Classrooms, Not Cages

By James King CDCR # V-69030 2–W–10

When Tim Thompson was 12 years old, he didn't run from the local gangs in his neighborhood; he ran to them. You might have done the same.

His story demonstrates the importance and limitations of sentencing reform as our state debates the merits of reducing enhancements, making age a more prominent mitigating factor, and just how much emphasis the state should place on rehabilitation.

Tim was raised in South Central Los Angeles during the 1980's. Police hadn't yet devised a strategy to get control of the crack epidemic that was devastating every segment of his community. Few families were immune. In Tim's own house, crack claimed two victims. A father, whose own battles with the rock left him in and out of his family's life, and a mother who sold the only thing of value she had for crack, her body. She used their home as a base of operations, until she was eventually murdered. Tim was sixteen, and had already been an active gang member for four years at that time, primarily because the gang offered him a stability and sense of family that he couldn't get at home.

The same year his mother was murdered, Tim committed his first two strong arm robberies. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested, convicted, and sent to Youth Authority, where he spent the next two and a half years.

He was released at age 19, technically an "adult", so the fact that he had no immediate family to go to was his problem, not the states. Unfortunately for Tim, the only ones waiting to welcome him back were his friends in his gang.

About a year later, at the age of twenty, he committed a third strong-arm robbery. This was just after the passage of the three-strikes law. Within months, Tim was sentenced to thirty years to life and shuttled off to a maximum security prison.

Tim's eight year effort to function in the midst of the worst epidemic Los Angeles had experienced was largely over.

Lately, state law has recognized the mitigating factors of children who commit crimes before their brains are fully developed. SB 260 and SB 261 resentenced scores of juvenile offenders who, like Tim, committed crimes in the context of overwhelming circumstances. There has only been one group of juveniles exempted from these reforms, those who were sentenced under the three strikes law.

Because any law passed through the ballot requires a two thirds vote in legislature, people like Tim are often excluded from recent common sense reforms that have been passed.

By age 20, Tim was in a maximum security prison, with a sentence that was ten years longer than he'd been on the planet.

According to our society's standards at the time, Tim was a super predator. He was a young Black gang member, already classified as a career criminal, and the thought of rehabilitating him, let alone educating him would have been conceived of as “soft on crime," because essentially, that's all Tim was, his crime.

Tim though, had other ideas. He started reading, took GED classes, and correspondence courses. When the pendulum started to swing, and rehabilitation and education began to be accepted for their ability to reduce recidivism, Tim took advantage of every opportunity.

Tim came to prison with an eighth grade education. In the last twelve years he has achieved an Associate's of Arts Degree in the liberal arts, and an Associate's of Science Degree in business in addition to the entrepreneurial course he completed, the six coding languages he learned, and the dozens of self-help classes he's finished.

When asked why Tim started educating himself and working on his rehabilitation, he simply says, "I grew up." He assumes everyone understands that, if given the opportunity, people will work to better themselves. He goes on to say, "I think the reason most kids end up in prison is because they don't understand the power other people have in their lives; education is the antidote to that."

Today, almost twenty-five years later, Tim is still a passionate advocate for education. In addition to the computer literacy classes he is currently taking, Tim is a leading figure in SQ's Academic Peer Education Program and can frequently be seen working on lesson plans, coordinating with outside tutors, and helping students prepare to take their GED. He recently helped organize and presented a paper on the value of education in the first academic conference inside of a prison on the West Coast.

It seems like a simple premise; instead of placing our youngest, most vulnerable members of society in cages when they behave in ways that go against our societal norms, we should instead invest in their education. Giving life sentences to juveniles, and those who have barely reached the age of maturity, before giving them the support to process the trauma that most impoverished communities deal with, perpetuates a cycle that is slowly pulling all of California down.

Tim took the cage he was placed in, and transformed it into a classroom. It makes me wonder, what if, when Tim was going through his darkest time, with two parents addicted to drugs and only a gang willing to take him in, our society had turned to education as a solution instead of incarceration? When I look at all Tim has accomplished in here, it raises the natural question, what would he have done with more opportunity?

About First Watch

First Watch is a media project started at San Quentin State Prison. All content is shot, directed, edited, and scored by the journalists inside prison.

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