The last time I went to Sacramento, the state capitol, I was on my way to CSP-Sac-New Folsom State Prison in 2007. I don't remember Sacramento. I was in chains in a bus with people without hope. The bus was dead silent, the officer warned us before we left on this trip, "If you talk, your shit gets lost." I was also a different person at this time with no hope of making it out of that place.
Fast forward 15 years later, this time around I went to Sacramento with Silicon Valley De-Bug, an organization that's been supporting my mom and myself since 2017. It was a different experience. First of all, the ride was more comfortable. I introduced myself to the people that came with us to Quest for Democracy - an advocacy day for formerly incarcerated people, family members and allies to advocate directly to legislators about bills to restore rights and reduce barriers to employment. To my surprise, the other people in the car knew who I was, even though I didn't know them yet. That was solved easy enough with a 2 1/2 hour drive. During this time I was able to listen to other people's stories and why they were there. It was a nice bonding experience. We were there for the same reasons: our loved ones, we just took different paths to get here. I felt the love and motivation of why we were doing this trip.
My first impression of Sacramento was that this is the place where people gather to pass laws. The same laws that gave me hope to change in prison. The laws I remember were 1170(d) - where CDCR could refer for resentencing on exceptional conduct or changes in law, and Prop 57 - that ensured young people don’t get direct filed as adults and that people inside are prepared to come home with rehabilitation programs. These laws gave people a reason to change. You could see the culture change in prison when these laws were implemented. This happens when you give people hope. Inside, groups were opening up because you could now receive credit for attending groups when before you could not. Suddenly there were 30 people in groups where before only three people showed up.
Photo of Eladio with Pedro Ayon (Photo by Taleah Sánchez)
I was surprised to reconnect with a few people I met in prison during Quest for Democracy. Who would have thought that we would go from hanging out in prison to advocating in the capitol. When we were in prison working towards a possible release, we did talk about making a difference in our community. In the dorms I remember saying, I’m going to help the youth, I’ll speak at schools. Some people doubted us. Others said it wasn't realistic and that we wouldn’t have time to do any of that with parole, programs, job and family once we were out. Well we proved those naysayers wrong. Those three friends are doing good, I wish them the best. Hopefully I see them again. We told each other we are finally out, but we left a lot of good people in there. I understood this because I fought hard to be where I am today. It took me a long time to care to change and work toward a possibility of getting out sooner. Although I had a release date, I came to the realization that I might not be able to go home because I could die in prison. I made the choice to be different from how I had been the first 12 years of my incarceration. And, just because you are doing good and are in recovery doesn’t mean that others are going to respect that in prison because so many people are not in recovery.
A lot of people forget about the people inside. I was going to be one of those people. When I thought about getting out I didn’t want to know anything about prison anymore, I didn’t want to stay in touch with anyone from inside. Over the years, inmates coming out would say they would keep in touch once they were out, but they never did. I didn’t want to be one of those people who were giving false hope. But, because of my experiences I think differently now. The people inside are fighting for the same things we were about to talk to legislators about. Why not help my friends still there get their freedom like us and join them in their fight?
We were gathered on a beautiful sunny day to tell our stories and meet with CA legislators to advocate for bills that can improve our lives. It was different seeing many people from all over California. What was different was everyone was united for one cause, different ethnicities & cultures represented in one place. To see the support makes a difference. This motivates me to help my community out here and in prison. I heard a mother tell her story about her daughter being in Chowchilla. You could hear and feel her pain, but you could also hear her strength and courage all mixed in one voice.
I was also surprised to learn about a female on death row when she took the mic to speak about her experience. This shows my ignorance. I didn't know they put females on death row because you don't really hear about it. I could only imagine the pain she went through. It takes strength to find hope in such a dark place. Her story stuck with me.
We finally started our march around the capital. We had a couple of chants going: "All of us or none!" “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!" I saw around 200 people marching with their signs held high. We chanted until we went inside. This is the place to voice your opinion and be heard, I thought. Last time I wanted to voice my opinion I was in an ICE detention center. I had to go on a hunger strike and put my life on the line just to be heard. This way is easier: a 2 1/2 hour drive, 20 minute walk with people that have the same passion.
I was given the opportunity to talk about AB 1186, a bill that helps youth with their restitution to find an alternative, holistic way to really help the community, not just pay money that the youth can't even pay. I shared my personal story about how this affects me with a legislative staff member in the hallway of the state capitol - where a lot of the legislative visits happen. I was a youth when I committed a crime and was sentenced to prison - now that I am out I'm having trouble getting a job. I'm also undocumented so I can’t work legally. I don't have an I.D., yet I’m expected to pay thousands of dollars in restitution. I've been told it's a process to wait for all my paperwork to get in order. How long will they wait for me since I'm not paying my restitution? Hopefully with my story and voice I could help, better yet with all of our voices that day we can help our youth.
Photos by Anthony Simmons