my age.
And when the opportunity to prove my loyalty presented itself, I was more than eager to acquire a stolen vehicle, creep into hostile territory and shoot at my perceived enemy. By doing so, I earned a name for myself on the streets and within the juvenile system.
So by the time I made it to the state penitentiary at 19, I’d already achieved “associate” status, a few degrees closer to the inner sanctum I longed to be a part of.
I’d made a slight faux pas, however, by prematurely tattooing one of the gang’s symbols on my left wrist. I was called on it within days of my arrival to prison.
“You know what that means, homie?”
"Yeah I know it.”
“You know you’re gonna have to earn that, right?”
“Yeah, I’m down.”
My opportunity arrived less than a month later. I was instructed to “remove” a member who’d fallen out of favor with the gang. I knew the individual in question. We were on friendly terms, in fact, and had actually worked out together on a few occasions; perhaps that’s why they selected me. I felt a tinge of apprehension and sympathy, but convinced myself it was only business.
My ambition easily subdued any fear I may have been feeling. After all, it wasn’t a kill mission. The objective was to “mark him up,” meaning to disfigure his face with a slash across the cheek.
With my “tomahawk” in hand (razor blades affixed to the handle of a toothbrush), I waited for him outside the chow hall after evening meal. He actually smiled as he saw me approach.
This brazen act, on the main yard at Folsom Prison, in front of hundreds of watchful eyes, boosted my reputation and set me on the path toward full gang membership. It also landed me in the hole for an extended period of time.
My movement now heavily restricted—my meals fed to me through a tray slot, my body handcuffed and stripped down to boxers any time I left the cell—I had plenty of time on my hands to absorb gang propaganda and protocol. Regulations that were designed to keep us in optimal condition, mentally and physically. Up for roll call at 5 a.m. Mattress rolled high and tight, in order to prevent the urge to sleep during daytime hours. Shoes on at all times, in case a guard got careless or intentionally opened a few cell doors, making a fight likely. At least an hour of exercise each day.
And a minimum of one hour set aside for self-education: gang history, California law, weaponry, etc. We were to welcome every opportunity to engage the enemy, especially our bitter rivals from Southern California.
So when the officers made the mistake of releasing me for exercise yard with the Southerners one day, I had no choice but to go. To tell the cops it wasn’t my day to go would be akin to committing an act of cowardice.
So I turned my back to the cell door and willingly stuck my wrists through the tray slot, to get handcuffed and taken outside.
I could only imagine how things might turn out for me. In the past, when fights broke out on the yard, officers were known to indiscriminately shoot live rounds on the combatants. If that didn’t kill me, my enemies would surely have plenty of time to stomp me out. But I wasn't afraid. I had long since developed the ability to disregard that emotion in favor of false bravado.
I was handcuffed and escorted out of the living unit, as 20 stoic expressions, friend and foe alike, quietly watched my departure through their tiny cell windows. Passed off to an awaiting guard just outside the block, I walked with my head high along the perimeter of a fenced-in concrete slab topped with razor wire.
There were 15 or so bald heads inside. Tattoos. Menacing scowls. Incredulous. Maybe some of them were looking forward to their time outside the cell. A few games of handball and some fresh air. But I became an immediate priority. They were just as obligated to do their part as I was.
I stepped into the sally port, a lamb being led to slaughter. But just as the officer was removing my cuffs, he noticed the tattoo on my left wrist.
Law enforcement and correctional officers in California are well trained in identifying gang symbolism and indicia. Especially the ones who work in an environment like the hole. They are a seasoned, cunning type. Often as dangerous, if not more so, than the criminals in their charge.
But this one had mercy. Or perhaps he just didn’t feel like doing paperwork that day.
“Wait a minute. Where are you from?” he asked. “Are you a Northerner?”
I didn’t reply, and stared ahead.
“C’mon. Are you trying to get yourself killed? Get this clown out of here,” he shouted to the officers standing behind him.
I breathed an internal sigh of relief. As brave, or in my case foolish, as one might be, no one wants to die.
I was escorted back to the block a hero. Respected in the eyes of my peers. The same tattoo that got me in deeper had saved my life.
I’ve since left the gang, and plan on removing all of my tattoos. I became disillusioned over time. Lost faith in the leadership. Hypocrites, most of them. The whole experience, I realized, was like a strange mix between junior high school and the Roman Senate. Petty. Treacherous. Although I rose through the ranks myself, and ended up in the infamous Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, I knew in my heart that it was over.
I think the incident that ultimately opened my eyes was when I celled up with an O.G. by the name of Wino. I’d seen moving in with him as an opportunity for advancement and indeed, it helped get me ushered into the elite inner circle. Wino was the shot caller for our gang at the prison and as his celly, I was privy to classified intel.
The only problem was, Wino was near illiterate. All brawn, no brains. So it was my job to hand-copy tiny scrolls the width of your thumb to be disseminated to the various cell blocks. And sometimes, he would have me alter or even fabricate this information, spreading false rules and messages that hundreds of men would then have to comply with.
It was the first time that I understood the vacuousness of the power we wielded. Like Voltaire said, “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” I lost respect for Wino, who regularly violated the drug-abuse rules we were charged with enforcing, and began to question the integrity of our entire organization.
I thought, this is what I’m doing with my life? Playing Chutes and Ladders with my daughter during visits then perpetuating a life of violence and addiction during the rest of the week?
Walking away was difficult. Not only did I instantly become anathema to many of people I now had to be separated from on a different yard (although some drop-outs then form new gangs, which to me kind of defeats the purpose) I’d also identified as a gangster my entire life. It was the perspective through which I saw the world. If I was no longer that, then what was l?
That’s what people don’t understand about the roles we play in prison—they exist in the absence of an identity.
Years have now passed and I’ve gained quite a bit of insight, and answers to those questions and more. At 42, I am just a few units shy of receiving my Associate’s Degree—a different kind of Associate, this time. I facilitate a number of self-help groups and mentor young men at the prison in hopes they never have to go the way I went.
And I’m starting to like my chances.
The events described in this essay occurred between 2005 and 2010. During that time, Benito Gutierrez, 42, was incarcerated at Soledad and Pelican Bay state prisons in California on charges of possession of narcotics for sale and being a felon in possession of a firearm. His fiction was awarded first place in PEN America’s 2017 Prison Writing Contest.