This blog will talk about life on death row in the USA and give insight into the world of those who must live there. How do their cells look like and what do they do all day long? And what about their families and friends: are they still around to support them?

Inmates, their family members and pen friends but also victims’ family members have a voice in this blog and share their experiences through interviews and narratives. The articles will be uploaded in no specific order and sorted into the categories. Questions and suggestions for topics are welcome.

Ines Aubert, Switzerland, 2021

Please get in contact for a short-term correspondence with a death row prisoner.


Meeting a jury member who voted for my death

Talk with Don, 30 years on death row in Florida

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, Switzerland, 2020

Don, you told me that one of the jury members wrote to you after the trial. Can you tell us how that unfolded?

The juror member’s name was Betty. Right after the verdict, she approached my attorney and asked him if it would be okay if she wrote me, so he asked me and I said yes. I don’t recall how long after I was sentenced to death that she wrote me, but she did at some point.

You said that jury members, too, wind up being silent victims. Can you elaborate on that?

What I meant by juror members also become silent victims of crimes.
They are going about living their lives and then they get notice they have to report to jury duty as their civic duty. Now, if it happens to be a death penalty case, it means the responsibility is thrust on them to decide whether or not a person should be able to live, or should they be killed. This here is a very heavy burden to be thrust on anyone’s shoulders, and it’s a decision they will have to live with.  I’m sure that they must always be doubting if the decision they made, especially if it was for death, was the right choice and may even lead to deep regret. So, by just having this put on them makes them too a victim of sorts, especially if it really weighs on their conscious.

You show a lot of compassion to the jury members, the people who sentenced you to death. I would not have anticipated that.

I can’t even begin to tell you of all the mistakes and bad decisions I’ve made along this journey. When we learn self-compassion and understanding, it sure makes it easier to not be as judgmental towards others. Even though the choice of life and death has the appearance of being so permanent, it really isn’t. I have to believe that, in a misguided way, the jurors really thought it was the right choice. And once again, I and I alone have full ownership of both my life and death; now and in the end, I’m the only one who has this responsibility. 

The jury member even came visit you sometime later. What did the talk revolve around?

When Betty came to see me, the conversation was mostly about her life, such as being married for decades, being a substitute teacher, her choir, being a blood donor and not having so much as a cold for years and some history on her family. We had a very good conversation, and she revealed that she was one of the jury members who voted for death. So, she was looking for some absolution, which I gave to her, because I strongly felt that I put myself here and can’t blame anyone else. She told me if there was anything she could do to help my lawyers in my appeals, she would do it. We shared a bag of popcorn, and also played a game of Scrabble if I’m not mistaken.

I must say, I’m surprised, to say the least, to imagine you sitting in the visit park of the death row wing, eating popcorn and you giving a jury member who helped to sentence you to death absolution for sentencing you to death. Let me think about that for a second.

I have always thought that strong bonds are created through bad actions, even murder. A victim and their offender – something will connect them forever. Betty wanting absolution from you proves she felt that connection, right? She could have asked a spiritual advisor or pastor for absolution.

Did Betty actually change her mind and regretted voting for the death penalty?

We are all much more connected to each other than what we imagine. Do I think because she wanted absolution, she felt this connection? That is a very strong possibility. For sure though, it speaks volumes about her character. For all I know, she did have conversations with her pastor, but still felt it was me from whom she needed absolution. Her telling me she would help with my appeals if she could indicates that she had a change of heart.

Do you know in which ways Betty’s life changed after she was a jury member and/or after she met with you?

I really can’t say how her life was affected after she was a jury member, but no doubt the whole situation must have weighed upon her or she wouldn’t have wanted to reach out to me. Afterwards, I hope she had some peace of mind. We only wrote a couple of times after the visit, she found an elderly gentleman and started a relationship with him; he wasn’t so keen on her writing me, so we stopped writing. I do believe she received closure, and that’s all that matters.

You seem very selfless. What is it that you care about in your life the most?

You say I seem selfless. I’m not, rather I see myself as self-more or self-full. When we learn to expand our hearts to include other people through empathy and consideration, our sense of self expands. What used to seem a small disconnected self appears large and inclusive. What is it in my life I care about the most? For me this is a very simple question to answer: my heart and soul. Plus, love and the Source that is the wellspring from where they flow. These are the greatest treasures any of us can have, that is if we give them a chance to grow.

When you look back at the encounter with Betty, what importance do you give it in your life?

You know when my lawyer asked me if I would write her, I was under the assumption that she was one of the four who voted for life. Had I known she was one of the eight who voted for death, I wouldn’t have had the maturity to get past my hurt at that time, from being sentenced to death, and I would never have agreed to write her. Through our correspondence, I was able to see her as a person rather than a perceived enemy, as it would have been so easy to do for someone in my situation. This whole experience wound up being a blessing that I cherish.

Is there anything you would like to tell other inmates in a similar situation?

It really is so easy to get caught up in our own pain and feeling that it’s so unfair what happened by being sentenced to death, and who doesn’t agree with that? If we were the jury member rather than the one sentenced, would we do it differently? Now especially since this has been our experience, most would be quick to say ‘I don’t believe in the death penalty! So no, I wouldn’t have voted for death or even have convicted the person!’ Let’s take a minute and look at this, the moment someone snitches, isn’t it so easy to have thoughts or feelings of what should be done to them? What about child molesters, isn’t it easy to think what big monsters they are, and think it’s okay to hurt or do worse to them? Isn’t this basically the same thing a juror did to us and it’s terrible, yet when we judge a snitch or child molester, then it’s okay? The bottom line is that we are not so different after all, because it’s the exact same spirit or feelings of righteous indignation flowing through us, that the jurors experienced. I wouldn’t tell anyone they should or should not do anything. This includes having understanding for a juror because for most, that’s way too far of a stretch. But these words being planted, there is no telling what may grow at one time or another.

Thank you very much, Don, for sharing this interesting story with us. I wish you all the best!

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Talk with Jake Yarbrough, a living memory of a taken father*

* Title chosen by Jake
The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, 2013

May to July 2013:

Jake, a couple days ago, on May 24th, I received an e-mail to the contact address of my pen pal Robert Pruett’s homepage. He doesn’t have access to a computer and so I forward the incoming messages to him.

I read what you wrote and I immediately recognized your name: You are the son of a man who was stabbed to death by Robert’s father and supposedly by his two sons, one being Robert. For that, Robert was sentenced to 99 years at the age of barely 16. Only later, at the age of 20, he received the death penalty for another – equally contested – case inside the prison. Your e-mail was very long and very bitter. At the end of your message you wrote: This will be my one and only attempt to say anything to you.

What made you write that message?

Yes, indeed I am Jake Yarbrough, the only son of Brondell Raymond Yarbrough.

I’ve been a friend of Robert’s for the past 11 years. What goes through your mind when you hear that?
Well the first thought that comes to mind is “mislead”.

It’s easy to paint someone a picture of yourself if you can’t see them or know what they have done.
I would think in the past 11 years you came up with every little part of his life leading up to him killing someone.

There would be some sort of answer to give people besides “unfortunate turn of events” or “it wasn’t me”. In Robert’s case none of his words hold any value as he is painting a picture of someone he wants to go back to or be. Not what he is.

I hear a lot of pride in your statement whose son you are.

I think we should focus on two topics in this interview: On your connection to Robert and on your connection to your father.

Can you imagine that you and I talking could result in something positive?

I could see this resulting in drama to be honest. Last thing I need. Am I worried or will it stop me from helping you with this article, no.
I hope that somehow, it might result in Robert giving a true last admission guilt and going off this planet in peace knowing he put it all out there.

I mean I sometimes place myself in his shoes, how screwed up that may sound, but I tell myself why, why would I act like my life is something to spare knowing I took another humans life with my bare hands? I wouldn’t.

I would aim at a “clean slate” to work with in an afterlife knowing I put it all out there before I left this world.

You say you hope that Robert Pruett will admit guilt where he says he’s not guilty…

I wonder what the background of your hope is. Contempt for what you think is a gutless behavior or care about him having a “clean slate” when he dies?

That is a small hope that I have in Robert as well. Maybe something will break loose and let your soul free of all its shadows so that maybe in some way or form a God can see him for who he really is. Not the image he wants.

After some real thought over the matter:

One, being that his time left to put everything out on the table is coming to a very close end.

Two, if I was to ignore his attempt to be truthful to himself before he is forever damned, would be wrong.

In the meantime you have received an answer to your letter from Robert. I allow myself to quote some of what you wrote in your most recent response to him, as our talk seems to base on the letters you write to Robert and that I forward to him.

In a clear statement you wrote in your letter to Robert “Not going to attempt to say I don’t have a lot of hate towards you”.

It is something in particular that you long to hear from Robert and anything else that he writes doesn’t soothe your anger.

At the same time you write that there is nothing Robert could say to fill the hole he had left in your soul. I wonder, isn’t that a no-win situation?

I think me saying clearly there is some hate behind my current feeling towards Robert and his family did not close off any possible paths of a clear soul and mind one day.

The anger just clouds the real human emotions, like pain, loss, anguish.

Robert’s words cannot ever undo what has been done. There is a point in life though when things change, cards are dealt different. Cards can be changed to alter the end of the game.

In Robert’s case I do think he has all the cards he needs to put out on the table and at the end of it could consider himself a different man. Not so much a cold blooded killer, but an open book to the real person he is inside. It is possible.

Several times you mentioned your grandfather, who lost his son Ray Yarbrough to that horrible stabbing. I can hear that you love your grandfather and care about him. You describe how devastated he still is over the loss of his son.

About your grandfather you wrote: “He truly does believe that God let him know his son is with him, and is watching over him. And asked him to let the pain go, just let it go.”

Did this help your grandfather to cut the bond to Robert and to show “empathy and forgiveness” in a letter to him years ago?

I do love my grandfather very much and I’m proud to say that’s my grandpa.

Through all the ups and downs and heart ache and loss and to still be one strong willed man as he is should be an example of a good willed human empathy

I think God reaching back to him and letting him calm his heart not only let him let go of some pain but actually saved his life.

There are two things that seem to bring some light and hope into the dark and desperate story. First that you believe that there is something “beyond this life span” and second that you wrote “But I will do my best to always have a clear picture of the man my father actually was and was trying to be before he died.”

Yes I do believe those are two major points to have actually accomplished a success story in some way.

Fact there is another world besides this one we go to when we die. How we chose to live and leave is who gets in.

And I do want to collect as much information as possible about my father, good, bad or possibly false.

It will hopefully add to something more then what I knew before I emailed you about sending Robert a letter.

We don’t know whether or not Robert will act the way you need it for your own feeling of accomplishment.

It seems all to be in Robert’s hands now.

Jake, in your first answer you wrote the nickname of your father. You now asked me to change that and write his real name Brondell Raymond Yarbrough.

That, to me, is the sign that we should now turn to talking about him.

When you mentioned your grandfather’s memories of your father you wrote:

“I don’t know which is worse: Me not having any memory of him to really miss and think about. Or my grandfather having the memories to always miss and think about.”

How would you describe your father?

I would describe my father as a very stand up person. When he speaks, it’s something to hear. I have been told I not only carry all of his behavior but walk and talk in the same way. It’s not hard to believe when you look at his teenage pictures and him growing as a young adult.
I knew he loved me very much.

Jake, in our e-mails, you and I are now talking about probably meeting this summer when I come to the USA. What would your father say to such a meeting?

I think my father would say go for it, tread carefully never know peoples’ motives.

Right when we started talking about your father you wrote to me that it was Father’s Day in the USA and that you were going to call your grandfather. I thought that was a very beautiful coincidence….. !

Beginning of August 2013:

Jake, it’s August 1st now – your birthday! – and you and I are meeting right now outside Atlanta, where you live, drinking coffee.

This interview that we started months ago kind of goes wild, we write, stop, talk on the phone, write, stop, talk on the phone and now even sit face to face and go on writing this talk on the laptop. J

Through me, you’ve also exchanged a couple messages with Robert. (For offenders and victim’s family members it’s prohibited to write directly without going through an official proceeding.)

This is Jake Yarbrough at Ruby Tuesdays’. I’m glad I finally got to meet my new friends from overseas and speak up front.

As we sat and had great small talk we got towards the idea of trying to set up a direct contact between me and Robert.

I’m glad that you built a strong friendship with someone for so long and understand that you had a clean slate to work with.

I explained my side of the story and how my slate did not start off so clean. Do you see that for me it would be somewhat complicated to be as close to Robert as you are?

I can of course see that you won’t ever have the same relationship with Robert as I do. This is not necessary, though. Hm. I guess my point is that I imagine you would find many similarities between Robert and you, besides the one big difference that he’s in prison and you are free. Somehow I hope communication between Robert and you would make your life richer and wholer.

Was it long before you seen me walking towards you before you had the idea I could be the son of such a great man that’s no longer with us on this earth?

I like this question! J Fact is I immediately knew it was you when I saw you walking towards us because you were kind of indicating you had “a reason to be there” as you put it. I don’t have a clear picture of your father though except that I know you love him and that he had a horrible death.

Did you think that the way I have grown and look fits the personality or talks we have had?

Again, I didn’t have a clear picture of you but after I saw you I knew you were how Jake Yarbrough should be.

Nice that you called us “friends” although we still think very differently about my friend Robert’s fate. You still think he deserves the death penalty while I don’t.

You said that there was one big difference between me and Robert but that you would hope we could bring our lives closer together.

I ask you do you see that there is a lot more than the fact of Robert’s freedom and my freedom: I didn’t take part in taking something he dearly loved and needed growing up on this earth. Does the knowledge of his actions hold no bearing?

You see we have different views on Robert’s fate. Did you not know he did something at the beginning of your pen pal-ship that put him in such a decided and chosen fate by his actions?

Yes, I see all of this. That’s why Robert is where he is. However, there are several versions with key differences about who was involved in the murder.

I know that the past has consequences in the present, how could I not? Maybe you misunderstood me. I just think that the present is the only time we can influence. I lost my own father at the same age as you did, although not through murder but through a heart attack. Yes, it still does affect my present. I know it firsthand.

Whatever Robert did or did not do has never had any influence on my decision to write to him. I received his address through lifespark. lifespark arranges pen pal-ships to inmates on death row. I didn’t choose Robert; – I was given his address.

I have a lot of understanding for your point of view. I guess you would disagree? What, according to you, am I still missing?

I think you got lot of heart towards human interaction and loss.

But I also think that you have come to realize that there is so much that has happened in the past that it is impossible that you can help two lives not have so much turmoil.

Is there any crime towards another human that would prevent you from trying to build a friendship with the offender?

During the years that I’ve been writing to death row inmates I have found answers to questions like the one you just posed. Today, I answer your question with no. You see, the inmates on our lifespark’s waiting list all requested a pen pal, so they want human interaction. That is a prerequisite for me. I’m willing to deal with what they tell me and to consider it something that is in the range of possible human behavior. I’m ready to face the challenge that goes with it.

End of August 2013:

Jake, meeting you and later on also your grandfather in the area of Atlanta was impressive and important to me. I kind of “crossed the bridge” and met with people who favor the death penalty and who want my friend Robert dead as soon as possible.

Thank you for being so open to me. This interview represents the different phases we’ve had since we first got in contact. We’ve made quite some way already, haven’t we?

I hope we go on discussing, however, this talk stops here.

I wish you all the best, Jake!

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Interview with Debbie – a woman who was raped by Robert Power

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, 2011

Preface – Robert Power, death row inmate in Florida
After having committed a long row of various crimesin different states, Robert Power was arrested in 1987 and later given a death sentence. In his last three weeks on the streets, he raped five girls and a young woman. The last rape victim, a girl of 12 years named Angeli, was killed during the rape.

Through lifespark, Ines became Robert’s pen pal three years ago, and they soon began a very intense and lively discussion about all kinds of topics. Robert talked in detail about his former life and about his crimes. In prison, he became a Christian and wished to apologize to all of his victims. Unfortunately, Robert didn’t manage to find an official person who would help him to locate and address them. It is almost impossible to find victims as a private person. Restorative Justice tried to help, but it was too late. So, Robert’s wish remained unfulfilled until his death.

Together with Robert, Ines wrote many dialogues and texts because both wanted to share their thoughts and show the public that people can change, and that it is possible to be friends with a person who committed such heinous crimes.

Robert died of cancer on December 3, and the same day an article about him appeared in the Floridian newspaper, Orlando Sentinel.

In the comment section below the article in the online version of the newspaper, readers posted comments. The comments were mostly mean, but some writers were obviously familiar with the case and even knew Angeli’s family.

After reading this, Ines posted a short comment, as well, saying she had been a pen pal of Robert and that he had wanted to apologize to his victims.

Debbie, one of his victims, then wrote a reply and explained she had forgiven Robert.

Ines read this and asked her to please get in contact with her. She left a trace so that Debbie and other people could find the article The big challenge she had written with Robert and also her e-mail address in the “contact us” section of the lifespark homepage.

Debbie did so, and on December 8, five days after Robert’s death, she contacted Ines by e-mail. Since then, they have remained in contact.

The interview

Debbie, it appears to be a wonder that I found you and I’m very happy that you agreed to be interviewed. Before we begin with the interview, can you tell us how you feel about the past four weeks?

These past four weeks have been surreal. When I received the call on December 3, 2010 that Robert Power was deceased, it started out a day like any other day, but would soon become like a day I had never experienced nor ever thought I would this side of heaven.

It was 7:43 in the morning and my first class was due to start at 8:00 am. I am in community college; aspiring to be a faith-based counselor. Time stood still in that moment, and I can assure you my reaction was certainly not one that I expected (at one time I would have broken out in song and dance and celebrated). As I listened to the pre-recorded message that would spur on the events to come, I shed a tear. I did not heave or sob, but simply shed a tear for a life that once was.

The tear was a gift from the Lord to prove to me once and for all that I have truly forgiven Robert (despite the many attempts of Satan to prove otherwise) for all the havoc he wreaked in our lives. At that moment, I said a prayer and asked God to reveal to me whether or not he was saved.

You see, prior to this day, I had tried several times to reach out to him to let him know that I forgave him, and that he could also receive the ultimate gift of forgiveness from Jesus himself. Each attempt resulted in a closed door.

I was out of time Friday as I had to get to work, but I continued my search on Monday in my free time. It was exactly three days later, December 6 ,that I not only found the proof that he was saved, but also a letter of apology to his victims when I read the article “The Big Challenge”.

On that day, God reminded me that He is in control and that His timing is everything. I was upset about not being able to let Robert know of my forgiveness, but then the Lord reminded me of this scripture in John 12:24 which says that unless the seed falls to the ground and dies it will not produce fruit. I believe that many will be healed from his death and this powerful story of forgiveness.

Wow, Debbie! That was the most fulminating beginning of an interview I’ve ever made!

It was a surreal time for me, too. Talking to you is something I had long been wishing for. I wish to talk to all of Robert’s victims, but in an article which appeared around the time of the trial which I had bought from the Orlando Sentinel archive, you were quoted saying you wanted to become a counselor. So I had the hope to at least find you because counseling people always also means informing the public and wanting to be heard.

It kind of shocked me to find in the comment section below the newspaper article about Robert a person who named herself “forgiven”, and who spoke about forgiving Robert in the midst of many mean comments about him. Can I call him “Casper” in the interview, Debbie? He was never “Robert” for me.

Four questions run through my mind after reading your answer.

1. Do you think it is necessary to tell our readers what exactly happened to you when Casper kidnapped you and your sister and raped you? You were 16 and 12 years old at that time. He sent me a document that described what he did, and it was most sickening to read for me. Never should anything like that happen to any girl or woman!

2. How did you manage to forgive Casper? What were the important steps in that journey?

3. Who called you on December 3? Somebody seemed to have kept track of your phone number and that gives me hope that this office could be helpful in finding other victims as well.

What do you think about trying to let them know that Casper wanted to apologize?

4. How did your attempts to reach out to Casper and let him know you forgave him result in a closed door?

Ines, yes, we can call him Casper. (How did he come up with that name anyway?)

1. I’m not sure what details need to be revealed. I certainly would not want to be graphic.

You are right: there are some things that even the jury shouldn’t have had to hear. I am not afraid to talk about these things, and I believe that I will have to tell people whom I try to help in the future certain details so they know that I’ve been where they are now.

Would it help if I did a synopsis of that night and you decide what is best (leaving out the gory details, of course)?

2. Forgiveness was the key to my healing. When the incident with Casper occurred, I was attending a small private Christian school. I had actually just finished my first week of my senior year (I was going to graduate a year early). We were mandated to go to church as long as we went there. I was not a Christian at the time, but was well-indoctrinated in the faith.

While I was being raped, I cried out to God and said you get me out of this and whatever you want I will do. I guess you could say I was throwing God a “Hail Mary”, as so many of us do in dire circumstances. Well, I believe that prayer saved my life.

A few months later, I was sitting in church and the Holy Spirit tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me of my promise; I call this “God calling my bluff.” I walked the aisle and said a prayer and really meant it, but like the Bible says, when persecution came, I ran.

You see, my Christian counselor at the time told me if I didn’t forgive him right then and there that I would burn in hell. That was a little too much for me to take. I hadn’t even testified against him in court yet.

So I did what I was best at doing, and that was running. I never ran from God, but I ran from the people of God and all of their “foolish nonsense.” Needless to say, I never committed my life to Him and very quickly the ways of the world engulfed me.

It wasn’t until December 27, 2004 that I quit running from the Lord and the purpose (helping others) that He had for me, and gave my life 100% to Jesus:  everything that I was and am and will ever be.

I decided to play by His rules and that ultimately led to forgiveness. I don’t remember the exact date that I forgave. I actually had to forgive over and over to make sure that I truly had. I would take it back to the Lord and remind Him that I forgave Casper and ask Him to soften my heart that much more. I prayed for him and even asked others that I met along the way to do the same.

4. It was about three months later that I went to my pastors in Baton Rouge and asked them if they could send their prison minister to Casper and tell him that I forgave him and witness to him in the hopes that he would receive the ultimate forgiveness that I had received from the ultimate forgiver, Jesus. They were not too keen on the idea so I let it go.

Another time when Satan was trying to convince me that I hadn’t forgiven him, I contacted VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday – a website that helps people keep track of inmates. They contact victims when there is an escape or any kind of change in their status), and I told them of my forgiveness and my desire to let this man know about Jesus. They politely told me that this was not a good idea that Casper could either try to hurt me again, or attempt to use me to try and get him off the charges somehow.

The final time I tried, only to have the door slammed in my face, was about two years ago. I went to my new pastor in Mississippi and shared my testimony and asked if she thought that I should provide him with a copy of my testimony through a third-party. She told me that God knew my heart, and that just knowing I was willing to do this was enough.

3. Years ago before I forgave Casper, I found VINE.It was through them that I learned about Robert’s death. My original intent (I’m happy to say that it is no longer the case) was when I got the call that they would be executing him, I would take a week off from work and get drunk on the steps of the prison that would end his life, and I would celebrate as they put to death the most evil person I had ever come in contact with.

My parents also received a letter in the mail, but I got the call that morning as soon as it happened. I do believe that these people could help in reaching other victims. I can also relate to these victims and not wanting to be found. I was terrified for many years that Casper would keep his promise and kill us even if he had to get someone else to do it. Even now as I unveil my identity, “I” in my mind take a risk.

I’m not sure if VINE would be willing to help. They are so engrossed in the victims that I don’t think they could see the possibility of an apology as healing.

OOPS! I kind of answered the forgiveness question with the doors slammed answer. Sorry, this is my first interview and I’m extremely new to this. I am just pouring out all of this information hoping that it takes shape and form as we proceed. I haven’t written for a very long time, and it is like a beautiful liquid pouring fourth on the paper. Thank you for convincing me that I need to do this. I can’t imagine how you ever embarked on this journey. You chose it; I was thrust into it.

When you said you were shocked to see “Forgiven” out there amidst all of the “hate mail”, I just wanted to let you know that was a very bold thing I did and I felt like God was saying, “you don’t expect me to do all the work; you have to take a chance if you want the answers.”

That being said, I probably never would have posted a thing if NOT for your previous post of being a pen pal. When I posted that “Forgiven” alias, I tried to be sensitive to the obvious pain that others were experiencing. I could genuinely feel their pain. I also wanted to come to your defense, and felt that revealing myself as a victim gave me a right to do so.

Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest you should call him “Casper”, too. You can go on calling him “Robert Power”. I think it would match reality and the two sides of this man that existed. “Casper” was his prison nickname. I don’t know why he received that name.

Don’t worry about a probable lack of order in your answers, Debbie. I marked the paragraphs with the numbers of my questions, so it’s easy to find your answers to my four questions.

I suggest that we don’t elaborate the crime in this interview.

What I find incredible is the fact that several people kept you back from reaching out to Casper. I wish that many people would read this interview and understand that a contact between an offender and a victim could bring healing.

Debbie, you made me smile a little with what you wrote about God talking to you. First he “tapped you on the shoulder” and then he even said to you: “You don’t expect me to do all the work…” I guess he did right and you can stand up for yourself.

I was very moved to read that you “wanted to come to my defense” in that online comment section of the newspaper. Isn’t that a twisted world when the victim comes to the defense of the offender’s friend?

Yes, you were bold to write the comment you wrote, and it has brought only good. In fact, you didn’t let God do all the work.

What do you think about me having been a close friend of a man you once considered “the most evil person you had ever come in contact with”?

It makes total sense for you to call him Casper, the man that he became, and I call him Robert Power, the only man I ever knew him to be. It tells of two people that knew one man in two different phases of his life: these are perfect bookends.

When I first thought of the prospect that Robert had a pen pal, I thought of these “nut jobs” that fall in love with prison inmates. Although I had forgiven him, I couldn’t see how or why someone would want to call him a friend. Even now as I sit and write this, I can’t wrap my brain around being his friend, but I was never given that opportunity either.

We as humans are very curious creatures, so I decided to investigate. I followed the bread crumbs that you left and prayed for God to reveal the truth. As Christians, we are to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.

The human part of me, my mind, will, and emotions were saying, “How can this be?”; the spiritual side of me was saying, “With man this is impossible, but with God ALL things are possible.”

The first thing I read was the interview, “The Big Challenge” that you did with Casper. When I came to the part about him being a Christian, a smile came over my face, and when I read the letter of apology, tears streamed down my face. I was overjoyed to have come to know that Robert would indeed be in heaven with me. 

I even slapped God a high five and said, “You go God!”

I can honestly say there was a bounce in my step again.

I realize that the start of this answer was a bit harsh, but that was in fact my first reaction. As I began to correspond with you and ask questions and hear your answers that you had children and that you grappled with the idea of being able to forgive knowing what he did, I then saw a different side of Robert through you. I saw that for you two to spend so much time together to enable him to reach his victims for no other reason than to say I’m sorry is huge. 

Honestly, this is really just nothing short of a miracle. If anyone thinks that God is NOT still in the miracle working business, we are living proof that shows otherwise.

The more I come to know you, the happier I am that he had friends like you who were there for him. If not for your tenacity and the gift that God gave you of being able to see a person through the eyes of Christ, then we would not be having this conversation. I would have known that he died, and would have still been praying and asking God to reveal whether he was saved. You are a direct answer to my prayer, and it would seem Robert’s prayers, as well.

You appeared like a miracle in my life, as well, so we both feel the same.

Now that we elaborated a little upon our connection, let me go back 23 years in my next question: Can you tell me a little about the impact the rape had on you and on your family’s life both at the time it happened and in all the years following?

I hope that my sister Cindy will one day be ready, as well. Mom has mixed feelings because of how this has affected Cindy. She knows about the interview, and she has forgiven Robert. She is excited about the possibility of helping other victims heal through our story. It breaks her heart to see the downward spiral that her baby is on. Daddy has also forgiven Robert.

After Robert was through with us, he tied us up with our clothing and gagged us with toilet paper. He told us that we weren’t tied very tight and that we could go home in thirty minutes. He instructed us to go home and take a shower, and if our parents woke up we were to say that a big black man took us. Before leaving that night, Robert said something so profound which has stuck with me ever since. He said, “You two have just been through a really horrific ordeal, but you are lucky that you have each other. I want you to stay that way forever.”At that moment, I felt something similar must have happened to him, but he was alone.

When we got home, we woke our parents, terrified that he was watching and was going to make good on his promise to kill us for telling. The police came and took us to the hospital for tests and then to the precinct for questioning.

The first major change was that neither my sister nor I would go back to the house that we called “home” for five years. We were terrified of the memories this house now held. For about the first month, we were shuffled from house to house staying with different families in our church until our parents could rent an apartment. Sadly, they couldn’t afford the mortgage and the rent, and they lost the house.

My Dad had to deal with the fact that while he was sleeping, a man came in and robbed him of his girls. That is a hard pill to swallow for any man, especially one who was in the military for almost thirty years.

Mom had the toughest part in dealing with not only one, but two of her daughters acting like rabid animals for years to follow. She was very strong, and whenever we would act out she would tell us, “Stop that! Every time you act out, you are letting him win.” She did not want Robert to have any more control over our lives.

Robert terrorized our community. The police put in overtime trying to crack this case. They were even looking during their off time, too. Whenever they would arrest someone fitting his description, they would put him in a holding cell and come to our school or home and show us pictures to see if we could identify him. They would come to school sometimes two and three times a day.

I suffered from flashbacks. Any time anyone would touch my throat or wrists, I would turn and see Robert and not the actual person that touched me.

I have spent many years depressed to the point of not being able to get out of bed. I always worked and I guess I looked like I had it together, but inside I was a mess. It was not until I got saved in December of 2004 that I was finally free from all of this horror.  

Your answer shows so clearly the trauma the rape caused to all of your family members and even to the whole community. You not wanting to even call “home” your house anymore, you having been depressed for many years, your father feeling that he had not protected his girls enough and your mother having to deal with two daughters who behaved like “rabid animals”. Your community terrorized… I wonder if anything remained the same?

I know that we are not supposed to live in our past. I don’t live there anymore. A few years ago, I asked God to give me amnesia, because I didn’t want to remember those things anymore. He said to me, “Debbie, I can give you amnesia and I will do that for you, but then all of this that you’ve been through will be in vain. I will use you to help others.” I believe that is my calling in life. In His word, God says He will take what Satan meant for evil and use it for His good. Just like Jesus laid down His life for us, I am in a sense laying down mine for others.

Some people say that for the victims to talk about what they went through is harmful for them. Is it harmful for you now?

You know I think that EVERYTHING is hard for victims. Forgiveness has set me free! Talking about what Robert did to me and how it has affected me is not harmful for me. For others perhaps it is, but I don’t see myself as a victim anymore. I do still have the ability to empathize with those that suffer in similar ways.

I hope that you will go on helping other people to understand and to share your story. Thank you very much for answering my questions, Debbie. I wish you all the best and much success in all you do.

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Former gang member Melvin Farmer – I’m not proud of saying I was a Crip

Ines Aubert talked to Melvin Farmer via e-mail and at a personal meeting in Los Angeles in 2019.

Paragraphs out of the video “Former gangster on life and struggles” (Los Angeles Times, 2016) are quoted in the article.

With his home falling apart, Melvin joined the Westside Crips. He was 13 years old. “I’m not proud of saying I was a Crip. There’s nothing to be proud of. I hold my head in shame. It’s been 45 years. I feel I’m responsible for anybody’s death. For anything that occurred due to Crips because I was there from the beginning. How can you not feel like that? There’s a million other things that you can do other than joining a gang. Nothing did I accomplish out of gang banging.”

Melvin Farmer was an OG Crip member. After serving years of prison time, he has tried to turn his life around and work as a gang interventionist, but he can’t seem to shake his past. (Source: Los Angeles Times, 2016)

Melvin, you were named by a mutual friend as the one to talk to about gangs. What makes you the expert with regard to gangs?

I’m 62 years old now and I’ve been in and around the gang culture since I was an adolescent. I witnessed and watched the birth of the Crips and their evolution, starting from car clubs and fistfights to car- jacking and gunfights.

In Wikipedia, I read about the following about joining a gang: “People join gangs for various reasons. Some become gang members to profit from organized crime in order to obtain necessities such as food and shelter, or to gain access to luxury goods and services. They may be seeking protection from rival gangs or violent crime in general, especially when the police are distrusted or ineffective. Many are attracted to a sense of family, identity, or belonging. Other motivations include social status, intimidation by gang members and pressure from friends, family tradition, and the excitement of risk-taking.” Would you agree to this explanation?

Some groups are formed for financial gain, protection, political agendas, and their label gangs but they may be bankers, police, or political candidates, everything but a gang member. They’re built on greed, street gangs on pride, where your word is your bond.

Very few join gangs for protection straight out. Peer pressure, economic demographics, and a sense of belonging are major factors in a youth’s decision to join a gang. Many suffer from mental illness, which I dubbed “Inner City Stress Syndrome.”

Quite a few are born into gangs due to past incidents and family affiliations. In the beginning, laws for the crimes we committed were not even in existence, such as enhancements for tattoos, being a gang member, drive-by shootings, car-jacking, and juvenile murderers.

In a Wikipedia entry, I read about the risk factors: “Some risk factors that relate to one’s family life are family instability, family members with violent attitudes, family poverty, and lack of parental supervision. Victims of violent crime (as well as their friends and family) and members of socially marginalized groups (e.g. ethnic minorities) are more likely to join gangs. Academic problems such as frustration due to low performance, low expectations, poor personal relationships with teachers, and the presence of learning disabilities are all risk factors.” In what way do these factors apply to you?

I was raised in a two-parent home environment. But the family was unstable, father prone to domestic violence (I put a gun under his heart at 15 for hitting my mother). We experienced poverty, but our life was rich. All of the above contributes towards the pressure of joining a gang.

In 1971 at age fourteen, I was a member of the Westside Crips which Stanley “Tookie” Williams founded. He was seventeen at that time.  It was more about loyalty and comradery, but never about profit. By age sixteen, I founded Gangster Crips (ETG) and created the term “Gangster Crips”.

I spent over 30 years of my life imprisoned, starting in the juvenile justice system, and am currently still trapped in the adult prison industrial complex. Not only do I know Crips history, but that of bloods, Mexican Mafia, Latin Kings, Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, etc.  My range of knowledge extends from senseless gun violence, the criminal justice system, the (death penalty) – my pet peeve, and mass incarceration. I’ve guest interviewed on this topic whether it be via audio, video, or in print globally. I am considered a Credible Messenger. 

That makes me an expert in street mentality: I didn’t have to read about it – I was brought up and raised in this.

In spring 2019, I authored a book: Melvin Farmer, “The New Slave Ship” (ISBN: 9781881524182). On the back cover:

The New Slave Ship: This book is a true account of a black male who was framed by two officers of the law. His arrest led him to become the first victim in Madera County, California, under the Three Strikes Mandatory Sentencing Law. The author reveals the extent to which bounty hunters will go to get black men away from society. Melvin Farmer holds the distinction of being the first Three Strikes victim to be released from a California State Prison on reversal.

You sound like a most credible messenger for sure.  I wonder: what would it need for me to ever understand the phenomenon “gang”? 

It needs someone unbiased and knowledgeable about gangs to fill in the unanswered questions. Unless you have lived this life, you would be hard pressed to understand or explain accurately. Derived from poverty, neglect, isolation, and oppression, inner-city gangs are formed to protect their area from any type of outside threat.

How would you describe life in a gang?

This isn’t a movie which is over in two hours. A lifetime of pain and regret comes with this. Enough to fill up a grave. Thinking you’re above society, yet in the end the (fence) prison wins. A world where your face is your ID and your passport is a gun. You start off feeling invincible, that the world is yours. Thinking you can outlive Father Time. Always looking over your shoulder, hoping the past doesn’t catch up with your present. In the early years, doing time was a badge of honor. Getting killed put you in the Hall of Fame. But at the end of the day, one holds their head in shame.

Some think that gangs are glorious kinds of brotherhood.

It’s a brotherhood, but it’s nothing glorious at all. There is no glamour in the gang.

What about leaving a gang?

Blood in – blood out. When you come in, you’re spraying blood – more for organized gangs. Not for street gangs. You can get out of a black gang, as opposed to being in a Mexican mafia with a chain of command. A black gang has no structure to tell people what to do. There are different protocols, a lot of unwritten rules.

In the anti-death penalty movement, what do you suggest we Europeans can do?

It’s important to bring awareness, create dialogue, so that more are exonerated. Just keep the head on it. Start a dialogue with US decision makers, with the public. With victims also, not only offenders. For that, you need a case to show injustice: Stanley “Tookie” Williams would be the perfect example to show this kind of injustice. His case should be opened– I know what happened.

Can you say a few words about the criminal justice system?

Well, it’s about money, it’s really a big business over here in America now. If you don’t have money, you won’t get justice. I got 35 years for less than two dollars’ worth of drugs, which was more than the average murderer would get. My book tells the story of my life.

How could you survive 37 years in prison so well? You seem to do so well.

As a juvenile, it was a lot about the comradery ship at that time. You would get right back out. You didn’t have to worry so much about it. But when you are older and go to prison, it becomes harder. The prison system has changed, the sentences are harder and longer. In the early years, you could go to school, but now you’re just rotting away.

Once you go on the other side of that wall, the world ceases to exist, and you have to turn your attention to try to survive in the prison system and educate yourself. That’s what I tried to do; I try to not let it stress me out, try not to put my mind on the street. Me personally, I just kept my mind where I was at and not on a fantasy island.

Can you tell me a bit about the differences between black and white prisoners?

In California, they are segregated, in most states they aren’t. There are all kinds of different gangs. As a white man, I would have had more privileges and a good job in prison. There are two different standards, not only in prison but in the justice system, also.

I’m a pen pal of several inmates. Did you have pen pals too?

Not per se, but I had friends whom I was writing. Once you are in prison, you really see who really cares about you. Having a pen pal is a great thing for many inmates. I never wanted a pen pal; a lot of inmates do their time silently and get out and don’t want to be contacted.

Would you encourage people to reach out to prisoners?

I would encourage everybody to reach out because it opens their mind. Me personally, I can go with or without. I would recommend that a pen pal would make it easier. A lot of guys would want a pen pal.

How is it for you to be interviewed by a white woman from Switzerland who has no firsthand experience with gangs?

No problem once you drop the labels and title “white woman from Switzerland.” You could be from Switzerland or Wonderland, you are just you. No big deal. Maybe God has prepared me for these encounters.

What is your current life situation? You said you’re still trapped in the prison system.

I’m too old to work and too young for social security. You don’t have medical care, you don’t have a trade, no structure, you don’t have a home.  You end up with nothing.  I guess I wasted my life.  And for what? It always comes back to “For what?”  All these years: for what? My mother’s wish is for me to call her and say, “I’m on my way to work”. She’s never heard me say that.

Now I am on parole until 2030. Life is hard, but I have never seen a homeless person commit suicide, only rich people. The best deterrent for crime? Age.

Today, among other activities to raise awareness, you work on the streets with juveniles. Can you tell me a bit about that?

I work with quite a few juveniles. I usually meet them at meetings, in church, on the street and I go to a lot of community events, programs and stuff. Some I meet on the street, but they also call me when they need help. I teach them about the law and encourage them to make better choices in life. I mentor them to maintain family ties, take up a trade, and become a productive citizen. We try to create a platform for them. I want their voices to be heard, also. Juveniles listen more to me than other people. There’s a lot of peer pressure on the street to get into criminality and to be in gangs.

I want to give back to the community and to help give youth a better chance. You know, they call us over here in America “OGs” – “original gangsters”, but it means “opportunity givers” to me.

Thank you very much, Melvin. It was very interesting talking to you. I wish you all the best.

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Interview with James Kunkel about the Latin Kings gang

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, Switzerland, 2019

James, you’ve been in prison in Texas for nine years. How is it for you to do this interview with someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know a lot about gangs?

Being that I’m not from Texas, every person who has questioned me has been a stranger – although when it comes to the TDCJ’s Gang Intelligence (GI), or other gang members, there is already an understanding of what ‘the life’ entails. Being interviewed by someone who is completely outside the realm of street gangs and organized crime has allowed me to share my knowledge, as well as my story in a formal way, which, up until now, I’ve not had the opportunity to do. So, thank you.

What is the name of your gang and where does it operate?

The Latin Kings’ largest population can be found in Chicago, Illinois, where they originate from, and New York City.

The Crown – their most popular symbol – usually adorns the head of a Latino-looking gentleman, though sometimes it might grace the head of a lion, symbol of both power and the King of the Jungle. This is formally known as the Master. The Crown represents various principles, tenets, and hierarchical positions of the organization.

How did you get involved in this brotherhood and what are the necessary requirements?

I had a stable home to live in, and did not live ‘on the streets’ as is usually and inaccurately portrayed of most gang bangers (gang members).

My relationship with the Latin Kings began in 1983, at the age of 11, while attending public school in Markham, Illinois. This was the age that I became aware of and was introduced to racism. Born and raised in a predominantly black neighborhood, I had a ton of black friends – male and female alike – throughout my entire childhood. I was ‘color-blind’ in this way, until the older kids from the junior high school made their feelings known by mercilessly picking on younger kids of the opposite race. This led to segregationist practices, which ultimately led to longtime friends joining opposing gangs.

Some gangs were based solely on racialist creeds, like the Black Gangster Disciples and the White Fence. Even the Latin Kings were strictly ‘Hispanic only’ at one time. But being that there were very few white boys in my ‘hood (neighborhood), and even less so Hispanics, it was almost a necessity and a survival tool to combine our meager forces, in order to combat the undeserved disparity we were subjected to at the will of the ignorant black populace.

It seemed that everyone had an older brother or a cousin or an uncle who was a member of one gang or another, and the appeal in joining something so exclusive was overwhelming to some, myself included. First, we found ourselves ‘hanging out’ with these older gang members, performing menial tasks in the hopes of gaining recognition and favoritism from the ‘higher ups’, and this worked, as I later learned, just as it was designed to. This also helped establish a pecking order amongst us youngsters; some people are born leaders, some of us are born soldiers, and others just need protection in order to survive and thrive in this cold, hard world.

What happens after you are accepted as a member?

Once you’ve established yourself as a useful asset, you receive what is known as the ‘Blessing into the Nation’. This is just a really, really nice way of saying that you were jumped into the gang, as you usually got your ass whipped.

As odd as it may sound, this beating received at the hands of your closest friends seems to strengthen familial bonds – while also putting both your fighting and defensive skills to the test, as well as on display for all to see.

Is there a certain hierarchy that is followed?

Yes, and in some cases, members are permitted to hold multiple positions at the same time. Also, these positions are determined by a tribe’s need for them; a person’s strength in a particular area, like kicking ass, creative accounting etc., and democracy – that is, we vote before making decisions. Nothing and no one are taken for granted, and each member is encouraged and entitled to express their opinion in all matters concerning ‘nation business’, as it were.

What was the behind the foundation of the brotherhood?

The ideology behind the Latin Kings was initially intended for the advancement of the Latino population in American cities – for both immigrants and natives alike – and this held true in the beginning. At least for the most part.

As with most fundamentals, traditions, and rules, evolution changed things up a bit, although a good majority of the basic principles still stand today. An example of this is how the treasury operates; funds are collected in a variety of ways: monthly dues, drug sales, imposed monetary penalties, etc., and they are re-distributed on an as-needed basis for electric bills, car notes, tuition or rent.

These funds are also used to make large-scale purchases, such as homes, vehicles, construction equipment, and controlled substances (drugs), where everything can be used to turn over a profit – thereby refilling the coffers so that it can be done over and over again. A typical for-profit business strategy, only not always of a legal nature.

There are some success stories to be told, such as members completing their studies and becoming teachers or business owners themselves. But the downfall here is that the age-old adage tends to apply: “You can take a gangster out of the hood, but you can’t take the hood out of the gangster.” Regardless of how high your test scores were, or how established your business may be, you are always indebted to the Nation – and a life of crime is just that – a life of crime.

How have things changed over the years?

Gang violence in the Texas prison system has dissipated immensely in recent years, due mainly to the TDCJ’s Gang Intelligence Committee (GI’s) work in weeding out the riffraff (segregating members of specific gangs), while also offering members the chance to resign or quit, by participating in the G.R.A.D. / Gang Renouncement and Dissociation Program – something that seemed impossible to do just ten short years ago.

Are there certain behaviors expected of you when you join the brotherhood?

Our list of rules is actually catalogued as articles, and Article 23 is a great example of these, as it includes the caveat ‘Once a King, always a King’, as well as the usual do’s and don’ts you’d expect to find in any basic set of rules and regulations.

One of the mainstay rules concerns drug abuse – in that it is forbidden. However, the overindulgence of both marijuana and alcohol seems to be ignored, for the most part, regardless of the fact that they are both addictive and habit forming, not to mention huge contributors to poor decision making!

Certain punishments are incurred for breaking the rules, like disrespecting another member, stealing from the ‘familia’, or turning state’s evidence, and these punishments are known as ‘violations’. Again, this is just a nice way of saying ‘beating’ as that is what you’re likely to receive. Minor violations might consist of a 30 second to two minute beating at the hands of one to three of your brothers, often at the same time! In most cases, this is a one-time affair, as you’re not likely to forget a brutal beating by your best friends.

The most extreme cases – testifying in a court of law against a member, or the unsanctioned murder of a fellow member – could warrant one of two things, or both: being expelled from the gang, or being killed.

What would you call such punishment? Strict? Just? Corrective? It appears quite violent to me.

All of the above is an apt description, but no decent parent wants their children to become insolent, drug-abusing criminals, right? Instituting physical punishments to correct negative behaviors is a common practice, though I’ll admit that the violations handed out can be quite a bit more severe than the typical spanking one might render their petulant child – though I feel the premise is the same, only on a much more adult level.

What benefits did you associate with being a member and how do these compare to the dangers?

As with any club, organization, team, etc., there are advantages and disadvantages alike, and these vary per region, locale and personal sentiments. Because we were already a tight-knit community, we attended church together on the usual holidays, and held christenings, quinceañeras and birthday parties for each other’s children at one another’s homes, much like any ordinary family does, so this strengthened our familial bonds across multiple generations.

Depending on one’s personal perspective, I saw few disadvantages, and these mostly revolved around breaking established laws and other such legalities – which only led to inviting the police to search you and your property like hungry rodents, or inviting judges, prosecuting attorneys and juries to openly view your criminal record, which can only be viewed in a negative light, especially if you’re labeled as a gang member.

The dangers come in the form of being, as a gang member, in opposition to every other gang, club or clique – from the police to the usual enemies. And as all of the above are usually armed, they should be considered dangerous as well – including the police.

What impact has the brotherhood had on you and on the way you think?

It is the culture of today’s gang mentality that has hardened my heart, I think. How can the gang violence happening in the world today be considered ‘normal’ in any way, shape or form? How can the Latin Kings participate in any of this under the pretenses of righteousness, productivity, or necessity? I can no longer agree with this archaic train of thought. Is it because I am nearing my 50th birthday? Probably, but isn’t it natural to want to move on to other, perhaps more productive ventures?

I’ll always have a place in my heart for the Nation – hell, I’ve been in this ‘familia’ for 34 years now! – but it’s past time to open another chapter in my life.

Can you just tell us in a few sentences what role you think your gang will play in your future?

Hopefully, my future history with the Latin Kings will be nothing more than a story to relate to the younger generations – both the positive and negative aspects of it – and nothing more. A simple narrative of a past chapter in my life.

Thank you for sharing all of this with us, James. It’s very interesting to get a little insight into the Latin Kings. I wish you all the best.

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Interview with A., an inmate who is no longer on death row about prison gangs

By Ines Aubert, February 2015

A prison gang is an inmate organization that operates within a prison system, that has a corporate entity, exists into perpetuity, and whose membership is restrictive, mutually exclusive, and often requires a lifetime commitment. (Wikipedia, 12.15.14)

Although after 21 years on death row and having your death sentence overturned into life without parole, you still live in segregation like on death row. Is there the possibility to move to population where you would have more freedom? You told me that it would be dangerous for you there because of the gangs. Why so?

Before I answer your question about gangs, first let me tell you that gang members, whether they are active, inactive or ex-gang members, they generally avoid talking about gang activity.

You already know that I am in segregation because I am classified a member of a gang that the prison deems a threat to its security. I think you also know that I joined the gang in 1986 and that I broke the gang’s biggest rule when I got out of the gang in 1998. The members of my former gang are obligated to attempt to kill me anytime they get a chance.

Is there a way for you to officially become an ex-gang member?

I can get out of segregation anytime I want by going through the GRAD (Gang Renunciation and Disassociation Program) program. It’s only nine months long and once I complete it they will transfer me to a regular maximum security unit that has been cleared of as many active gang members as the prison administration could identify. But never all of them and new inmates arrive all the time.

No matter how hard the prison tries or how careful the prison is, there is always going to be gang members of my former gang that will slip past the screening on these special units. Sooner or later one of them will recognize me and if I don’t see them first they will have the opportunity to catch me by surprise.

As crazy as this next part will sound, one of the many requirements of completing the GRAD program is that I must sign a document acknowledging that my life will be in danger but that I am still requesting to be placed in general population anyway and should I get killed I am absolving the prison of all responsibility. This is done to waive my family’s right to file a lawsuit and sue the prison for not properly protecting me.

Physically, I am no longer in any condition to be defending myself. Even if no one ever recognizes me, can you imagine the paranoid wreck I will be constantly looking over my shoulder and carefully scrutinizing every inmate that could be a potential member of my former gang? That is not how I want to live.

Isn’t there a way that you could be protected?

Sometimes there are many active gang members on these special units selected for graduates of the GRAD program. Then an ex-gang member arrives and immediately recognizes a threat to his life. Once he reports the threat to prison administrators, the only option that administrators have is to transfer the ex gang member to another special unit for GRAD. Then the ex gang member can try it again. Every unit can treat the situation differently. Some units will wait until the ex-gang member is assaulted before transferring him. At this point, the only other option the ex-gang member has is to request to be placed in “safekeeping”.

Safekeeping is a lesser form of protective custody. These inmates are housed in a separate building, they still work, go to the main chow hall to eat, and attend certain programs. However, they are assigned separate times, they are sightly isolated and a little more closely watched. Safekeeping is not the ultimate form of protection. Ex-gang members are assaulted and even killed while in safekeeping. After an ex-gang member is assaulted or an attempt is made on his life while in safekeeping, then the ex-gang member is invited to the ultimate protection: Protective Custody on the Ramsey Unit.

Ex-gang members in Protective Custody on the Ramsey Unit are completely separated from all other general population inmates and they do not mingle or interact with anyone other than other inmates in Protective Custody. These special inmates are housed in separated wings, they don’t share a cell with another inmate, they don’t work, they’re not allowed to go to the craft shop, church services, vocational trades, schooling, and they eat their meals on their wings instead of going to the main chow hall. This is the place I wish I was assigned to. I just don’t want to go through “attempts on my life” just to earn this privilege.

It’s horrible to hear about the danger you’re still in. Does that mean that ex-gang members still act as gang members?

I see many ex-gang members that can’t make the complete transition to no longer being a gang member. All the time you spend in a gang you are constantly being brain-washed to think a certain way. It’s a conditioning, the same way our armed forces train us to be soldiers, marines, airmen and seamen. No disrespect intended to our service men and women but gangs use the same brainwashing techniques to properly mold minds.

Once the classification department of the prison administration in Texas classifies someone as a gang member, they will be a gang member for the rest of their lives. The prison does not recognize ex-gang members in their classification process. Gang members are either active or inactive.

Successful completion of the GRAD program only gains the gang member his release from Administrative Segregation back into General Population and his classification status changes from an active gang member to inactive gang member.

The situation is similar with an ex-gang member’s former gang. Nearly all gangs offer only lifetime membership. There is no such thing as retirement or having a change of heart. That is why upon initiation, a gang member is told that there is only one door out of the gang: death.

Similarly, a gang has only two types of status: good standing and bad standing.

Good standing generally means “in favor or on good terms with someone”. Bad standing is simply the opposite.

Can you tell me how many ex-gang members have gotten killed recently?

I don’t know the exact numbers.

But the killings have declined dramatically. However, getting killed is not all one has to worry about. You see, gang members have an obligation to kill any member of their gang in bad standing. But nowadays you have a lot of gang members with small prison sentences, like 5 or 10 years, and they really don’t want to get a life sentence for killing someone and getting stuck in prison for the rest of their lives. So to keep from getting into trouble with their gang for not honoring their obligation to kill an ex-gang member, they will “attempt” to kill their former member by beating or stabbing them to within an inch of their life.

This whole gang policy seems so archaic to me: You have to kill an unknown person because he changed his mind with regards to his membership in the gang! How was it for you to be a gang member?

It was not glamorous. I never sought out a gang life. When I got into the gang, I was barely 18 years old. In those two months that I had been in jail before being invited to join a gang, I had not seen any gang activity because I was so naïve and new to incarceration. I was blind to gangs. So when I was asked to join there was nothing serious about it to me. I have to add, however, that at that point in my life, even if all the serious consequences had been explained to me properly and I understood the situation I would be in, I was a reckless teenager, destined to be executed by the state. I would not have cared and I would have still made the same decision. Dumb on top of stupidity. I basically joined a gang because I didn’t care about consequences and because it further advanced my desire to cause injury and destruction.

The initiation process to become a gang member is basically an investigation to verify one’s reputation and determine that the initiate has never had any criminal charges of a sexual nature, particularly rape or anything involving children. During this stage the initiate is called a “prospect”. While the process can last for years, there is a minimum period of six months. My propensity for violence and destruction in the county jail ushered me through this process in barely eight months and I became a full-fledged member of my former gang right around my 19th birthday.

The whole time I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t in order to fit in. I was constantly under a lot of stress because I was always involved in a potentially deadly game of gang politics. When I left the gang it was like a huge burden taken off my shoulders.

With time I started to learn how serious this gang thing was so I started playing my part accordingly. After some years I stopped caring because everything changed.

The guys that brought me into the gang I barely knew for less than a year.

When I got to death row I met a whole new group of “brothers”. These guys were really good people. True brothers I would have died with or for if necessary. This was that golden period of my membership when everything was perfect.

Things changed when we got a new leader. We went from a group of four members to a total of 16 members on death row. The new leader started recruiting new members in order to boost numbers. New people I shared nothing in common with.

Of the original four members, two had already gotten executed. To make matters worse, of all the guys that brought me into the gang in 1986, most had been killed (by our own gang) and all the ones that were still alive were all in bad standing.

All of the new generation of gang members were strangers to me. I was in an in-gang power struggle with the leader and it was all too stressful for me. I started to see his treacherous plans to have me destroyed.

That realization frightened me.

Here I am playing my part of being a gang member, which is something I didn’t have my heart into, and it was all for nothing because I had no emotional attachment to any of the members that remained.

By gang rules, if one of my brother’s life is in danger then I have to do everything I can to save him or die with him. But there was nobody left that I would want to die for or with. I was in a situation in which I was disgusted, frightened, and I wanted out. So I got out.

This is all somehow unbelievable to me. It reminds me of another world, one that only exists in films. It’s hard for me to believe that at one point you were part of that world. What have you learned from your activity in the gang?

I definitely learned how to become a better criminal. It’s not something I’m proud about but it’s the truth. For those years until I got out of the gang in 1998, I manipulated people, I lied to people, I used people, I participated in the plotting of killing other inmates, and I did other things I am ashamed of. That was not who I used to be when I was a teenager and that is not who I am now.

It was a dark period in my life and it took nearly two weeks after getting out of the gang for the realization to finally sink in, that I was my own man again. No longer part of a gang regardless of how that gang sees it or how the classification department of the prison sees it. It was like a huge burden was lifted off of my shoulders and I could finally begin to live my life like who I really am.

There are a lot of things going through my mind when I learn these things about gangs. There seem to be not only inmates who killed in the past but also those who would kill in the present if only they had the chance.

Without a doubt, some would kill YOU if they had the chance, and you are a friend of mine. That is very scary to me.

What do you suggest we pen pals base our commitment on when we are writing to inmates who are ready to kill an ex-gang member today or tomorrow? We definitely can’t say that the killing is part of his past and that he is rehabilitated.

First of all, there are not many gang members on death row. The odds are low that someone from lifespark is writing to a gang member. Secondly, gang activity is serious business to gang members. Nothing, not even the blood family they were born to comes before the gang. With this in mind, know that your friendship with this pen pal gang member can never go beyond the bond they have with their gang – unless they leave the gang.

So, don’t expect them not to kill again, no matter what they say.

Is there something you want to say to the pen pals of gang members?

There is a growing trend of gang members leaving their gangs. I have seen many active gang members make the decision to leave their gang.

Some gang members simply don’t know how to go about leaving their gang. If you have a pen pal that expresses his desire to leave a gang, treat it as a very important and critical procedure that you may be able to help with. Sometimes all it takes is a little positive encouragement. At the same time, if they have no intention of leaving the gang, do not take it as a challenge to convince them otherwise.

Let me ask you a last question: How would I realize that you are not right now manipulating and using me as you’ve learned that so well while being a gang member?

Unless you are a manipulative person by nature or you received special training to detect manipulation, then you’ll never really know for certain. J

Thank you for all the very interesting information you shared with me. I wish you all the best.

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