A significant aspect of CRIME STORY’s mission is to draw attention to programs that have demonstrated success in helping stem the tide of over-incarceration. As part of that mission, we published The RightWay To Shut Off the Foster Care to Prison Pipeline by Sean Smith. That piece told the story of how the RightWay Foundation — based in Los Angeles — is working to address the core reasons why 25% of California’s recently emancipated foster youth are incarcerated within two years of emancipation. (This has become known as the Foster Care To Prison Pipeline.)
As a critical part of these efforts, the RightWay Foundation provides therapy for these youth to help them process their trauma and reclaim the narratives of their lives.
In Sean’s piece, CRIME STORY and the RightWay Foundation announced the launch of a unique creative collaboration. Building off of their therapy efforts, and working closely with CRIME STORY journalists, a self-selected group of RightWay youth will craft narratives about their experiences in and out of the foster care system. These accounts will be published on the CRIME STORY website periodically.
This is one of those accounts; This is James’ story.
It all began with a freak car accident in 2015, when James was twenty. The woman in the other car, the car that James hit, died. But it was a mistake, as James tells it. “To this day I don’t remember what happened,” he tells me, speaking slowly and in a hushed tone. What happened is this: the light at the intersection turned green, and a “white flash”— a car speeding through the intersection after the red light — caused James to swerve quickly to the left, out of the way. He swerved directly into the passenger side of the adjacent car. “That was it right there,” he laments.
James was charged with vehicular manslaughter with malicious intent. The prosecution argued that James acted intentionally, or at least with gross negligence. “They tried to give me six years for an accident that I didn’t intend on doing,” says, “I didn’t wake up that morning thinking, ‘Oh yeah, I’m just gonna go ahead [and] run into somebody.’” In fact, he woke up that morning in a good mood, he remembers, happy about a promotion that he had received. He had gotten off work and was heading home, having just dropped off food at his girlfriend’s house. It was an ordinary day. Until it wasn’t.
James’ court case dragged on for two years. For two years he woke up early in the morning, once a month, to make it to the Torrance Courthouse for his hearings. For two years he listened to the People argue for the maximum sentence allowed for involuntary manslaughter. For two years he and the victim’s family relived the trauma of the accident. For two years he anticipated the sentence that would be handed down. “I couldn’t sleep, I wasn’t eating. I damn near cried every day,” James says mournfully. “I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I wanted them to just give me something. I already knew I was going to jail at that point. Wasn’t no way around it.”
James felt remorseful throughout the process. “I saw the [victim’s] husband in court,” he tells me, “I apologized to him. I broke down. That wasn’t my intention. I didn’t mean to do that, I didn’t ever mean to take nobody’s life.”
Though ultimately sentenced to a 90-day observation period, James eventually spent about a year incarcerated. During observation, James explains, a mental health professional interviewed him to provide a different “point of view” to the Judge, who was considering the terms of James’ felony probation. During this observation period, which lasted far longer than 90 days, James spent time both in the county jail and a state prison near Bakersfield “in the middle of nowhere,” he says.
Time in prison was preferable to time in the county jail. The two-man cell in prison was cramped and uncomfortable, but the 66 person dorm in County was overwhelming; the food was better in prison, James says, and there were no “politics.”
And it was the politics of incarceration that made James’ imprisonment the most difficult. “If you want to see how segregated this world is, go to jail,” James says, conscious of the weight of his words, “I wouldn’t wish that on nobody.” The corrections officers separate the inmates into three groups: “Brothers and Others,” (Blacks, Asians, Hawaiians, and “Others”), Latinos, and “The Woods” (Whites). The segregation extends to the showers, the bathrooms, the common areas — everywhere. Though perhaps semi-officially mandated, segregation is certainly reinforced by the inmates themselves.
Despite his peaceful demeanor and introverted nature, James couldn’t escape the politics in County. Following a fellow, Black inmate’s transgression of the demarcated boundaries within the jail, James was chosen to facilitate the “DP” — the punishment — for the offense. “They chose two people to beat the guy up and I end up being one of the people. All these people in here and they choose me,” he repines. He isn’t proud of this, but as he explains, he had no choice: “There is no ‘no.’…You gotta fall in line.” Or else? Or else face punishment yourself.
Today, James is an intern with RightWay helping manage their social media accounts. When we meet at RightWay’s Crenshaw office, James is busy editing video interviews of some of the RightWay participants. The goal is to highlight “the good parts” of their time at RightWay, “[to] show we still have fun,” he explains.
He wants to be an entrepreneur and plans to create and expand a street-wear brand, selling shoes, clothes, and sports apparel. Its something he’s done before. In high school, he and two of his friends started a small brand called “OGV”—“Only Good Vibes.” They designed a logo and made hats and t-shirts in a variety of styles and colors. With OGV, James realized how much he enjoyed building a brand, and also how much he enjoyed being in charge. Eager to carve out a niche for himself, James insists, “I don’t aspire to be like anybody.”
Except maybe Nipsey Hussle. The late entrepreneur and performer was more than just a businessman: he was the soul of his community. He employed many people in his neighborhood and helped many more after they were released from incarceration. He uplifted people, and yet he also kept people grounded. It is this aspect of Hussle’s persona that James describes as being the most inspiring. “I want to be a better me, not just for me, but for the people I love. So I can give them something better as well,” he affirms.
And for the people he loves, James is unequivocally committed. Unlike most of the other youths at RightWay, James did not grow up in foster care. Most of his childhood was spent in a single family home with a nice yard in Watts with his father, mother and half-sister. When James was nine years old, they were forced to move and his parents broke up. James, his mother and half-sister remained a tight unit until his incarceration. James was vital in supporting his mother. “I watched her go through a lot,” he says, avoiding specifics. Nowadays, James lives with a family friend and doesn’t know where his mother lives, though he sees her quite frequently. “If I didn’t go to jail this shit would be different,” he says quietly.
The lasting impact of his conviction is undeniable. Upon his release from jail, James searched in vain for a job. “My felony is a big, big thing,” James explains, “I have vehicular manslaughter and then also with malicious intent. And that’s fucked up but that’s on my record.” It will be years before James is eligible to apply to seal his record. Until then, his opportunities are dependent on the unlikely chance that an employer will look past a felony conviction. James also still deals with the emotional trauma of the accident. “I think about [the felony] all the time and still have that weight on my shoulder of the accident,” he says. “I think about it often.”
But James also forces himself to look toward the future. In addition to his internship at RightWay, James is pursuing an Associate’s Degree in Business at El Camino Community College, where he chooses photography classes for electives. Shooting mostly on his iPhone, James is drawn to landscapes and frequently hikes in the foothills and mountains that surround Los Angeles, documenting the natural environment wherever he goes. “I go to Azusa and I’ll go on the train. Just going on that train, when you get to a certain part, it’s nothing but mountains” he marvels.
Getting a degree, however, is what James believes will demonstrate to society that he is more than just a felon — a person worthy of attention, support and even investment. “It proves that I can do something, I can finish something…Just cause this [felony] is here, doesn’t mean this is who I am.”
James was eager to share his story and chose to use a pseudonym in order to protect his privacy.