In October, students at Miami Youth Academy and men at San Quentin State Prison in California started a letter exchange facilitated by the Prison Journalism Project. The men were asked to initiate by writing about what they would do differently if they knew as a teenager what they know now. The following is a letter from Heriberto, followed by the students’ responses. The Miami Youth Academy houses up to 28 boys from 14 to 18 years old, who are sent there by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
Dear MYA Students,
If I were a teenager now, what would I do differently, given what I’ve learned through my experiences?
I would not solve my problems through violence. I would not fight to prove how tough I was or to earn respect. The momentary relief I always felt after a fight I could have gotten from working out. I would walk away from aggression, or try to talk my problems out if I could. If not, I would avoid that person or situation. If the problems continued, I would talk to my parents, another adult, or teacher about what I was going through. I would even call the cops if I had to.
I know now that the best way to solve a problem that I can’t solve on my own is to ask for help. There are people who care and want to help, even though at times it may seem like they don’t. I would trust others — especially those in positions of authority. If they happened to let me down, I wouldn’t let that stop me from trusting those that hadn’t. There are so many good people in the world; one just has to look.
Patience is so important. As a teenager, I wanted to have money to buy everything I wanted, and I didn’t want to wait for it. I wanted it immediately. Having to work and save took too much time. Stealing things and selling drugs gave me what I wanted faster, but I know now that the cost was too high.
I should have realized that causing pain, then justifying my actions isn’t worth any amount of money, especially considering the consequences. I wish I had thought about those consequences realistically, and considered how my actions could affect my victims, my family, myself. I should have imagined myself in their shoes and thought about how I would feel if it happened to me or one of my loved ones. You can’t take back the pain you put someone through — they carry that.
Then, there’s the punishment that comes — your consequences. Who likes jail? This is no place to live. You can’t get the time back.
I would never have joined a gang. I was willing to live or die for my old gang. What were they willing to do for me when I got arrested? Nothing. Not even write me a letter. They forgot about me. They turned their backs on me when I gave up everything. True friendship is when someone puts their hand out to lift you up, not to hand you drugs or a weapon. A true friend will say, “Let’s go to school,” not convince you to ditch class. They’ll tell you, “Don’t get high” — they won’t want you to get in trouble. They will want you to succeed, not to be into things that would bring you down.
I wouldn’t have blamed my circumstances for my position in life; I should have stopped thinking I didn’t have a choice. Good or bad, there is always a choice. I should have weighed the pros and cons of my decisions. Sometimes life is tough and there are things we can’t change, but sometimes we can. Be willing to accept that, keep working towards your goals, and don’t get discouraged — don’t ever give up on yourself.
I would have loved myself. I would have believed that no matter what, I have value. I am a human being who isn’t perfect — but there is no one else like me in the entire world.
The following are responses from the students:
Damn man, I relate to everything you said. Hence the reason why I’m incarcerated right now. I skipped school, trying to fit in to act cool. I started affiliating with a gang by age 14 and dropped out in 8th grade.
Now look at me. My best friend graduated high school, even though he was skipping school with me. I was so influenced by negative vibes I turned into someone who I was not. I even took a possession charge for him two years ago, not knowing he wasn’t a true friend that wanted me to succeed.
I’m sitting in a program and all my friends are out living their life. I finally learned who I really am and that only family will always be there and will forever be solid.
Keep your head up big dawg. I know I’m a little too late to say that, but I hope this brightens your day and you will keep on pushing to be the best person you can.
I was very excited to hear from you. Thank you for giving me some wisdom and motivation to become greater than what I am.
I wish you could have an opportunity to be a productive citizen with a bright future. I wish that you could get out and become the greatest you could be and also become anyone you want to be.
Thank you for being able to write this letter to me and my peers. Sometimes,I feel like life is messed up, but now I see my life could be much worse. You seem like a very cool person. I pray that you get another chance. I sometimes wonder if good things are real, but I see that some miracles can happen.
If you didn’t know that you have someone that really appreciates you and hopes that you thrive, it is me. Love will free you.
I am now 18 years old. I’ve been locked up for a while now and have two more months left until I step into the real world with another chance. I appreciate you for writing this letter. It shows that you really care for us and care about our lives.
I am thankful for the program, because I could have had worse consequences because I was moving real fast without even thinking. I let my impulsive behavior choose my decision. The program taught me to choose the right decision. It’s hard to stay up in here, so I try to think about the positive things, so I can keep going with my time and get out of here on time.
I can relate to your letter because I was telling myself the same thing. When I was doing the thing I was out there doing, I told myself that one day I will turn my life around. I would never want to be in jail longer than one second, so I know for sure what you are going through right now is very hard.
I am only in this program for one year, but it feels like I am in here for a longer period of my life. One day I hope to God I can be with you and your family, and He can give you a blessing so you can go home to your family and live your life.
All the best,
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.