From Gang Member to PhD: Defying the Odds

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Police in Santa Rosa, CA arrest a 14-year-old susppecred gang member. Photo by NorthernCalifa$$ via Flickr

As Christian L. Bolden moved up the ladder of academic achievement, eventually earning his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Central Florida, he carefully concealed an important part of his past.

For most his teen years he was a gang member.

Christian Bolden

Christian Bolden

Starting at the age of 14 in his home town of San Antonio, Tx., his delinquent behavior landed him in juvenile detention, then state prison, and finally a long stint on probation.  Although proud of his success in turning his life around, Bolden accepted the advice of a mentor who suggested he keep his background quiet to avoid being “judged harshly.”

But Bolden, now an associate professor of criminology and justice at Loyola University in New Orleans, where his research focuses on gang social networks, gang organizational processes, and human trafficking, is quiet no longer.

In his recent book Out Of The Red: My Life of Gangs, Prison, and Redemption, Bolden takes a hard look at the conditions and circumstances that led him and many of his peers into the gang life.

In a conversation with TCR, Bolden explained that, for many children growing up in low-income communities, joining a gang is often the only way to find a sense of family, protection, and control otherwise out of reach. But breaking the cycle of justice involvement, as he finally did, is getting increasingly tougher, as he points out, because of a system geared towards punishing young people rather than helping them.

This transcript has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity.

The Crime Report: Why is the story you tell important for today’s audience?

Christian Bolden: It was a story that always needed to be told.  The timing of it mattered.  In graduate school, my mentors wanted me to keep everything a secret because they felt that I would be judged too harshly.  So I didn’t let a lot of people in on it before, but it was always weighing on me. The timing concurs with the general social movement of decarceration.  I wanted to connect with people outside of academia because I felt that we are something of an island at a time when a lot of people are science-denying.

TCR: How did the culture and environment contribute to your attraction to gangs and delinquent behavior?

CB: As I was growing up, gangs became the primary form of social interaction.  Gangs become so common in San Antonio that it was almost a given for anybody who was having difficulty traversing schools.  I was having disciplinary problems, and the school’s harsh responses to me drove me farther away.

I think people always look for some type of organization or organizational form to help them figure out life, or what to do in life.  And when the normal institutions that people grow up with that teach values—things like family and the education system—when those aren’t working for people, they’re going to search for an alternative.  And since that alternative was so plentiful, and so many people around me were also being influenced by the alternative institution of gangs, it seemed like there was no other option from my limited perspective at the time.

TCR: How did these systems and structures in place in many of our own communities, and which are exemplified in your book, contribute to the problems and issues that you faced at such a young age?

CB: There’s a word that they’re using called “push-outs.”  If a kid needs more than what these institutions are willing to give, they view them as too problematic.  And when they have policies like zero tolerance, they don’t even give kids chances anymore; they kick them out immediately, and that leaves them nothing else but the streets.  Kids are kids, they’re going to mess up, it’s part of the whole process of growing up.  Making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.

Instead, the school systems just decided to get rid of people, kick them out, or push them towards the criminal justice system.  Either way, being on the streets would inevitably put many of them into the criminal justice system.  They call it the school-to-prison pipeline because the situation of kids being kicked out of schools and them winding up in prison has become so interconnected.

TCR: You point out that some of the gangs you were involved in were actually not criminal and that, in fact, they were more inclined towards simple confrontation than serious criminal behavior.

CB: There are some theories about different types of gangs and how they emerged.  For gangs that are focused on crime, for profit to emerge they need adult criminal role models.  Kids aren’t going to come up with ways to make a lot of money through crime; they don’t have that capacity. It has to be taught to people and those network relationships have to be passed down.

Most gangs aren’t actually like that.  They don’t have these adult criminal role models who teach them how to do things; they come up with their own avenues to esteem.  And those avenues are really related to conflict.  Earning status and respect in the streets by fear, being able to defeat or beat back another gang, or have them cower before you, these types of things translate to respect, and that’s the status that these kids are looking for.  But, the majority of them are not criminal enterprises.  Crime does occur, but it’s opportunistic, it’s just whatever presents itself, it’s not organized in any fashion.

TCR: What was the relationship between the gangs you were involved with and the police at that time?

 CB: There was an unusual relationship.  You will notice that I don’t talk negatively towards the police in the book.  I personally was a little bit more neutral about them.  They were just there.  They came, and they did things, sometimes the things were positive, sometimes they were negative.  But they weren’t much of an influence in any way, other than people ultimately getting arrested and going away.  There was nothing about policing in general, at least for me, that was driving anything.

I do mention with some of the older gangs, when there was leadership, that taking out those leaders ended up causing the gangs to separate into smaller gangs that were fighting each other and that caused more conflict and violence.  But, in the book, I talk about a time when the police protected us and there was another time when police put me in a chokehold.  So, it ranged all over the place.

TCR: When you were eventually arrested, your first encounter with the criminal justice system through the courts was equally inconsistent.  How does your experience reflect the often ignorant and prosecutorial nature of this system when it comes to punishing those accused of crimes?

CB: There are a few things to reference here.  When the courts were focusing on me as a gang member, they were not connecting the dots. The police that brought me in talked about a different gang that I was involved in, which was very confusing for everybody.  They didn’t understand gang culture and how fluid it actually is. They had an antiquated idea about what gangs used to look like and thought that they were still in that formal fashion.  I had an encounter with a gang investigator who, when I previously encountered him, even though it was under negative circumstances of my friend shooting someone, the officer was very friendly with me.  But when he got on the stand, he said that I was a menace to society and I should be incarcerated for as long as possible.

At the time, my attorney wasn’t on my side and told me from the very beginning that I deserved to be punished and did very little to help me.  Anything I asked for, he didn’t want to do, he was upset that I wanted to go to trial.  He didn’t put forth any effort, he spent most of the time that I interacted with him scolding me.  And then, when we had a hearing, any time I tried to tell him something, he just wouldn’t listen.

TCR: Your book describes how you were constantly moved from prison to prison throughout the time of your sentence.  What are the psychological, mental and emotional effects of this experience?

CB: It felt like an eternity.  Texas was in the mass-incarceration boom, and they had gone from 30 prisons to 110 prisons in a mere eight years.  Which I stress in the book because it seems insane, there’s nothing like that anywhere in the world.  And Texas is a big place.  So, you have all of these people incarcerated for a wide array of crimes, some things less serious, some things more serious, and a lot of violent crimes too, and people tend to be a lot more volatile when there’s no structure around them, when it’s chaotic and they don’t know what to expect.

coverEverybody is vying for power, but every time some kind of order is established there’s this mixup where they shift everyone around again.  It also moves people very far away from their families to where it’s extremely unlikely for families to be able to see them, and that further alienates people from any pro-social connection they might have.  There’s so much that comes from this situation.  Most of those new prisons were warehouses with bunk beds , a hundred people all thrown together and no protection for anybody.  Correctional officers were not going to get in anybody’s way if they wanted to commit violence.  It was terrifying.  To go through that, to live with absolutely no sense of safety, takes a toll on people.  And then once they establish any sort of relationships, then all of a sudden, they’re moved to a brand-new place and the whole cycle starts over.

TCR: Ironically, to find that security and stability, prisoners are often forced to turn back to the gang lifestyle.  How do prison gangs differ from their street counterparts?

CB: Prison gangs are older and more organized, they’re more stringent as far as rules and what are required of members. Street gangs are more disorganized. Gang members in prison don’t really speak of the gangs as any different, although they are.  Most street gang members will end up feeding into the prison gangs.  There are very few street gangs that maintain their own gang within prison, other than ones like the Bloods or the Crips.  It’s like a graduation into a more sophisticated and higher level of organization.

TCR: How did your experiences in prison, and the often-purposeful challenges you encountered not only help you survive, but succeed and achieve rehabilitation? 

 CB: Are we sending people to prison as punishment, or for more punishment? People think prison is supposed to be about rehabilitation, but everything in there was really just about further punishment. It was actually hard to get any of the beneficial programs.  For some, they made it virtually impossible.  Of course, if you got into any trouble they wouldn’t let you be involved in any positive programs. But even if you didn’t, you had to wait several years without being in trouble to even start anything.  Then, if something came up, like a prison riot, and you were part of a certain demographic, even if you weren’t involved in that riot, they would punish you for it, you would lose any progress you may have made, and they wouldn’t let you back in.

Even if you established one type of rehabilitation program, they were likely to send you to another prison and you had no clue when or why they would do that.  It was just out of the blue.  They make it really hard to see families or for families to come see you by sending you anywhere within the state.  At my final destination, for my family to come see me it was an eight-hour round trip, and that’s not reasonable for most people to do.

TCR: In the book you tell the story of a fellow inmate who told you that you had to be exceptional to succeed in that environment.  Do you have any resentment towards a system that fails so many, yet still demands exceptionalism?

CB: I don’t have resentment; I just have sadness.  It was so difficult, and I completely understand why people fail in that process.  I didn’t expect a handout, other people didn’t expect handouts, but we did hope for at least the opportunity to show that we could be different.  Most people don’t get that.  Even when they get out of prison and are on parole, the system of parole is so problematic that it makes it really hard for people to be successful.

People are paying all these fines and fees, they have to have a job, but they also have to be reporting all the time.  In the book, I talk about how I had a new parole officer almost every single visit.  That made it impossible to establish a relationship.  So, I just feel sadness for all the people who want to change and aren’t being given the opportunity.  People who have felony convictions, if we allow others to discriminate against them, it doesn’t do anything about the problem and, in fact, has encouraged it for the longest time.  Now we have this situation where there are all these people affected by the system and they’re just stuck in either a cycle of recidivism or a cycle of impoverishment and being second-class citizens with very few opportunities to escape.

TCR: How does the probation and parole system continue this cycle of recidivism and stigmatization and how does it affect the people entangled in it?

CB: It is walking on eggshells.  I would have nightmares, and wake up in night sweats, because I was constantly in fear that I was being sent back to prison for something that I didn’t do.  Having a different parole officer almost each time that I went to report, I was dealing with all of these different people and personalities; and some of them were just very intent on trying to violate.  In the book I talk about one officer in particular who kept threatening to send me to prison, insisting that I report immediately, and accusing me of all these crimes.  I was in fear all the time that something like that was going to happen.

And then, just the minor things, like being on curfew, I was only allowed to be out for work because I was on the electronic monitor.  I was given a very brief window to get back home, and San Antonio is a big city.  There’s constant traffic, there were trains on the way home that I would get stuck because of, and I would just sit there in pure terror that I wasn’t going to make it home in time. It’s hard to imagine how a lot of other people can successfully get through this.  It was almost as traumatic as the prison system.

TCR: As a sociologist, why do you think that we are so willing to accept this type of treatment of people, regardless of their crimes?

CB: From a sociological perspective, societies have always used the process of othering, trying to define themselves by putting people on the outside.  That othering dehumanizes people.  And this notion that people who have committed crimes are villains allows this dehumanization and allows people to ignore it.  When they actually encounter people personally it humanizes that person and I think that’s why we’ve started to have somewhat of a shift.

This system grew so big behind the scenes that now it’s hard to not know somebody who’s been affected by it.  It used to be that there were particular minority groups that the criminal justice system was primarily focused on, and there was already a social issue of othering, a new caste system, in that regard.  I think that now it has gotten to the point where it is affecting everybody.  We’ve had a habit of delineating people as outsiders and insiders.  That makes sense sociologically, but we can overcome that simply by rehumanizing people.

TCR: You book provides some of that human understanding to the intricacies of the gang culture and the communities they exist in.  Are there positives to gang culture and what are the benefits to a greater understanding of it?

CB: There are positives, but the positives aren’t for society as a whole.  The positives are for the individuals involved.  The societal institutions that are supposed to give them what they need aren’t working, so they try to get them through the gang.  The gang is dysfunctional, it’s an imperfect alternative version.  It provides them a sense of family, of love, of protection; it provides them shelter and food.

People would be surprised at how many gang members come from homelessness.  There are a lot of things provided through the gangs that society should have been providing, but is not.  That beingsaid, the negatives are that lots of people get hurt, lots of violence occurs.  And those on the outside, that’s all they see, and because people are only focused on violence and gang violence, they portray gang members as folk devils and that everything they’re doing is because they’re evil or malicious.  It isn’t like that at all.  Most of the violence has to do with people feeling that their loved ones, their other gang members, are being threatened and they are going to take care of that threat before it hurts them further.  Now, that’s not what it’s supposed to be, but that’s their view on it and that’s very different from the outside perspective.

TCR: What steps need to be taken to better improve the system that you found yourself in and change the culture of criminal justice in this country?

CB: The easiest one is education.  Investing in education and changing educational philosophies from focusing on punishment to focusing on building relationships.  I talk to gang members all the time in interviews, and to college students in general who have just come out of high school, and there is a complete disconnect between the educators and the students.  The youth feel like the only thing adults care about is punishing them, and that’s not helpful.  Changing the educational philosophy away from focusing solely on discipline seems like a simple solution.

I do think we are at a tipping point where we can start refocusing prison systems.  You can just look at some of the other more industrialized countries and see that they have much more humane ways of doing things.  In fact, there are places where people who are incarcerated don’t even mind that they’re in that situation, because they know it’s there to help them and that they’re going to get out and do better and be better.  I don’t think there’s anybody in the United States who feels that way about our system of criminal justice.  They know it’s punitive, they know it’s about retribution.  We need a culture shift away from retribution and more towards some type of rehabilitation, restitution, and reintegration of people back into society.

Isdoro Rodriguez is a contributing writer for The Crime Report.  He welcomes readers’ comments.

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