You have a lot of time to think in solitary confinement. It was there, in the hole at Ironwood State Prison, that Kevin J. had an epiphany. Thoughts came to him, seemingly out of nowhere: “I am in a prison, in prison. I haven’t done much that I have been proud of. I have wasted my life. I have hurt a lot of people, just to maintain my image.”
Kevin, a Beit T’Shuvah resident and member of the Running4Recovery marathon team, had a long and hard journey on his way to Beit T’Shuvah. He and his three siblings grew up in Compton with their mother and grandparents. Their father struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and didn’t see them often. Kevin’s mom, though, was loving, attentive and affectionate. She and Kevin shared a close bond.
Then, tragedy – when Kevin was nine, his mom died of a brain aneurysm. He continued to live with his grandmother but felt like he had lost his best friend. Six months later, he learned that his father too had died (later, Kevin learned that his father had stopped his medical treatment, including dialysis, when Kevin’s mom died).
“Now, I was really lost,” Kevin says quietly. A stroke had left his grandfather unable to speak or walk, and his grandmother had so many to care for that she was unable to devote much to any one person. “So I started to idolize my 16-year-old gang member, drug dealer brother,” Kevin says ruefully. “He was outgoing and had a lot of friends; I was much quieter. I wanted to be like him.”
Negative influences soon took over. His brother’s “friends” looked out for him on the street; by 13, he had already joined the gang. By 14, he was smoking weed daily and committing petty crimes to buy it. For survival, Kevin got more heavily involved in gang activity, although he stayed in school until he was 17. He also had a son.
Then Kevin committed a serious crime, part of his gang activity. He was convicted and sentenced to 51 years to life. For his first ten years in prison, Kevin continued to use drugs and participate in gang activity.
Kevin’s grandmother died in 2008, ten years into his sentence. He found his only relief from his feelings in drugs – he used all day, every day. Ultimately he found himself in solitary confinement, and that’s when he decided to turn his life around.
When Kevin got back into the general population he began his real work. “At first, I wanted to change for my grandma. Within a few months, I wanted to change for myself,” Kevin says. “Also, how could I teach my son positivity, living as I was?” Kevin started to attend AA meetings and enrolled in college courses. Although it was difficult to separate from his life-long gang identity, Kevin began to do the internal work and see who he really was, and he obtained his Associate’s degree, specializing in behavioral science, and working toward becoming an alcohol and drug counselor.
Eight years later, California law changed, and parole became a possibility for Kevin. He had new hope, and an even a greater motive to improve himself. The first time Kevin came before the board, parole was denied. Rather than losing hope, however, Kevin viewed the board’s comments as constructive criticism and began adjust accordingly. The next time he came before the board, in March 2018, he was commended on the work he had done in prison, facilitating groups, working toward his counseling degree and more, and was granted parole.
He left prison for Beit T’Shuvah in September. “The most surprising thing to me was how welcoming and friendly the community has been. I expected people to be standoffish. But nobody has treated me as an outsider,” says Kevin, a hint of amazement still in his voice.
At the first opportunity, Kevin joined the marathon team. “When I learned that it’s a fundraiser, I wanted to participate. I’m not much of a runner, but it’s a way to get out of the box and to push myself. And it is a way to pay forward the funds BTS is spending on me,” Kevin says. “Each milestone has been gratifying. I have seen that if I set my mind to it, I can do more than I think I can. I haved trained twice a week, attended each Sunday run – I even got a sweatshirt for perfect attendance!,” Kevin laughs.
And Kevin is in awe of the natural world around him. “I’ve lived in gangs, in cells, on concrete slabs most of my life. Now I’ve seen the mountains, the deer, the reservoir, the beach. This is how I want to live. This is freedom.”