Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay

Over two decades ago, when I first entered prison, I was already in a prison of sorts. 

I was eager to begin the next phase of my development as a gangster. Long before I arrived in prison, I heard stories about it, learned about it, and observed others returning from it. Each time I did, I saw them being celebrated and honored during their stay and after their release. I wanted to experience that too and enjoy the same honors for enduring and succeeding inside prison as they had. 

The day I arrived, I strolled purposefully inside with a clear intent of presenting the very best of myself, carefully crafted by all of my experiences. I had been tried and tested in all of my lessons and I was confident that I exemplified my culture, where I came from, and the traditions we practiced. I was proud of my community, and by the time I was 20 years old, I felt superior as I stood there waiting to be processed into Pelican Bay State Prison. 

I vividly recall how I consciously evoked the most extreme, hateful, violent and daring compulsions I could muster up and waited for the moment I could demonstrate them. 

I was not an anomaly, not even close. Nor was I special or unique. Virtually every single person being processed there was young, arriving from communities just like mine. And they all stood there — hateful, stoic and extreme — just like me. Their posture spoke of violence and aggression, and similarly I noted the eagerness in their eyes to begin this phase of their development as gangsters, too. 

Life back then really meant no life at all. Literally every Black and Brown kid was a gang banger and invested in gang banging. We all were given either a gazillion-year sentence or a life sentence, and not one of us was devastated about it nor did it seem abnormal. Most of us didn’t expect to live beyond 21, inside or outside of prison, and we were all too devoted to making an example out of everyone else to be concerned about living. Our priority was to demonstrate how ruthless we were, exactly as our culture and traditions encouraged us to be. 

This prison I describe myself as being in prior to actually entering one was years in the making. The most regarded and celebrated members of my community were the most divisive and destructive. As a child of that community, hearing, learning and observing, I aspired to be like them. Images in popular culture affirmed their way of life, movies translated the stories witnessed, music popularized the traditions I was accustomed to, and fashion made the identities of people in my community trendy. Naturally I wanted to become the same. 

The gangster took on a different meaning for me in my community. I saw his persona and portrayal every single day when going to school, to the store, or playing on the streets. And the esteem they demanded and received was unmatched by anyone else in my community. 

My peers were affected and influenced in the same way by gang culture as were our parents, families, community at large. But for the youth, it was compounded by the adolescent struggles we already faced, which exaggerated every pressure we experienced. Popular culture also continued to propagate gang culture, so the traditions felt acceptable and worth defending.  

I started to imitate gangsters early on. While in elementary school, my friends and I would regularly disparage people of other colors. We repeated hateful language we heard and saw written on walls. We even ridiculed classmates. 

It seemed back then that we all were guilty by association to some degree because each of us had either family members, siblings or even parents who were gang members. And just like them, we wore sagging pants and brown gardening gloves and dressed like mechanics. We replicated the attitudes and mannerisms of family members who were gangsters. 

I remember talking loudly and aggressively in order to be noticed and feared. I would frown even when there wasn’t a reason to be. The entrapments of a gangster were profound, and the things I experienced in the process were extreme. But the allure to be one was impossible to resist which made the transition to a gangster desirable and effortless. 

It has taken me decades of introspection and reflection to gain insight into how I became a gangster. It also took just as long for me to unravel the distorted, disturbing and disgusting perceptions I held about my culture. 

The struggle was real. It was multifaceted and generational and it influenced every aspect of my existence. However, after 23 years in prison, a decade of which I spent in solitary confinement for assaulting staff and inmates, I never had a chance to learn about the transformative process before I experienced it. 

It is taboo for a gangster to develop, evolve or change. Gangsters have informed on other gangsters, gangsters have recommitted to other gangs, gangsters have placed money and self-interest over tradition, and gangsters continue to die and turn into martyrs. Any departure from that essence is unthinkable. 

Although I am no longer a prisoner to the culture that inspired me for so long, I am still a part of it, and a product of it, as most communities of color, exposed to its effects and influences, are today. 

I may still be in a physical prison, but I no longer feel imprisoned thanks to God. I’ve been able to apply the transformative process I experienced into a transformative mentorship group that addresses the effects and influences of gang culture. 

Whether one’s exposure is as a participant, parent, friend, husband, wife, daughter, son, aggressor, retaliator or prisoner, our free transformative mentorship provides tools, skills, and methods to mitigate the consequences of gangs.

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.

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Colin M. Randolph

Colin M. Randolph is a writer incarcerated in California.