Carlos sat in a plastic chair, his back against the cinderblock wall. The room was busy with inmates and their kin, but I picked Carlos out immediately. Twenty years have passed since he left my third grade classroom. His arms have filled with tattoos, and his rap sheet with a catalogue of offenses, but he has remained the boyish, sleepy-eyed kid who roamed our school making friends and pummeling bullies. He rose to his husky 5′ 6”(his Dad used to call him “4×4″) , and gave me a guy-hug. We followed the guard to our assigned plastic chairs. Carlos walked ahead of me and I was taken aback by how his gait hadn’t changed since he was a boy: bow legged, arms out at his side, shoulders hunched.I turned my chair to face Carlos, but the guard quickly corrected me; we were to sit side by side, hands visible.
“Hey, Mr. Tim,” He greeted me, “nice you could come out and visit.” Carlos addressed me with the moniker I used during my first years of teaching.
Nervously, he took over the first minutes of our conversation. At first, he would only glance at my eyes while he hammered out details of the years leading up to his decade of incarceration. I would find a chance to interject a memory from the old days, or bring up a person who has asked about him in the past, and it seemed to comfort him, bring his guard down. He began to make more eye contact and smile.
“I been in ten years. Woulda been five but I flopped a few times.”
A “flop’ is additional time served because of a violation. Carlos began his term in 2004 at the St. Louis Correctional Facility as a Class IV felon (Class V is the riskiest level in the penitentiary system). He spent time with others in the same classification, where there was more likelihood for conflicts that led to violations. He showed me a few scars on his muscled biceps and neck that resulted from the fights that led to the flops. Recently, he was moved to the Saginaw Correctional Facility, a lighter security prison, and his status was lowered to Class II. He is allowed more privileges, like today’s visit, face-to-face in a room with other Class II prisoners and their visitors.
“I got a better chance here, Mr. Tim.”
He counted months out on his fingers.
“If I get to July without no troubles, I go to the board and I might get released by next Christmas.”
Carlos hasn’t seen his mom since he entered prison ten years ago. She still lives in the neighborhood, just a few blocks from the old school. Carlos’ father used to be a frequent sight at the school back in the day, picking Carlos up from class to take the family on frequent trips to Texas and Mexico to do ‘business’.
“Yea, my dad went up on a federal rap when I was in middle school.”
Carlos figures his dad got in trouble during one of his frequent journey’s across the border. His dad would spend weeks filling the trunk of his convertible Cadillac with items from Detroit area flea markets. When the trunk was full or when his dad felt the urge, he’d head to the Texas border with or without his kids to sell his wares in towns where he had family or friends on either side of the border.
The departure of Carlos’ dad left his mom, with a second grade Mexican education, very little English, and no job, alone to raise Carlos and his younger siblings, Cristobal, Christian, and Carla.
Carlos found quick refuge in gangs. His brothers, one year apart in age, followed him.
“You know, Mr. Tim, we thought we knew everything. We ran with the gang bangers, or we ran away from them. Those were our choices.”
“Dad should of got us to school more. Once he was gone, we just went to school when we needed a lunch, or when the school sent someone out to talk to mom.”
Before gang life, his neighborhood guardian angel was Coach Lou at the legendary Kronk Gym. Carlos and his brothers would ride their bikes across Livernois Avenue to work out under the supervision of Lois “Coach Lou” Gomez. Coach Lou was proud of his own grown sons who grew up in the gym, and wanted to share the benefit with the Paz boys, sons of his wayward childhood friend.
“Coach Lou gave me these,” Carlos brandished his fists in a classic pugilist pose, “As long as we behaved at the gym and helped out, Coach trained us. He’d get us to school. Lots of times he fed us. But he hated gangs. No gangs at the Kronk, Mr. Tim.”
Carlos felt by succumbing to the gang, he was complicit in bringing his brothers with him, leaving him with a lot to atone for.
“I got to quit flopping and get out of here. I could get work in a gym and use these to help others,” Carlos showed his fists again, “I could tell kids about what I did to my family. I could help them like Coach Lou tried to help me. I could take my little nephew to school and the gym.”
He realizes now another choice he could have taken. A choice that might have saved his brothers from following him into gang life that would eventually leave Carlos’ Mom. sister Carla, and Carla’s toddler son to fend for themselves in a rented house near his old school.
If Carlos doesn’t flop, if he behaves and the parole board sees fit, he could be back home in a neighborhood even more desperate since he was jailed as a 17 year old. It is a neighborhood without his dear brothers and his cherished gym. It is a neighborhood with the burden of his aging mom, his unwed sister, and a two year old nephew.
As I left the Saginaw Correctional Facility, I gazed up at the coils of barbed wire that surrounded the prison recreation area and listened to the shouts and chatter of the inmates. It brought to mind Carlos’ old school that I had visited just that very morning- barbed wire topped the wall lining the school’s recess area, as another generation of Detroit’s southwest side took a break from instruction.
I am left with a question: How have the Herculean educational reforms of these past twenty years offered a better chance for Carlos’ nephew?