Kenyatta Leal visited to provide a guest lecture for our ninth class. I asked Kenyatta to share his story with our class because I wanted to expand the group’s depth and breadth of understanding about experiences within the criminal justice system. The literature assigned for The Architecture of Incarceration offers hundreds of thousands of words that the students can read, but I’m convinced that our students walk away with more insight when they listen to people who’ve lived through the prison system. As I expected he would, Kenyatta did a phenomenal job in sharing his story.
Kenyatta arrived with me at the start of our class. Before we walked in, I confirmed whether he would be receptive to answering any questions the students asked. His goal, he said, was to help shape the students’ understanding of the prison system. The best way that he could contribute would be to speak openly and candidly about the decades he served.
Like many of the people who served time in America’s prison system, Kenyatta grew up on the margins of society. His father abandoned his family when Kenyatta was a young boy, leaving him to be reared with a single mother and to grow up with his older brother’s influence. Many of the older people in his community were gang affiliated and drug abusers. By the time Kenyatta reached his early teens, he was drinking and smoking weed. He described himself as a good athlete and a good student, which brought the attention that he craved. But a lack of supervision led to Kenyatta’s being further influenced by people who lived a criminal lifestyle. He knew people who sold drugs and participated in other crimes. Before long, Kenyatta said that he joined in with that type of behavior. His grades suffered. Fallout from receiving low marks in school meant that he wasn’t eligible for sports. He quit school in the eleventh grade and tried to earn a living as a construction worker.
After being laid off from his construction job, Kenyatta said that he felt worthless and insecure. He described himself as being like an addict who needed drugs. Yet Kenyatta’s addiction had him craving for money in his pocket rather than a drug fix. Without seeing much opportunity for employment, Kenyatta described a series of escalating criminal activities to generate funds. He started out selling drugs. Then he picked up a gun and began robbing drug offenders. Then he used his gun to begin robbing business establishments.
Despite years of criminal activity, authorities didn’t arrest Kenyatta until he reached his early 20s. He faced charges for armed robbery and admitted to the class that he had committed such crimes several times before without being caught. He didn’t appreciate the harm that his actions caused to his victims until many years later, when he underwent a transformation in prison.
Upon his entrance into the jail system, Kenyatta received advice from some of the older “homies” in the jailhouse. As a consequence of the area where Kenyatta grew up, he affiliated with the Bloods street gang. When he walked into the jail, he understood that his affiliation with the Bloods would continue. His homies advised Kenyatta to take a plea deal that would limit his time in prison and Kenyatta agreed. He accepted the prosecutor’s offer to plead guilty in exchange for a five-year sentence.
Kenyatta received a five-year sentence, but he understood that he would receive “good time” credits so long as authorities did not convict him of violating disciplinary infractions. If he did not lose any of the good time credits, Kenyatta knew that he would satisfy his term of confinement in 3.5 years.
Kenyatta said that he served his time in prison in precisely the same way as he had been living in society. He did not grasp any reason to contemplate the life he would lead after confinement. Instead, he spoke about the importance of living day-by-day inside the prison system. Being ostracized by the prison community would be about the worst thing that could happen to someone in prison, he said. Since Kenyatta did not see any reason to behave differently from the other prisoners, he followed the path of his homies.
Kenyatta described how prison administrators used blunt risk-assessment tools to categorize him after he was transferred from the county jail into a prison reception center. The officers evaluated the “static” and “dynamic” factors that we discussed in previous classes. Authorities determined that Kenyatta’s criminal background should result in his being confined inside the walls of a medium-security facility that was located hundreds of miles away from his family in San Diego.
While he confined at the jail and reception area, Kenyatta said that he received visits regularly. Those visits stopped when authorities transported him to serve his sentence inside a prison that was hundreds of miles away from San Diego. That distance from family and loved ones hardened Kenyatta, he said. He concluded the final portion of his term by working at a fire camp, where he learned how to operate a chainsaw and to perform heavy labor.
Kenyatta said that he returned to society at 25, but he didn’t have any commitment to begin his life as a law-abiding citizen. Prior to his incarceration he hustled drugs and participated in other types of criminal activity, including armed robbery. That criminal behavior continued while he served 3.5 years of his five-year sentence. Kenyatta said that within a few hours of being released, he was getting high and drinking. He had to report to a probation officer, but conditions of supervised release didn’t interfere with his doing what he wanted. To comply with the conditions of his release, he accepted a job as a landscaping laborer. Still needing something more to increase his sense of importance, Kenyatta also reverted to the type of criminal behavior that he knew from the past.
Six months after being released from the first sentence that he served, Kenyatta told the class about driving in a car with one of his friends. A police officer pulled Kenyatta over for speeding. As a consequence of Kenyatta’s criminal record and his status of being on probation, Kenyatta did not have the same right to privacy that other American citizens took for granted. The police officer could search Kenyatta’s vehicle without the need for a warrant.
During that search, Kenyatta said that the police officer found a firearm. Despite Kenyatta’s insistence that firearm did not belong to him, the officer cited the law and booked him. Since the officer found the firearm inside Kenyatta’s vehicle, he had “constructive possession” of the weapon. As a convicted felon, Kenyatta did not have the right to possess a firearm. Further, as a consequence of a criminal record that showed Kenyatta had pleaded guilty to two felony crimes previously, authorities were charging Kenyatta as a three-strike offender. That act of driving a car that contained a firearm resulted in Kenyatta’s being convicted and in his judge sentencing him to a term of 25-years to life.
Kenyatta explained the implications of receiving his “interdeterminate” sentence. Authorities would require that he serve 80 percent (or 20 years) of the minimum portion of his sentence. After he served those 20 years, Kenyatta said that he would become eligible to see the parole board. The parole board would then evaluate Kenyatta and assess his adjustment through prison. If the members of the parole board determined that Kenyatta was worthy, the parole board would have the discretion to release Kenyatta. On the other hand, if the parole board lacked confidence in Kenyatta’s commitment to live as a law-abiding citizen, they could refuse to grant him parole and require that Kenyatta continue serving his sentence until another review that would take place after several more years.
Kenyatta spoke about being classified once again. His criminal history together with his life sentence resulted in authorities categorizing him as a higher-security offender. In an effort to stay close to the San Diego area, Kenyatta cited hardship with his grandmother’s health. Authorities considered the request and authorized Kenyatta to serve his sentence in a Southern California prison. Again, while locked inside of that prison, Kenyatta said that he adjusted in ways that were consistent with his background. He wanted to be released from prison at some point, but he did not appreciate the ways that his behavior or adjustment inside would influence his prospects for release. He was 25 years old and contemplating the prospects of dying in prison.
Kenyatta participated in team sports, gambling, and other activities to pass the time inside. Those activities led to his being involved in an altercation. That altercation threatened Kenyatta’s reputation, or so he thought. As a man serving a life sentence, Kenyatta placed enormous importance on his prison reputation. If others perceived him as being “soft,” he expected more troubles to follow. His response to the perceived threat to his reputation resulted in Kenyatta getting into a fight and a stab wound for Kenyatta’s opponent. Authorities responded by transferring Kenyatta to the Pelican Bay Segregated Housing Unit (SHU) program for a 15-month term. The SHU program kept him locked down for all but five hours a week. His one hour of recreation meant that he moved in chains from his cell to another enclosed cage that was labeled a recreation area.
As Kenyatta moved deeper into his term he began to recognize a need to change. Another prisoner opened his mind to a new way of thinking. Kenyatta matured, coming to recognize that he should strive to align his actions with the values by which he professed to live. That change led Kenyatta to work toward educating himself. He began to reject the ways of the penitentiary. He quit associating with gang members and focused his efforts on preparing himself for his eventual release.
Laws changed, decimating Kenyatta’s hope. Instead of being considered for parole after he served 20 years, when he would have completed 80 percent of his 25-year minimum term, the new law required Kenyatta to serve 25 years before the parole board would have the discretion to release him.
Kenyatta’s adjustment change, which he said began during his seventh year of confinement on the life sentence, resulted in his growth. He distinguished himself within the prison population after authorities transferred him to a prison where he could work to educate himself. Later, a disturbance occurred at that prison, resulting in authorities transferring Kenyatta once again, to San Quentin, where he experienced a culture that felt completely different from any prison where he had been confined before.
Everyone walked around carrying books.
That change in atmosphere prompted Kenyatta to work harder toward educating himself. He later earned an associate of arts degree with perfect marks and graduated as valedictorian of his class.
Without clear opportunities to advance his formal education further, Kenyatta told our class about how he immersed himself in programs that would help improve the community inside San Quentin’s boundaries and beyond. When Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti brought The Last Mile entrepreneurship program to San Quentin, Kenyatta said that he began to realize that he always had an entrepreneur’s spirit. The guidance they provided through The Last Mile helped Kenyatta to refine his presentation skills. He developed a business plan for his idea of The Couch Potato. Kenyatta intended to revolutionize the way that people around the world played fantasy football through his new technology platform and he impressed the class with one-minute elevator pitch about the business he intended to launch.
Kenyatta stood before our class as an example of what a truly best-in-class correctional system could produce. He described going into the system without any intention of living as a law-abiding citizen. The prison system itself did not influence him to change his values or perspectives for the better. During the seventh year of his second sentence, however, Kenyatta recognized that he had to change and grow. His maturity led to his pursuing a different path, one that prepared him for success.
Legislative changes resulted in Kenyatta being released from prison last summer, about 100 days ago. The skillset he developed inside, along with some valuable mentoring provided through The Last Mile program, resulted in his walking out with a job waiting for him. He is rebuilding his life now with a new career at Rocketspace, an organization that helps technology businesses get off the ground. Kenyatta is also working to bring more awareness to the injustices of mass incarceration.