When he began writing Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro enlisted the help of Father Gregory Boyle to connect with some ex-offenders and former gang members. Fr. Greg is a Jesuit priest and the director and founder of Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention program in the United States. As a spiritual leader in the East LA community, he has been successfully working to reduce gang membership since 1986. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to chat with Fr. Greg, who had just finished recording the final chapter for the audio version of his 2010 critically-acclaimed memoir, Tattoos on the Heart.
In your experience with the LA gang community, what causes someone to join a gang? And why do gang members tattoo themselves?
Well, kids join gangs because they can’t imagine a future for themselves. And it’s about a lethal absence of hope. So, when they put a tattoo on, they’re ostensibly dedicating themselves to the organization—pledging their allegiance. But it’s also an act of desperation. Later on, the hope is that someone will infuse them with hope and they’ll realize, “Wow. This was really dumb.” So, that’s why there’s no other place on the planet that removes more tattoos than Homeboy Industries.
What’s the significance of tattoo removal?
When gang members remove tattoos, it indicates to friend and foe alike, “Who I really am is stepping away from what this used to signify.” And also that everybody is a lot more than the dumbest or worst thing they ever did.
In additional to tattoo removal, Homeboy focuses on job training and placement. In LA, when an ex-offender is released from prison, how difficult is it to find employment?
Exceedingly difficult, and it couldn’t be more difficult than it is right now, because at least in our early days the pool of the unemployed was smaller. And, so, you could almost always get an employer to say, “Send me somebody.” But now that the pool is a great deal larger, employers are going to choose other folks who have other work experience already. It’s extremely difficult, then, because everybody’s stigmatized. Everybody’s scratching their heads because the state of California has the highest recidivism rate in the US. But if we prepare ex-offenders for nothing in prison and nothing awaits them when they get out, we’ve lost our right to be surprised that we have so many returning to prison.
I read on Homeboy’s website that “Jobs are the key to change.” Why is this particularly true for ex-offenders?
You want ex-offenders to step away from the gang path and perhaps an inclination toward criminality. And so you have to engage them in purposeful activity. You have to give them a reason to get up in the morning and a reason not to gang bang the night before. So, employment really does the trick.
Do you think ex-offenders fall into their old ways by choice or necessity?
I think it’s probably a combination of the two. What would you do if no one would hire you, and you had the responsibility of paying rent and feeding kids? Sometimes if the process of re-identifying isn’t very complete—when ex-offenders start to reconfigure in their minds what manhood really means and what courage really looks like—then they can wander back to the things that put them in harms way. And if you sit around a barber shop long enough, you’re going to get a haircut.
While working with ex-offenders in LA, have you encountered individuals who find it easier and/or preferable to live behind bars than on the outside? Have you encountered individuals who purposefully committed crimes in order to return to prison?
I wouldn’t call that normative, but I would say it happens. And I know folks who have done it. They just couldn’t live on the outside. A lot of this happens on a subconscious level. Even when they know they’re gravitating perilously close to arrestable situations, who knows if they’re fully thinking that out. When guys get discouraged, they say, “Maybe I should just go back to prison. I kind of know how that works. And it’s three meals a day. And I know how the game is played.” Normally, you can just talk them out of that. Anyone who’s able to conjure up an image of what tomorrow will look like can steer clear of trouble. And all of it is completely commensurate with a person’s ability to stay hopeful, to stay away from inflicting harm or harm’s way.
For LA-area gang members, is there a difference between their gang and their family? Are the two typically one in the same?
You know, there’s a mythic understanding of gangs. These myths get passed on because gang members will self-present. So, they’ll say things like, “The gang was my family or my second family,” which is nonsense, because gangs are bastions of conditional love. And no real family is conditional; it’s unconditional. But gangs are quite, quite conditional. One false move and you’re on the outside and you can’t recover. Families ought not to look like that, but gangs do. But in their own self-presentation, gang members will say, “Oh, they’re my family. They’re the ones who have my back.” If the premise is true that no hopeful kid joins a gang, then hopeful kids are usually folks who are engaged in a deeply mutual and relational way with their family. And most gang members don’t have any good or pliable paternal experience. Or, the childhood with the mother is torturous. Psychologists will talk about gang members having a disorganized attachment. Mom was frightening, or mom was frightened. How can you calm yourself down, if you’re never been soothed? Part of what Homeboy Industries loves to do is to repair—to engage fully in attachment repair. How do you repair this thing that should have been part of their initial sustenance and love? And it’s better late than never. So, when gang members use the word “family,” it’s only because they’ve learned to say that over the years. They don’t know how else to talk about it.
In LA, do you see families acting as mentors or support systems for ex-offenders?
It’s tough, especially now, in California, where so many people are in prison for the rest of their lives. But others aren’t in for life. The thing that’s so striking to me nowadays is essential homelessness among this population leaving prison. So, [after being paroled], they’ll come looking for a job, and you’ll ask yourself, “Wow, what good is a job if this guy has no place to lay his head.” And that’s just because families have moved on or don’t want anything to have to do with this ex-offender. Drugs seem to be dominant [with this population]. Everybody’s afraid: “Unless you nail everything down, this guy will return to my house and start selling my stuff.”
Does incarceration have an impact on gang solidarity?
Gang members will always say the same thing when they get out of prison: “Homies didn’t remember that I was gone. They forgot about me. They didn’t send me money. They didn’t send me packages.” And, again, it shouldn’t surprise anybody. Gang members don’t have it together. They don’t have it together enough to be mindful and attentive to a camarada [comrade] who’s locked up. So, when they get out, often enough it ferments an “I don’t want to go back. And these guys weren’t really my friends while I was locked up.” Or, if somebody’s a “shot caller”–whatever the heck people think that means–and he gets out of prison, it’s tough for that guy to start to humbly work in a warehouse when he used to be el mero chignon [the head guy]. That’s a really tough stretch. But I see lots of folks do it. Where they go, “Yeah, that was false and fake and empty and hollow and I don’t want to be a part of it anymore.”
From your experience in LA, does a community member’s incarceration have an impact on the health of a community?
In the end, gang violence is not a crime issue; it’s always a community health issue. And we’ll be healthy as communities the minute we pry it away from law enforcement. And see it for the truth of what it is: an indicator of a lethal absence of hope. That needs to be addressed by everyone in the community. So, the more we are reliant on law enforcement to make this go away, the unhealthier we are. The more we can engage the whole community in an all-hands-on-deck kind of commitment, then that’s real health. But, obviously, removing fathers from their kids and folks from our community during incarceration does damage to the life and soul of a community.
What challenges do ex-offenders face as they try to meaningfully contribute to their communities?
Again, there’s such a disparity—a high moral distance—that we strike between us and them. It’s really born of ignorance. How do you get a community to reach a kind of compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment of how they carry it? There’s a very pronounced “us” and “them.” And yet the returning prisoner and ex-offender are always saying to me, “When will they let me finish my sentence? I did 6 years in prison and now it’s been 5 years since my parole and no one will hire me. I thought it was a 6-year sentence, not an 11-year one.” And I think they’re quite correct in asking those questions, because on some level this is a huge failing. But it comes from the huge gulf between us and them and the good people and the bad people, the kind of Western thinking that only fosters that gulf.
For more information about Homeboy Industries, visit www.homeboy-industries.org or www.facebook.com/HomeboyIndustries.
~John M. Baker, Production Dramaturg and Literary Manager