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I have always been ashamed of all the things I have done wrong in my life. I have asked God for forgiveness, and I know he has forgiven me, but it’s been hard. I haven’t been able to forgive myself.

I’m young, just 21 years old, and people say I look younger. I’m Mexican-American, around 5 feet-five-inches with long curly hair and light caramel skin. I don’t look like the type to rob someone or carjack someone.

Two months after my 18th birthday, I committed a crime I regret. I lived with my mother and father until the age of 10, then my family separated. I don’t know what affected me more, the hard, hurting separation of my mom and dad, or all the abuse I received as a child. I have been physically, mentally, and emotionally abused, even more than you can imagine.

I landed in county jail, fighting more than eight counts of charges. I was facing one count of carjacking, two counts of armed robbery, one count of domestic violence, one count of kidnapping, one count of petty theft, two counts of gun enhancement, and one count of great bodily injury. That added up to 36 years and maybe a life sentence. I was scared.

My family didn’t have money to hire an attorney, so the court appointed a public defender. My first deal was 15 years with two strikes. I didn’t want to take it. I didn’t commit the crimes I was being charged with, but as an active Sureño gang member I had to follow the no snitching rule. I had to pay with my time for someone else’s mistake.

After nine months, a deal came to the table and my public defender said it was the lowest they would go. He told me if I didn’t take this deal I would get life for the kidnapping, so I took it. Ten years with one strike. I pleaded guilty to carjacking, a gun enhancement, and great bodily injury.

My life changed completely once I landed in prison.

I was sent to the Tracy, California Drinking Driver Program for the reception process. That’s where I learned how hard the politics of prison were. Black people have their own workout section, drinking fountain, and area. Same with White people and same with us, the Mexican Sureños. I was there for three months then was transferred to Solano.

Two years into my sentence, my family disappeared, my friends disappeared. I had no support. I still had my daughter and my girlfriend, who is my baby’s mama, but I could feel her growing distant. I didn’t want her to leave me; I didn’t know what I would do without her. She and my daughter were keeping me strong, keeping me from breaking.

She never had the guts to tell me herself, but a mutual friend contacted me and told me the news I never wanted to hear. She told me my girlfriend was pregnant with another man’s baby. I was so broken. I felt like I got hit with a bat right on my head. I started crying hard, and I didn’t know what to do.

I had no one at all. I didn’t want to be emotionally alone; I was already physically alone. Two days later, I got the courage to call and ask her. She said yes, she had been seeing someone else. I asked why. She didn’t have an answer, only that she was sorry and it would have been different if I was not locked up. I guess it is my fault.

She was the last person I still had in my life, the one I loved with all my soul, and she left me. I felt a big emptiness. I really wanted a friend, someone who cared about me.

I didn’t know how to cope with the feelings and I turned to drugs. I started using a drug I had never used before. I was in Solano, a level three prison, and I got into a fight. I was sent to the hole for nine months. I was isolated from everyone. I felt like I was going crazy. I turned to the drug I ended up falling in love with: heroin. It filled my emptiness, but it ruined me. I was in a black hole. I was lonely, afraid, and scared. No one cared about me. I didn’t even care about myself.

Coming to prison killed me inside, but it also brought me back to life, because that’s when I found God. I got back on my feet, learned new things, fell in love with writing, got healthy, and more. Thank you, prison.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Lil Cee is a writer incarcerated in California. He has requested that his name be withheld.