In October 2020, students at Miami Youth Academy and men at San Quentin State Prison in California started a letter exchange facilitated by Prison Journalism Project and Exchange for Change, a Miami-based non-profit group that supports writing programs in youth commitment and adult correctional facilities. 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. These letters were first published in Titan Tribune, their school newspaper. The students are identified by their initials to protect their identities.
Dear MYA Students,
I’m going to tell you about my life locked in a prison of my own making.
When I first started my time it was at juvenile hall, then from there to county jail and next to prison.
In the halls, I fought to release all the anger, stress and helplessness I felt. It didn’t work.
In the county jail, the rules changed. I was scarcely 18 years old with a bunch of grown men built like giants going on their second or third prison terms. Drugs, violence and crime were always looking for approval. Lowering my standards and sinking deeper in despair didn’t work either.
Next stop prison. Wow, the lies I was told. All the glamour there would be, that there was respect and unity. Not in any prison I’ve ever been to. So maybe if I did more crime, more drugs, then maybe I would be able to numb the hopelessness. Nope that didn’t work.
Getting stabbed and sliced with a razor. Talk about an eye opener. I was hurt and felt betrayed. Even so, I still needed to feel like I belonged somewhere. So I callously hurt others to try to gain respect, acceptance and favor for something I no longer believed in. That didn’t work.
Can you see the pattern here? The crazy thing is that my mind was so closed off that I couldn’t.
What I did then was to no longer belong to a gang. But I continued to live the same lifestyle and continued to act like a gang member. I continued to commit crime to support my drug addiction, so I could run from my problems. As long as I’m not using violence, I’m not hurting anyone, right?
I’m doing my life sentence on my own terms. Yeah, that wasn’t true either. So no, that also didn’t work.
Imagine 23 years of this. My life ruled by a needle and shame, locked in deep in absolute denial. Having no purpose. Feeling like my life was meaningless. Always scared, bitter and angry. Yeah, this never worked out.
Finally, I put the needle down. I began to see with a clear mind, wanting more for myself. I focused on the opportunities — education and self-help, not alone but with new friends. People believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
I expected no reward for doing the right thing. Ironically, that’s what I got — more opportunities, more support and more true friendships. I regained my faith in people, myself and God. This was the start of things working for me.
Today, I live my life with the most powerful weapon I have — my mind. I’m grateful for all the good I have in my life. I constantly tell myself that my heart is in the right place and to believe in myself. Whenever a negative thought or situation shows up, I replace it with a positive thought. I take the opportunity to show patience and understanding.
Prison is prison. But I don’t handcuff myself to old beliefs or attitudes. My actions are based on thoughtful consideration for others. All the effort I used to put in doing the wrong thing, I now use that same energy on working towards my goals. I am succeeding. Six years later, it is still working.
I will give you the best kept secret on how to survive in prison. Are you ready?
DON’T COME TO PRISON!
Heriberto Arredondo Jr.
Students Reply to Heriberto Arredondo Jr.
The six months I have been here haven’t been easy at all. Some days I wake up thinking what I did to be here away from my beloved family. I dwell on the past every time staff wake me up out of my sleep.
One day I’ll be able to live the life I have dreamed about. As soon as I get released, I will immediately start working on that dream.
I appreciate the wisdom you have bestowed upon me.
The letters below were written to Heriberto as well as to other San Quentin letter writers who described a typical day in prison.
Thank you for writing.
My life is full of bad choices and needless mistakes. I have robbed, stolen things and got involved with firearms.
The things I did in life were very dumb and even though I’m not the type to regret things, I wish I could take them back.
I loved the thrill of robbing and taking things and it made getting money easy. I dislike being in my situation, but I would hate being in yours.
Sometimes I wish I were rich, so that I didn’t have to deal with the hardships of being impoverished.
I appreciate you writing to us. It really helps us a lot that we know there are people out there in the world who care about us.
Even though we are in a similar situation, you still take the time out of your days to speak to us.
To me, our day is similar to yours. The biggest difference is that I go home in a few months and I can change my life before it’s too late.
Thank you for taking the time to write these letters and tell me about your daily life. I find it inspiring that you write to us, trying to help us steer away from that situation.
Thank you for giving me insight on where I could be, which makes me more thankful for my situation. I appreciate learning all the things you told me and how your days are in there.
I will be free soon and be able to live the life I’ve been waiting to live for two years.
Thank you for making me more appreciative of my situation.
To start off, I want to thank you guys for writing us back. It means a lot to us, the kids at Miami Youth Academy. When we get these letters, it shows us that prison isn’t the place to be.
Most of the letters we get from you guys show us the real world – that doing a crime is bad and we need to stop doing bad things.
We appreciate your honest statements, which make us think.
Wassup? I hope you are OK and thanks for your input.
I will never come to prison. I will pray for you and your family. It seems like you’re in a horrible predicament, so you need to try to get home and see your family at some point.
I want you to know that I will take your advice and stay out of prison.
Thank you for taking your time to write a letter to us and try to persuade us to go onto a better path.
It really did inspire me, hearing your story and getting an understanding of how it is to live there.
I never plan to get arrested again or do anything illegal.
I plan to go to college, get a job, take care of my family as they do for me, and to be a role model for my little siblings, as they are still growing up and influenced by what I do.
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.