by Carlos Adrian Vazquez, Jr.
Editor’s Note: Tucked away in the northern part of the San Fernando Valley at the intersection of the 5 and 210 freeways sat sixteen-year-old Carlos Adrian Vazquez, Jr. in Sylmar’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall. He was facing thirty-five-years-to-life for a gang-related murder.
His is an all-too-common story of California youth living fast and dangerous, searching for identity, causing trouble while hoping to survive, and getting caught up. Nearly two years in, he eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, giving him an eleven-year prison sentence that he’s begun serving in state prison now at age eighteen.
While in juvenile hall, Carlos benefited from a stream of volunteers including some of California’s leading juvenile justice reform advocates—Scott Budnick of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Javier Stauring among them. Rev. Michael Kennedy with the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative encouraged Carlos through Jesuit meditation practices, which helped Carlos begin to transform his life. Through these things, and by taking responsibility for the pain he caused, Carlos began actively seeking forgiveness from a number of places—society, his family, the family of his victim, God, and even Pope Francis, to whom Carlos wrote after encouragement from Kennedy. To Carlos’s surprise, on 21 January 2016, the Pope wrote him back.1
The forgiveness Carlos sought was something he’d already begun to experience inside, in part through the writing with help from volunteers with InsideOUT Writers. Through self-reflection, he began recounting his story, pinpointing major disappointments, and resketching his narrative in ways that have helped him cultivate humility, understanding, and empathy. Carlos’s writing provides a unique look at restorative justice in action from the perspective of one young offender trying to turn his life around in prison. What follows are excerpts from a twenty-two-page autobiographical essay by Carlos, written in his own hand.
Carlos writes that, in elementary school, he was “surrounded by positive influences” that enabled him to learn and grow, understand his limits, and become “a less self-centered child.” He started to change when, as a preteen, he was confronted by what he calls “bubble poppers,” people who put him down and told him he would never achieve his dream of becoming a professional soccer player.
The magnet program Carlos was in would not graduate a student who failed any class, and Carlos managed to pull his grades up in all but one: English. The teacher told him that no matter what he did, he would never pass the class. He did not graduate from high school.
Carlos had a few minutes with his lawyer before being ushered into court, where, in a brief hearing, he learned his case would be filed to adult court. He never had a hearing to determine whether he was likely to rehabilitate himself in the juvenile system.
In his first months in jail, Carlos fought repeatedly with the other incarcerated juveniles and was put in “The Box” as punishment. Scott Budnick visited him there often, and he told Carlos he believed in him and that he would not give up on him. Carlos writes that “not only did he give me my life back, he gave me hope again.” Later he writes, “If you’re reading this Scott my boy, I got nothing but love for you.”
Carlos credits Rev. Michael Kennedy for beginning to heal his “corrupted soul” through prayer and meditation. Kennedy also sparked Carlos’s interest in reflecting and writing about his own life by giving him pamphlets asking him to consider the pain of his childhood and the pain he inflicted on others.
Through conversations with Javier Stauring, Carlos learned to take responsibility for his role in the murder. He explains that he and many of the people he is incarcerated with defend their actions by saying “it wasn’t me,” because they weren’t the ones holding the knife or the gun that caused the fatal injury. But now he understands that that is not a valid defense, legally or morally.
With the help of his therapist, Carlos explored his early childhood and the rage for which he could find no outlet other than violence. For a time, Carlos blamed bad parenting for his violence, until a conversation with a friend helped him see things differently. “People stop feeding you and you start feeding yourself these lies. It’s your mind and mentality that has you thinking like that,” the friend told him. Carlos writes that “reality felt like a slap in the face. My mind wanted to deny it because it’s always been use to denying the truth.”
1. “Pope replies to letter from juvenile gang member jailed in Los Angeles,” cnn.com, 4 March 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/03/us/pope-francis-mercy-letter-los-angeles-juvenile-inmate.