I am a 50-year-old man who has spent 39 years of my life behind bars.
Millions of taxpayer dollars were spent to incarcerate me in juvenile camps and the state’s prison system, where I was given a life sentence for murder.
Life could have turned out differently for me, if I had the guidance and support I needed as a child who took to the streets to escape family dysfunction and abuse. Now that I am back in the community, I devote my life to helping young people stay in school and out of prison. That’s why I’m supporting the #SchoolsNotPrisons concert tour, which calls attention to issues I know all too well.
It took a culmination of hurt, pain, and hard lessons for me to finally seek change
I came of age in Los Angeles, growing up without my biological father. His absence created a void and resentment, which was fed by even more negativity once my abusive stepfather came into the picture. Being raised in this environment led me to the streets in search of refuge and validation. My juvenile delinquency began at the age of 12, when I started sniffing glue and experimenting with whatever drugs I could get my hands on in order to escape my anger and painful reality. I graduated from foster homes and juvenile camps, to serving a life sentence by the age of 18.
Even after serving over 20 years behind bars, I remained on a destructive path. Change took time. There was no single instance or “a-ha!” moment that caused me to want a different way of life. It took a culmination of hurt, pain, and hard lessons for me to finally seek change. But when change did come, I was inspired to not just change for myself, but also for those around me who were fighting similar struggles. While serving time, I completed many rehab programs, but there was one program in particular that opened the doors to my second chance at life: Houses of Healing. This program gave me the opportunity to create a rehab program, and thus Self Awareness & Recovery (SAR) was born.
Had there been intervention and rehabilitation programs earlier in my development, I believe that more of my years would have been spent on the outside helping others, as opposed to being locked-up on the inside – both figuratively and literally. However, I also believe God had a path for my life and that my journey is serving a greater purpose. It is my mission to fight for those who have no one to fight for them, by intervening before young people get stuck in the system, as well as advocating for the rehabilitation and healing of those who remain inside.
Individuals aren’t the only ones who are broken and in need of rehabilitation. The prison system feeds on vulnerable people, many who were born into destructive paths and were themselves victimized as children. We need to ensure that young people have access to education and opportunities, as well as the guidance and support needed to successfully break dysfunction. It’s time that we as a society build up and invest in our young people, rather than label them as criminals at the first sign of bad behavior. When the prison industry is booming, it’s a sign that we have failed both our children and communities.
With proper investments in education and rehabilitation, I’m confident we can help create different futures for our brothers and sisters who were born on the fast track to jail through no fault of their own. It’s time to invest in building schools to shelter our children, not prisons, because knowledge and education is the only way to break this cycle.
Ed’s Note: Daniel Silva, a former inmate, is the founder and president of Self Awareness & Recovery.