WASHINGTON — From the very beginning of his life, Hector Verdugo had everything going against him — until a Catholic priest entered his life, following a prison stint, and gave him the chance he needed.
“My earliest memories are just violence,” Verdugo told a gathering of Catholic activists at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, at a Feb. 9 session dedicated to the Church’s vision of “restorative justice.”
The strikes against Verdugo’s life began before he was born. His mother was a heroin addict; his father died from a heroin overdose a week before Verdugo’s birth. Heroin claimed the life of his grandfather, too.
“And so my life began,” Verdugo recalled.
His mother fled with him and his twin brother, when they were young children, into the Ramona Gardens projects of East Los Angeles to escape an abusive partner, also a heroin addict. In the projects, Verdugo grew up in a culture where the gang became his family, because they took an interest in him when others wouldn’t.
One of his first memories was picking up a gun hidden in the bushes and the cholos, or homeboys, showing him how to hold it.
“We looked up to them,” he said, recalling how one of them would fly kites with him on a hill.
The only prospects (and expectations) people had for him in the projects was a life headed toward juvenile hall as a youth and then to prison as an adult. They gave him just the rules to survive there.
“It’s sad that the neighborhood I go to was preparing me for this,” he said.
Prison was not a place of rehabilitation, Verdugo added. It instead functioned as a massive drug-networking center, so that when a person left, “you’re coming out with better product and better prices.”
But reading a Time magazine article in prison while high on methamphetamine jolted his conscience to the core: A woman high on meth had killed her baby with a microwave oven. Verdugo had justified selling meth — not to his own neighborhood — across the country to people he didn’t care about: “Klan members” in Tennessee and Kentucky. Except, he couldn’t do it anymore.
“I felt like God spoke to me and he said: ‘You’re doing this, and you’re doing this to my children.’”
Rescued From Recidivism
After prison, Verdugo stopped dealing drugs. But the problem he faced — along with many other ex-prisoners — was that he wanted to change, he just didn’t know how. All he knew was dealing drugs, so he struggled to hold a job and was convinced it was just a matter of time before he would end up in front of a judge and back in prison.
More than 600,000 ex-convicts are released annually, but most do not end up rehabilitated and restored in society after prison. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, more than half of prisoners released are arrested within one year. Within three years, two-thirds (67.8%) are rearrested; within five years, 76.6% are back in prison.
But Verdugo’s life took a different turn. A friend put him in touch with Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, run by Father Greg Boyle, where programs including creative writing, poetry, meditation, prayer and therapy helped bring Verdugo healing, purpose and the sense of family he was looking for.
“I realized this is what I wanted all my life,” said Verdugo, who serves as Homeboy Industries’ associate executive director.
“God said, ‘You’re in the right place. Be a part of it, and if you don’t like it, be part of the change.’”
According to Homeboy Industries, more than 70% of former gang members and ex-prisoners who have gone through their program are successfully rehabilitated.
Verdugo said the tools from Homeboy Industries have changed lives, mended relationships and united broken families.
“Families uniting is the best prevention we’ll ever see — where fathers get to love their boys and mothers get to love their children. Why would I ever want to join a gang?” he said.
The challenge for Catholic activists gathered at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering policy session “Restorative Justice: Healing and Transformation of Persons, Families and Communities” was to work within their communities to change the dynamics in the U.S. justice system that have emphasized punishment at the expense of what St. John Paul II said in 2000 was “to offer to those who commit crimes a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to society.”
The U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population, with 2.6 million incarcerated in federal, state and local prisons and jails, according to federal data from 2010. More than $100 billion is spent on policing annually, according to the nonprofit Justice Policy Institute, while the Justice Department reports $80 billion is spent on incarceration every year.
Passionist Father Jim O’Shea, a Catholic priest serving in Brooklyn, suggested that a more effective approach for society consists in investing in ways to provide at-risk youth hopeful alternatives to prison. He shared a successful initiative called Reconnect, of which he is the executive director, that began with a realization: If the youths he saw hanging out on neighborhood corners could sell drugs, then those skills could be transferred into worthwhile things like selling apples.
“It was a direct way to engage young people that we wanted to engage more than anyone else,” he said. “These were the guys on the block, the guys on the corner, guys that weren’t doing anything, guys that were in trouble.”
‘Places Where People Can Learn’
Father O’Shea began the Reconnect initiative with $50,000 seed money to provide jobs for youth too scared to leave their neighborhoods to find opportunities elsewhere, and he was able to give them a sense of hope.
Reconnect’s fruit and vegetable stand spawned other business initiatives, as the youth involved noticed other opportunities to serve the neighborhood’s needs. Over the past several years, it has turned into Reconnect Café, Reconnect Bakery and Reconnect Graphics.
The priest said that these youth need to be given opportunities that can be taken advantage of, saying that they need to know that their career choices are more than becoming a rapper or basketball player and that their real-life prospects are more than jail or dying young.
“We need to create places where people can learn, so they can take those steps to those new opportunities.”
Restorative justice involves “restoring what people should expect in a community”: opportunities for a job, education, nurturing relationships and a safe environment.
But Father O’Shea added that healing people and restoring communities is a “long-term project,” not something that can be done sporadically or for two months. The priest said his frustration was that local law enforcement was more aggressive about interfering in the neighborhood’s cycle of violence than the churches had been.
“Reconnect is just one way to do it. There are lots of other ways, but it has to be long term. Healing takes a long time, and the road to justice is a long-term process.”
Inspiration to Action
Both Verdugo’s and Father O’Shea’s testimonies had a visible impact on the gathering, which gave both men standing ovations.
Michael Presburg, 21, a philosophy major at the University of Missouri and a member of the Newman Volunteer Corps, said relationship-building and accompanying people “for the long haul” is motivating him to work with his priest to get an initiative under way on campus called “Metric for At-Risk Kids.”
“As soon as I get there, I’m telling him that we have to hit the ground running on this thing, because we can change lives with this,” he said.
Julie Davis, a board member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the Diocese of Phoenix, said their challenge was addressing the governor’s budget, which was putting $100 million into for-profit prisons over the next three years and removing $75 million from public universities.
“We really have to go home and strategize,” she said.
Others left the conference feeling that more attention from the Church needs to be given to laws that are preventing fathers from being restored to their families after prison.
“They [the bishops] need to start talking about it, because there are laws that prevent a black man who served time in jail from returning to his family,” said Emilia Colon, representative for the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.’s African American Caribbean Apostolate.
“One strike” laws on the books give public-housing authorities a great amount of discretion to ban ex-felons from public housing and subsidized Section 8 housing. Colon said the Church needs to change this.
Pointing out that most fathers who have been in prison will make sure their kids don’t follow the same path, Colon said, “You need a mother’s love, but you also need a father’s love.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.