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A young man in a hoodie faces a chain link fence.
Photo by fotocelia on iStock

I heaved in exhaustion as my two new best friends stopped assaulting me. The moonlit sky shone over the otherwise dark alley as I wiped the blood from my nose. My friend gave me his hand and lifted me from the glass-littered pavement; I was hugged and embraced by my first real family. 

At 12 years old, after a childhood of foster homes and boarding schools, I was now a member of a street gang. 

The 13-second initiation was meant to test my eligibility to be one of them. It proved I was a man, was deserving of respect and had what it took to be a gang member.

Steeped in this culture from as early as I could remember, I knew my expected behavior. I was aware of the standard I had to meet or face rejection and be deemed a pariah. The child of a drug-addicted father and prostitute mother, I accepted that this was my place. 

I underwent a textbook socialization process, in which I was assimilated into a street gang.

In school, I had been popular — I was athletic and I did well academically. But nothing provided me with a truer sense of identity than these misfits and adults who gave their lives to furthering the gang. I learned that snitches were traitors who sold out to work for the cops. Police were pigs who aimed to destroy my family. Distributing narcotics or rendering protection for prostitutes provided an incentive to remain loyal, since both helped make money faster and easier than a job at McDonald’s. 

All of this provided me with a sense of self. 

My social identity as a gang member deepened as I engaged enemies in both juvenile detention centers and on the streets. And my involvement intensified following the murder of my best friend “Spooky.” My mind became obsessed with retaliation, and at 13 years old, I shot my first gun at an individual a few feet away. I became what the gang defined as “a man,” introducing me to the self-inflicted trauma known as criminal mischief.

Research on adverse childhood experiences, such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect and exposure to violence, shows that trauma can actually change brain development, affecting our ability to make decisions, focus or respond to stress. People who have experienced multiple childhood traumas are much more likely to wind up incarcerated. In fact, 98 percent of the prison population have endured at least one adverse childhood experience, according to the Compassion Prison Project, a nonprofit that provides trauma awareness education and programming. 

The moral development of my defining years were dominated by my gang’s standard of conduct. My aptitude, loyalty, bravery and willingness to self-sacrifice were exploited by elder gang members who gave me drugs, guns and clothes. Women attracted to the criminal lifestyle provided me a place to stay, food to eat and sexual gratification.

Soon, being “torcido,” or incarcerated, felt normal. It was good to assault someone to enforce respect and bad to be kind or patient with others.

At 20 years old, after years of intermittent incarceration, I caught a double homicide beef. I re-entered a system that had become my home and I was honed toward surviving, thriving and excelling. 

But change was on the horizon. 

After establishing myself and becoming a leader and shot-caller, I became exhausted by the expectations and demands. I realized that friendship and love were conditional, contingent on me behaving in expected ways. I felt alone and began to withdraw. 

I started seeking a version of myself that didn’t involve drugs and wasn’t involved in a gang. I realized how demented I had allowed myself to become. I began to write poems, attend self-help groups and develop a self devoid of the criminal standard of conduct that I had operated under for so long. 

I now identify as a writer with a YouTube channel and a podcast on TikTok about anti-gang initiatives, and I am thankful.

I am now 35 years old, and I’m proof that we can change who we are.

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.

Peter Sierra is a writer who is determined to change his life, provide a voice to the voiceless and address issues around incarceration. He has published a poetry book called “Walking Metaphors,” and he’s currently working on a novel about incarceration. He is incarcerated in California.