Richard Peña turned 38 last month, marking the 16th year of his life spent as Prisoner 93R2859 in New York's prison system. He was 22 when he got there, convicted of two unrelated armed robberies, and already a longtime member of a notorious New York City gang, the Almighty Latin King Nation.
For two years, Peña says, he was one of the gang's leaders inside the prison at Rikers Island. But in 1994, when Latin King leadership announced that it would let anyone leave the gang with no repercussions, he took the opportunity.
Prison has made Peña an educated man. Peña, who is now serving time at Eastern Correctional Facility in Naponoch, N.Y., has a GED. He was accepted into a Bard's College program last year, can teach sign language, work with the blind and manage a law library (we aren't taking his word here; he mailed us all of the certificates). He is also on the waiting list to become a Youth Assistant Program facilitator, which uses convicts to deter inner-city youth from committing crimes.
He has incurred 10 disciplinary reports in his 15 years in prison, one of which could affect the amount of time he serves. He will be in prison until, at the very earliest, 2019. It could be as long as 2043.
In early October, he wrote us this letter urging youth to avoid gang life at all costs, which is a rough but heartfelt story worth sharing with youth in the path of gang activity. We sent him back some questions about what life was like for the youngest wards of New York's adult system.
JJ Today: What is prison life like for you now compared to what it was like in the first years after you got there?
Peña: The first two years of my incarceration was Hell...a lot of fear, pressure, problems, fights...my son being born without a father, my not being there to raise him, or see him take his first few steps.
In a nutshell, my prison life now is learning how to become a better father to my two kids, a better uncle to my nieces and nephew...a better son to my mother...a better man and husband to my soon-to-be-wife.
JJ Today: You are an inmate in one of the few states that believes everyone over the age of 15 is an adult, which means the state prisons house all of the 16- and 17-year-olds. What is life like for them at ECF, or Riker's? Are those younger inmates more in danger in prison than the average prisoner?
Peña: On Rikers Island there were a lot of young brothers between the ages of 16 and 17 who were practically killing each other over nothing. They thought the gang life was something "cool," so to say. But the saddest part about it all was that these young brothers actually thought that cutting and stabbing each other up was a macho thing to do - until of course, they got the worst of it.
Then there were the older guys looking for some "fresh meat," as they say...taking advantage of the younger ones - making them wash their underwears, socks, etc. Taking their commissary and in some cases, taking their manhood. It was sad and scary for the most part...because in many cases these kids would be so shocked and scared they couldn't even fight back. The psychological effect of being traumatized in this manner is a memory that will never go away. They will forever live with this.
So yes, [young inmates'] lives are more at stake than the average prisoner. And by just mixing them in with the adult population is an even more dangerous thing to do, because not only do they become vulnerable by those who prey on the weak...they become much better, and more dangerous criminals. [Violent and dangerous adult inmates] become their teachers and masters.
JJ Today: Do you think that young inmates are more likely to come into prison with gang affiliations, or do more join once they're in?
Peña: Our youth are becoming quickly affiliated with gangs the minute they step into the system, because of the fear and pressure that mounts up within them once they have stepped into a different atmosphere, a different environment.
However, the chances of our youth having already been affiliated with gangs before coming into the system are becoming greater due to the extreme amount of inmates who are taking it to the streets once released from prison.
JJ Today: Did you have any contact with the juvenile justice system in NYC growing up? If so, can you describe them?
Peña: I had my run-ins with the law as a juvenile, but never made it past the precinct.
JJ Today: If a city, or a person, or a church, could have done anything for you that might have helped get you on the right track before you got involved in the life...what would it have been?
Peña: I would have to say...someone like the person I am today. Someone who has experienced the life, and has now got a passion flowing from within to reach out to anyone who is willing to listen and take heed.
Do you have a question for Richard Peña? E-mail us or include them in the comments section, and we will try and send him some more if readers have them.