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Teachers Who Tried to Help Me

I'm Ronald, but the Streets know me as "Duke." These days I'm called Brother Shabazz, due to my Muslim faith.

I was born in South Central Los Angeles, raised in the Pueblo Projects, home of the Notorius 52 Bishop Blood Gang.

Though we lived in the city, my mom (born in Alabama in 1929) and dad (born in Mississippi in 1916) instilled their Southern values, traditions, and beliefs in us. Neither parent had a criminal background. When I was only 6 months old, however, my parents divorced (I was the youngest of all the siblings). My mother raised me and my siblings in a loving home with strict Christian values.

We were on welfare, yet my mom was able to raise other people’s children in her home, while my dad worked for Lockheed Aircraft, from which he retired in 1980 after 35 years.

Ironically, the year 1980 would also be the year my life changed forever, for this was the year I came to prison at age 16.

From a young age, my surroundings were limited to certain types of people, places, and things. My associations outside my home began to shape my beliefs, so I adjusted my behavior accordingly. As a result of allowing negative influences to dictate my life, I disobeyed my parents and messed up in school.

Although always considered "from my Hood," I did not officially start gangbanging until I went to prison. But long before getting locked up, I began experimenting with drugs, drinking, sex (at age 11), fighting, gambling, etc. I adopted the lingo, mannerisms, and fashion that allowed me to fit in with criminals, gang members, hustlers, dealers, pimps, and players. All of these people embraced me and accepted me as one of their own.

My friends and I were fascinated with players, hustlers, gamblers, dealers, and gangsters because they played by their own rules, despite the law. Ignorantly, we admired and emulated them and would eventually turn into monsters who killed people and destroyed our community.

When it came to crime and mischief, if you can name it, I've done it or knew someone who did. I coveted the objects and trappings of what represented success in "The Life"--clothes, money jewelry, guns. My friends and I were fascinated with players, hustlers, gamblers, dealers, and gangsters because they played by their own rules, despite the law. Ignorantly, we admired and emulated them and would eventually turn into monsters who killed people and destroyed our community.

Lack of vision and hope caused me to be more susceptible to the destructive codes of the streets. So, abandoning my parents' teachings, I embarked on a criminal journey that resulted in my taking someone's life.

I couldn't see nor understand how my way of thinking and behavior was impeding my intellectual and spiritual growth. I began to accept the negative, destructive aspects of my environment as normal, adopting these rules and conditions for survival and success, while applying them to all aspects of my life. Rules such as "The G-Code"--don't run, don't back down, get money, power and respect at all costs. By the time I committed my crime, those “values” had been instilled in me at that young age--they had become embedded in my personality, character, and conduct.

On August 10, 1980, I went to the store to cash my Summer Youth check. Once there, the owner kicked me out because he remembered that I used to steal from his store and from the delivery trucks that serviced it. I was no longer into petty theft (and was then a part-time student, dealer, hustler, gambler, who had moved on and up to "bigger and better things”), so the owner refused my entry.

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I returned home, gave the check to my Mom and returned to the store with a friend. Without my knowledge, someone had just robbed one of the employees. The owner and employee approached me and accused me of the robbery. I denied the accusation, and we began to argue. The owner told his employee (a 21-year-old boxer), "You know what to do to him." The employee, in turn, said, "The next time I see you, you better have something." I later learned that he had secured a knife to stab me and a gun to shoot me.

In survival mode and sensing danger, I ran to a homie's house, where my brother was. They had just gotten into a conflict with some Crips and wanted me to go with them to confront the rival gang. They gave me the gun. Still upset, I headed back to the store. I spotted the person who I had argued with and who'd threatened me earlier. I said, "What's happening?" He came towards me. I pulled out the gun and shot at him. He died from a gunshot to the neck, the bullet travelling to his heart.

Upon hearing what I did, my mother immediately took me and my brother to the police station and turned us in. I was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to adult prison.

Being the youngest person (16) in the California Prison System, not to mention one of the smallest (120 pounds soaking wet), my transition to prison life was not easy. Almost immediately, someone tried to rape me. Thankfully, I fought back and prevented it. That experience led to me becoming a full-fledged gang member with many years of rebellion and disciplinary problems ahead of me.

My prison lifestyle became a continuation of my life on the streets. I looked up to criminals and adopted their behavior and way of thinking—something which not only prevented me from seeing the error of my ways but also prevented my release. As a result, I have served 35 years on a 15 to life sentence—that's 23 years past my minimum release date! You can see how my mentality led to many extended years of incarceration!

It took many years, negative experiences, and numerous disciplinary reports before I finally began to reject the influences of the negativity around me. Change has been a constant struggle for me! I continue to develop my identity as a mature, responsible person. Now I attend self-help groups and apply principles—concepts like empathy and respect—that I had once disregarded as "soft” and "for suckers.” The 12 Steps of Criminals and Gangmembers Anonymous (CGA) have become part of my everyday life. By living according to these principles, I've learned the value of positive living.

Today, I'm comfortable with the person I've become. The joy and peace that comes from engaging in non-destructive behavior is worth more than all that I thought I was getting from criminal activity.

Now, I'm viewed as a positive role model (even in prison). And I want the chance to do something positive on the outside to help make up for all the destructiveness of my prior behaviors—the things I should have done before I allowed myself to be led astray!

For me, self-development means internalizing the teachings my parents tried to instill in me: Faith in God, respect for myself and others, and being a good man. I no longer fit into other people's view nor definition of who I am, but strive to be the best person I can be.

To struggling young people out there, I'd like to say that if you've made mistakes, you are not a monster, despite how others may make you feel. Many people called me a monster for killing someone at age 16. But I've changed. I'm not the scared, insecure, misguded little kid anymore. And if you're a young person reading this, just know that you can change. Please do so.

I'm guilty of a horrible crime, one that did not have to occur. My crime was the result of accepting faulty principles and destructive ideas. I was a product of my environment, but that doesn't diminish my guilt, nor the need for me to be held responsible for what I've done. I accept full responsibility for my crime.


Ronald Paterson