An internet image. “Tom” is determined to protect his anonymity.
I interviewed “Tom” (not his real name in the interests of anonymity) about his experiences as a former gang member. Only his answers appear below, edited for continuity. He credits God for his survival; in disclosure, we do not share religious beliefs. “Tom” barely survived the last 12 years he faced in prison for armed robbery. A former member of L.A.’s “Bloods” gang, “Tom” never had goals or direction outside of his life on the streets. Today, he considers himself rehabilitated. He performs volunteer work for local churches and speaks to young people about the seduction of gang culture. What “Tom” asks for now is an opportunity to continue to prove himself and earn an honest living.
I was most recently in prison for eleven years and eight months. All together, I’ve had a total of eighteen years behind bars, for armed robbery, assault and battery, and kidnapping. Trust me, it could have been worse. That last one was later reduced to a false imprisonment. As a result of the armed robbery, I ended up spending eleven years and eight months in some of the worst prisons in the country, such as Fulsome, San Quentin, Pelican Bay, and Corcoran.
I was going through a bunch of different things before this all happened. I started hanging out with gang members when I was young. Inside, I was a good kid who didn’t belong anywhere. I didn’t get along with my family. My parents were never around. I fought with my brothers and sisters. Just something some of us go through in life. Something I went through, being from a dysfunctional family — and not using this as an excuse — but I came to a boiling point. I just went on a rampage. I started robbing things and robbing people. Just doing whatever I felt like doing at that particular time.
I was ten when I started rebelling. By seventeen, I robbed my first bank. I robbed credit unions, Safeway supermarkets … a lot of things. I became a Blood for about nine years. Through junior high school and high school as well though I was on a break from getting in trouble for a minute because I wasn’t caught.
I used to live in Skyline. Skyline is an area that is notorious for Bloods, for gang members, of different sects. I was a member of the Skyline Piru. Piru being bounty hunters, and we were affiliated with Lincoln Park Pirus, also the 59 Bloods and the Mighty Mouse Bloods. There were numerous gangs in San Diego. There were about five different Blood gangs that all came together to form one. With one common goal.
My family life was too abusive for me to handle. There were five girls and three boys in my family. What was pretty much happening was I got abused as a kid, when I was about seven, eight years old. Numerous times I was sexually assaulted by my own sister. I guess I just kind of grew up hating women, then after a while I guess I kind of grew up out of that.
I could never get any real help from my parents. I ran away, ended up in numerous foster homes. Then I ended up with this gang who I thought cared about me. They actually really didn’t, and I found out when everything hit the fan. They didn’t really give a damn about me. They were only impressed by what I was capable of doing.
Because I had no sense. I didn’t care. I was always high most of the time. When we would go out to rob drug dealers and things like that, I was the crazy one, because I didn’t care. I was always the one who would go out and initiate everything. Anything from sticking a gun in somebody’s mouth, to pistol-whipping them … I would just do it all. I’d shoot ’em … If I had to get the job done, I did it. I did whatever I had to do.
I had no goals at the time. I was just out there being an asshole. What changed for me was seeing a lot of my friends getting killed. Seeing a lot of my homeboys getting killed. Or sent to prison.
I had people telling me I had so much talent. I was an amateur boxer at the time, and I was doing really well. I even qualified for the Junior Olympics. I just ended up screwing and messing with these wrong people, because I couldn’t get the attention at home. But what I got from the gangs wasn’t really attention like I thought it was. It was just a disguise.
I’m a southpaw, a left-hander. I was really good at boxing. And my record was very impressive. I only had like three losses in 137 fights. But it was just something to do to pass the time. I was boxing, playing basketball, and doing all kinds of different things.
My family gave me my anger, and boxing helped shape me for surviving on the streets. How I ended up boxing was I was in sixth grade, someone I knew had this girl he was dating. I pinched her on the ass one day, and she told him. We got into a fight, and I beat him up. Badly. I come to find out this guy was a Golden Gloves champ. When I found out, I challenged him to a real match at the Jackie Robinson YMCA in San Diego, and I knocked him out. I became too confident in my abilities, and began to believe I could have anything I’ve ever wanted because of my fists.
That’s where the gang life really started for me. I would have killed someone to be jumped in.
I’ll just leave it there, but I’ll tell you I’m not exaggerating when I say I was hardcore. I was in prison after high school for many years.
I want to be completely truthful with you, and I am, but there are things I’ve done that I can’t justify. I’m censoring myself because I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression that I’m any kind of role model. I’m still just trying to survive, but by following the rules now.
Let me tell you about my last time in prison, when I was about to be released. This sort of explains how I feel about things now. And yes, I can promise you it really was my last time. How can I make you that promise? Be me for a minute. You know me. We get along. You’re being released from prison, after being in there for a total of nearly twelve years of your life in this one period alone, with two hundred dollars to your name. Okay. What are the odds of you, being a black man with felonies on your record, becoming successful? The chances are like hitting the lottery. So now I’m determined and I never was before, that I am going to make it and I am not going to be another statistic.
And I want to help kids not make the mistakes I made.
Something happened when I was about to be released for the last time. I took the time to think about my past. I thought that one day, a few years earlier, I was sitting in San Quentin. I had maybe five, six years left to do. I was sitting in the chow hall, and I had this job — I was a cook, and I cooked really well — and I would work anywhere from five in the morning to late at night.
I got into a fight with this Crip. I was on the boxing team and I didn’t know he was their light-heavyweight champ. And I kind of embarrassed him in front of his friends. Back then, Crips and Bloods … it was okay, until they started doing all this little racial stuff to each other. Him and I ended up taking it to the ring. It was like a contest, where they would bet, and I ended up knocking him out.
After that, we became friends. Respect. The thing about it was, it was kind of a turning point for me. After that incident transpired, his Crip friends put a hit out on me because they didn’t appreciate me beating him like I did. He told me later he said to them it was okay; they told him they had his back.
So I was in the chow hall one day — about six in the evening — and I was so tired. I went all the day to the North Dining Hall at the end, and San Quentin holds about 5500 to 6000 people at this time. About 1986 to 1987, when they were really notorious for a lot of killings, stabbings … We’re talking about on an average of a hundred stabbings a year, or more, ten to fifteen deaths every year consistently. So, I’m sitting here in the chow hall, and I’m resting, and I hear something. I look up.
A voice in my ear said, “Wake up.” It was my voice.
And I woke, and there were three Crips approaching me with knives. But their thing was, they were going to try to take me out without me waking up. They thought I was asleep. But when they saw me wake up, they turned back around and went back the other way.
At that point, I thought it was divine intervention. Technically, from that standpoint, I should have been dead. They had knives in their hand, everything.
The other guy? The ex-champ?
They stabbed him a few days later for showing me respect. He barely survived.
But then there were other incidents, like when a guy got killed right next to me. I saw his guts hanging out and everything. I’m talking maybe about five feet, and I just stood there. I didn’t even move. To me, that was another calling. So, something was just telling me I was getting all these little warnings, like, Get your shit together or this will be you.
So I was released — through the help of a woman I met and being on parole for four years — I was discharged straight, and they gave me a little certificate showing I had completed parole.
But what ended up happening, even though I was doing extremely well, is I kind of went backwards. Just a little bit. And I ended up going out of state without permission … and that was another three years.
After that I went away for a year, and that’s when I really thought about what I was doing with my life. I was thinking, You know what? That’s enough. I had it. That was another whole year out of my life. And I stopped. I knew there had to be something better than this.
That’s when I turned myself over to God.
I was walking around various places all the time, and people kept approaching me: “You know what, God wants you.” Or, “You know what? You got a calling. You got a gift. You’re good with people. You could talk to people so easily … You can do this, you can do that …”
After maybe the thirtieth or fortieth person approached me, I decided to give in to it. My life turned around from that point on.
I’m sure I have kids and I don’t know where. I want to do what I can to help feed them, and I don’t know who or where they are or how many. I don’t know how or when but I hope God will show me the way.
I started reading the Bible, and when I was out I started talking to kids about it and going to church.
What’s been toughest is keeping a good job. I took a lot of sales jobs. My record had nothing to do with whether I was able to perform the job or anything. A lot of them just looked at my background, when I was looking and broke, and they used that against me. Everyone uses background checks now. I wouldn’t fake it anymore anyway, but I can’t if I wanted to.
I was homeless for awhile after my last release. I needed assistance, and that’s when I saw what was really going on with my own church. I gave them my time — three to four days a week religiously without any quarreling — and I spoke to the Pastor after the service about my struggling.
They wouldn’t give me any assistance. It felt like a slap in the face.
I since learned that we’re supposed to help each other. We’re all supposed to be God’s children. I am a religious man now, and that was a tough lesson because I learned that I still am responsible to a big extent for my own survival.
God helps those who help themselves. You just have to want to do it, and then just do it without making excuses.
So I’m working a new job now, I was upfront with my past and this company gave me a chance. I’m striving every day to make myself better and better, and my ultimate goal is to build a homeless shelter. I think about kids, maybe my own, who may be roaming the streets with no real family.
Today I have a car. I still want to buy a house, but I know I’m headed in the right direction and will one day get there. So in the interim I just try to help people as much as I can. I don’t care who it is. If I see homeless people in the streets, I’ll give them money.
I’ll do whatever it is that I need to because I’ve come to believe I have a special quality: I believe I should have been dead a long, long time ago, and I think God intervened so I could help others.
If you consider yourself a survivor like me for any reason, whether you were in a gang or not, helping others really is God’s work.
“Tom” has been working steadily since this interview; he speaks to children and young adults on a regular and protected basis, and has remained out of trouble for over five years.