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I am a gang drop-out. Leaving the gang was one of the hardest decisions I ever made, it was like being in an abusive relationship since I was 14. It was a toxic poison disguised as love and cost me much of my life. 

Misguided loyalties aren’t just to other people, you can have an unhealthy loyalty to an image you created for yourself. Like in the gang, you build up this image of yourself and then feel obligated to uphold it even when it is destroying you. For years, I traveled down the road of self-destruction, I thought it was impossible to turn around. 

If you want change, you have to make changes. Yes, it is a simple concept, but elusive and true. I made the changes, I left the gang and went to work on rebuilding myself as a person. Today my community is built of like-minded, goal-oriented positive men, and I love the person I’ve become. 

Prison is a microcosm of society, and though we’ve lost our physical freedom, we have freedom to choose how to live our lives. Do we let our past define us, or do we rise above who we used to be? I break bread now with brothers of all races without fear of repercussions. The values we apply each day rub off on others like wet paint. 

We must ask ourselves, what values do we want to see in our children? And how do we want others to treat them? 

There comes the point in a man’s life when he realizes the person he fights with the most is himself. The struggle with him is a continuous battle within. But it is one we must embark upon in the pursuit of achieving our full potential. Where we stand on equal rights, freedom from gangs and racism shouldn’t even be a question. It should be as simple as “the sky is blue.”

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.

Jessie Milo is a writer, artist and poet incarcerated in California. He is a volunteer for and an advocate for mental health.