THE BLOG

Moving Beyond Gangs and 'Gladiator School'

03/31/2015 10:33 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015
Caitlin Ahearn

The date is April 9, 2014. It's 12 noon, and I'm coming home.

My name is Kent G. Mendoza Morales and I'm 21 years old. At the age of 12, I had my first encounter with the law. Three years later, I received a sentence of nine months in a juvenile facility that initiated my five-year journey within California's juvenile and criminal-justice systems.

I was born in Mexico City on July 7, 1993, and migrated to the United States at the age of six. I grew up in one of many low-income communities in the urban areas of Los Angeles. My mom brought us to America because she wanted a better future for us. But to me, a future in America meant feeling like an outcast, like I had no voice, like I always had something to hide. I'm called an illegal "alien" in this country, even though I consider it home.

Because I felt like an outsider, I began making poor decisions, which led to a destructive lifestyle. After encountering the system at 12, it became easier for me to accept that I was nothing. I got tickets for things like skipping school, smoking, being out too late, or violating probation. It became a regular routine for me to spend a night in a juvenile-detention facility.

When teachers, law enforcement, friends, and even your own community tell you who you are, it's difficult to believe in other options. So I joined one of the most hated gangs in the nation at 14.

One year later, my destructive lifestyle caught up with me and I received a sentence of 18 months. I was released at 17 but went back to jail within weeks, this time facing a life sentence. I took a plea deal because I was afraid of deportation. I regret taking the deal because it was unfair, but at the same time, if I had not accepted it, I would never have crossed paths with the person who ultimately changed my life.

Over the five years that I was incarcerated, I felt confused and often dehumanized. After dropping out of my gang, life became a daily struggle to survive. In no way was my incarceration an environment of rehabilitation. In fact, some even called our facility "gladiator school," because of the harsh treatments we faced daily.

My story changed the day I crossed paths with Scott Budnick, the founder and President of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). At that time, I only knew him as some weird Hollywood guy --but since the day I met Scott, he consistently supported me and saw potential in me that no one else saw, including myself. With Scott by my side during the darkest moments of my life, I developed a desire to change.

But I learned that change doesn't come without challenge. I relapsed and disappointed Scott and others who began to believe in me, before I finally learned to believe in myself. Incarceration is challenging in that way. You have people telling you, "Just do it! You can be anything you want to be!" But when they leave, the reality of your surroundings sets in. I grew up being an outcast in my own country, but while I was incarcerated, I felt like an outcast in my own mind.

Coming home was a similar experience of living in two worlds. I was finally free, but the challenges that followed restricted me in so many ways. I dealt with pressure from peers who couldn't accept my transformation, and the challenge of finding a job and a place to live with no identification or work experience.

ARC helped me through these challenges. Founded in 2013, ARC's mission is to change lives and create safe, healthy communities by providing a support and advocacy network for, and comprised of, formerly incarcerated individuals. ARC serves as a support network and a connection to services for its membership of more than 175 formerly incarcerated men and women. In addition to providing support, ARC empowers members to be advocates for justice-system reform. ARC organizes policy trainings that provide members with information and tools so that they can advocate for change, and then creates opportunities for members to share their stories with local and state policymakers.

ARC provided me with a network of peers and mentors who understood the struggles I was experiencing and supported me to stay on the right track. ARC also gave me the opportunity to attend policy trips and meetings, which helped me develop professional skills and build self-confidence, and sparked my interest in policy work.

It has been less than one year since I was incarcerated. Today, I'm a full-time student at East Los Angeles College majoring in political science. I live independently in East LA and am a part-time staff member at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. I also sit on the Member Board of ARC, which helps guide ARC programs for other formerly incarcerated individuals.

In the past 11 months, I've experienced moments I never dreamed of in my life. I've traveled to New York and Washington, D.C., and shook hands with civil rights leaders, such as Harry Belafonte and Representative John Conyers, Jr. Today, I know that when you surround yourself with a strong support system and people who believe in you, there is no border you cannot surpass.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.