Growing up with a father who was in and out of prison taught me that committing crime was normal. I learned that criminal values were more important than family values. While my father was away I never knew how to contact him. This left me confused and alone to figure out why he chose crime over me.
Issues I developed from my father being in prison led me to adopt negative belief systems, my own criminal belief systems. I needed some type of acceptance, so I joined a gang and committed acts of violence. I learned that the criminal way was the way to make a living and I began selling drugs. Despite the acceptance I felt as part of the gang, no matter who or what I surrounded myself with I always felt a void.
When I saw my daughter for the first time at the beginning of a life sentence, my heart sank. Here was this beautiful baby girl who was going to have a dad in prison, possibly for the rest of her life. Even if that were the case, I was determined to raise her the right way.
I did everything I could to let her know that my choices weren’t right, that crime isn’t acceptable and that my incarceration was not because I chose a criminal lifestyle over her. I never wanted her to develop any negative issues around my poor decisions. I did everything I could to fill the void that much like young me, I know she felt. I wrote letters and drew her pictures to let her know I was thinking about her. When I felt she was old enough to understand I had a long phone call and answered any and every question she had about me and why I was in prison. At the end of the call I let her know that I’d always love her and that I would be there for her as much as I could.
When Senate Bill 261 passed, I was given hope and the opportunity to come home and be a real parent. Senate Bill 261 was a bill that gave people under the age of 23 an opportunity for sentence reductions and special considerations for parole based on the age at which they committed their crimes. This juvenile justice legislation was based on neuroscience that acknowledges that people’s ability to make decisions and to think long-term aren’t fully developed until the age of 25. The passing of the bill gave people who had transformed their lives, such as myself, the chance to come home and make positive impacts on their families, as well as their communities.
More criminal justice reform is still necessary. Juvenile justice reforms that led to my release should only be the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands more people who have done the introspective work necessary to deal with trauma and addiction. However, there are many hurdles for them to come home. This is a huge waste of money and an atrocious disservice to the communities that need their guidance and wisdom.
Cycles of criminality are perpetuated by many different inequities which need to be fought on many fronts. Poverty, education, and intergenerational trauma are just a few to name. Existing state apparatuses ensure that a carceral state that mirrors slavery is perpetuated. The cycle needs to end. Even if you’re not directly impacted by incarceration, you should have a vested interest in crime reduction.
Increasing men and women’s ability to be better parents while incarcerated is a great place to start breaking the cycles of crime. Healing, restoration and compassion are what I needed as a kid. I received compassion through the passing of Senate Bill 261. Healing came through self-help and rehabilitative programs that showed me the root causes of my anger and where my faulty belief systems came from. I faced the harm I’ve caused so many people through my bad decisions. In facing this I’m now able to teach people how to undergo their own transformation and not follow my negative path. This is what happens when our society stops classifying incarcerated people as their worst decision and starts acknowledging them as the human beings and parents that they are. The asset I’ve become to my family and my community is evidence of a path that we as a society need to explore through sentencing reform.
I’m so fortunate that my daughter didn’t turn out the way I did and that she never held my crimes or incarceration against me. I’m so happy and proud of her and the woman she’s become. And that she’s broken the cycle.
First Watch Interview: Phil’s Story
Philip Melendez is the Los Angeles Outreach Associate for Re:store Justice. Phil recently returned home in September of 2017. While inside, he facilitated many self-help and restorative programs, mentored neglected and traumatized youth, and organized numerous events linking community members with incarcerated people at San Quentin. He’s passionate about sharing his experience and the knowledge he acquired along his journey to ensure that no one takes that same path.