Skip to main content

I came to prison when I was 16 years old. Getting arrested and sentenced to life at such a young age dramatically shaped my life.

Life Behind Bars

The 34 years I have spent behind bars are the result of the excessive trauma and pain I experienced as a child.

My inability to express the pain I felt caused me to adopt the friends, values, and behavioral patterns that would ultimately earn me a life sentence.

I was born on November 1, 1965, in Phoenix, Arizona, but raised in Fresno, California. Shortly after I was born, my grandparents took guardianship of me and my older brother “M.” My mother was only 16 when she had me and not ready to raise children. My father was much older than my mother and was very violent, controlling, and uninterested in raising children. He abandoned my mother before I was born, so I never knew him.

Though my grandparents made an effort to take care of my brother and me—they fed us, clothed us, and kept a roof over our heads—they were alcoholics and could not take care of themselves, let alone adequately care for two small children. My grandparents worked in a winery, so we always had more alcohol in our refrigerator than food.

At the age of 11, I began drinking every day. With so much liquor around the house and no real guidance from my grandparents, I saw drinking as a way of dealing with the feelings of abandonment and neglect from the adults in my life.

Despite being neglected by my mother’s parents, I loved my family anyway and could not understand why they didn’t seem to love me the same way I loved them.

As a result of not receiving the love and attention I longed for, I grew up feeling confused and withdrawn. Since no one seemed to care, I decided at a young age that talking about my problems would do no good. Thus, I developed many warped defense mechanisms to avoid revealing my true feelings to others.

I could talk non-stop but could never tell anyone what I was truly feeling. The walls I built around me (to keep people from seeing how vulnerable I was) were very high and strong. But those same walls would eventually lead to the self-destructive behavior that caused me so many problems later in life.

After a few years, my mother attempted to reach out to my brother and me, but even so, I never really felt loved by her. Her boyfriend did not accept us and beat my mom. The beatings would occur so often that I eventually became fed up with seeing such abuse, so I threatened to kill her boyfriend to protect her. Instead of understanding how I felt and offering comforting words, she responded by kicking me out of her home! Naturally, I felt rejected and betrayed because I thought I was keeping her from harm. My mother’s rejection crippled me emotionally and killed my self-esteem.

I would not understand until much later what these early incidents did to me and how they shaped the way I treated and valued the people in my life.

Since I was always small as a youngster, I would get jumped at school by other kids. I was also considered a loner which didn’t help me make friends easily. My negative experiences at school only served to reinforce my developing belief that violence alone commands respect.

So I began carrying weapons to fend off bullies at school and in the neighborhood. As my reputation began to grow, I was introduced to other troubled kids, gang members, and drug addicts. I joined a gang, started committing crimes, and began moving through the revolving door of juvenile hall. Ironically perhaps, doing time became a refuge from my chaotic and discouraging home life.

Once I joined the gang, the homies became my family. The acceptance I received from them and the bonds we formed made me willing to do just about anything for them.

Once I joined the gang, the homies became my family. The acceptance I received from them and the bonds we formed made me willing to do just about anything for them.

The fact is, I felt I needed their acceptance, but this need blinded me to the fact that by doing whatever the homies asked of me, I was giving in to dangerous peer-pressure.

Another reason for joining the gang was because my older brother was already a gang member. I looked up to him because he was respected within the gang and considered a leader. At age 17, however, he was arrested and sent to prison for murder. Since he was someone I looked up to, I felt it was my duty to be like him and copy his idea of manhood—even if it meant following in his risky footsteps.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Although I felt alone and sought the comfort, camaraderie, and guidance from my gang, there were still some adults in my life who tried to help. But the pain and rejection I had experienced with my family kept me from trusting people—no matter their good intentions.

I believed no one could possibly understand how I felt inside. I felt so angry and alone that the gang life filled the void in my life, and my loyalty was only to my homies.

One night, my homies and I went out to a party where we drank and smoked weed and did other drugs. As the night progressed, we grew wild and violent. My homeboy, Fats, started a fight with two guys from another city who were not gang members, just innocent party-goers. Feeling obligated to defend my homeboy, I jumped in the fight and we stabbed both men to death.

Eventually, I was arrested for my crimes and sentenced to life in prison. I was 16 years old, with no hope for a future! Then it hit me -- I would have to spend the rest of my life behind bars!

Once I arrived at prison, I was exposed to a completely different world. Everything I’d done outside—the person I thought I was, the reputation I’d earned for myself, my homies, and my gang—none of it meant anything on the inside.

Once incarcerated, “The Cause” was all that mattered (whatever that is?). The Cause now dictated my every action. By that time, I didn’t care about my life nor anyone else’s.

In the midst of my prison gang-banging career, I heard that my brother had dropped out of the prison gang. My big brother “M”—whom I had looked up to and idolized, the leader of my street gang and my inspiration for joining the gang in the first place—had walked away!

I felt betrayed and abandoned once again. My brother’s choice to quit the gang caused deep resentment within me, mixed with hatred towards him that would last for many years.

After 20 years of living the insane life of a prison gang member, I began to see things differently. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but my perception of myself and of the lifestyle I was living began to change.

I started seeing my actions, my homies, and the Cause for what they really were. I came to realize how my poor decisions had buried me alive, and how I could have avoided a life of hardship if I’d only found my voice.

I thought, “If only I’d asked for help. If only I had accepted help from the well-meaning adults in my life, then I wouldn’t be sitting in prison.”

I thought, “If only I’d asked for help. If only I had accepted help from the well-meaning adults in my life, then I wouldn’t be sitting in prison.”

At 16, I felt unable to express all the pain, anger, and resentment that caused me to hate and not to trust everyone and everything, including myself. But after all these years, I finally had found my true self and let him out!

With all my new-found insight, I decided to take a leap of faith. I sought help from self-help groups and from other inmates who had changed their lives. By seeking the help I have long needed, I was able to process what I had been feeling and learned how to make wiser decisions.

I am now in my 34th year of incarceration and living a better life than I ever have. I can’t help but consider all the time I wasted, all the destruction I have caused, all the lives I have ruined. Now I live every day of my life, trying to make amends for the two men who met death from my cold-blooded hands—innocent men who lost their lives as a result of my selfish immaturity and unacknowledged pain.

My hope is that young people who are struggling will read my story and find encouragement. For kids who are headed down the path that I took, I want this story to serve as a cautionary tale for change.

At 49 years old, I’m just now seeing the light. Please don’t wait as long as I did to find your true self and to be able to express how you really feel—the pain you now hold inside.

Raymond Martinez