Oct 24, 2016
From Prison Focus Issue 50
Before any impressive re-birth into society, a dark, dismal death must first occur. More often than not, the death is attributed to that moment at sentencing when, in this case, a newly turned 16-year-old Stockton youth was sentenced to 19-years-to-Life in the penitentiary.
Raymond Aguilar was that teenager sentenced in San Joaquin Superior Court back in 1990. Today, Aguilar is free, and living in Stockton, and though less than 100 days after completing a 26 year CDCR stint, he is already advocating for youth and life term inmates alike.
“I got to Pelican Bay in 1993-94 and went right to the SHU,” Aguilar says of his Security Housing Units debut. “Back there, most of us were lifers, validated gang members and murderers. There is no hope no more, that’s the end of the line, that’s it.”
In an era before indigenous sweats, before contact visits and before SHU inmates were afforded many of their current rights, Aguilar made his way through the toughest channels in the California Prison system, literally as a child. Before escaping his teenage years, Aguilar’s reality would be transformed forever.
Early childhood was nothing pleasant for Aguilar growing up in Stockton. Aguilar was one of four children born to his married parents and raised amidst consistent dysfunction. Aguilar attributes the minimal stability he had to his grandmother, yet admits that a lot of what he witnessed from his grandmother was far from wholesome.
“My entire family was involved with drugs,” Aguilar said. “My parents were using, my grandmother was selling drugs, Drugs and violence were always a part of my life, even before I went to prison.”
Aguilar’s life sentence came after the shooting death of a 35-year old man. The man had been someone Aguilar “didn’t like” and Aguilar attested to having “problems” with the man in the past. In a warped-reality, Aguilar’s crime had been committed in protection of the same family members that should have been protecting him.
With more than two decades of prison time completed, Aguilar has made his return to society a triumphant one. It is nearly impossible to prepare for that moment of release, yet it seems as if Aguilar has aimed towards that very moment, his entire adult life.
After tasting the vile taste of having the Governor reverse the decision of the Board of Prison Hearings to grant him parole, Aguilar knew first hand that his freedom was not in his control. Yet finally relief for Aguilar came on September 16, 2013 when the Governor approved Senate Bill 260 requiring a youthful parole hearing after completing 15 years of the initial sentence.
During a powerful public comment at the Board of State Community Corrections Proposition 47 ESC Meeting in late June, 2016, Aguilar captivated the law enforcement-heavy audience with the simple reality of his life’s experiences. Aguilar went from tattooed murderer who was voiceless for 20-plus years, to one of California’s premiere experts on self-rehabilitation as well as an expert navigator of the system’s wicked reality created for our youth. The change he has made personally is not as shocking to Aguilar as was learning that there are tons of people on the outside fighting for prisoners who are fighting to retain their sanity; for prisoners in solitary confinement.
“It was a shock because inside we do not believe that many are out here fighting for us,” Aguilar said. “These people are fighting daily to expose the injustices that we experience in solitary confinement. If more people knew it would make a difference.”
Understanding that each moment behind the locked door is a tool of preparation for the hopeful day of release is important.
“When I was back there, all we did was exercise,” Aguilar said of his SHU tenure. “Exercise was a part of our discipline, reading was a part of our discipline, being consistent with our program was a part of our discipline. So 25 years later, now that I’m out here, I’m thinking, ‘how can I be consistent out here like I was in there?’ Things are a lot faster out here; in the SHU we talk about keeping our word and sticking to it. You can keep to your word out here too. Because guess what? A lot of people out here don’t.”
The strength, determination and tenacity that it takes to endure the SHU, will be the keys to success in making a positive reentry into society. The true victory is not in getting out, but staying out. Believing that, while in the midst of a 20-plus-year prison commitment, is no easy task.
The strength, determination and tenacity that it takes to endure the SHU will be the same keys to suc-cess in making a positive reentry into society.
In there that’s all it is, being strong,” Aguilar said. “We are all determined to not fail. So when I came out here, it was the same concept. I’m like, ‘OK, I am not going to fail, I’m going to adjust’. One part of the constitution says advancement demands change, so in order to advance we must change. So I advanced myself from the SHU, to the step-down program, to society. Now, how am I going to adapt? Well, I’m going to be mentally strong, physically strong, but emotionally that is the part I have to deal with.”
The realities of suffocating one’s emotions for decades takes its toll. Re-addressing those emotions may be the steepest valley long-term inmates have to face. The emotional stability it will take to avoid recidivism has to begin on the inside, prior to being back in society.
“We don’t deal with our emotions in the penitentiary,” Aguilar said. “We push everything to the side. So now, out here, be prepared for an emotional roller coaster. When we’re back there, we don’t talk about love, or affection, or kindness; those words are alien to us. Now I am dealing with all of those emotions and those feelings. Yes, I am committed to my job. I’m strong and I’m focused, but emotionally, I have to admit I break down daily inside myself.”
“I’m speaking to the brothers back there, I wish they would make time to deal with their emotions, because when you come out here, it is going to hit.”