Meet Michael Mendoza: #cut50 Profile

Michael is a Mexican American who grew up in southern California. His great grandfather came under the Bracero program and married a U.S. citizen. He was raised by both parents in a multigenerational household. Eventually, Michael’s father was brought over to the U.S. at the age of eight and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1996 after having been granted residency. Michael’s father along with his mother raised him to the best of their ability despite the struggles that every poor community faces. His father worked three jobs at one point just to support the family, which would often times leave him in an empty household.

Michael grew up in an environment that exposed him to racism, peer pressure, drug abuse, gang violence, and poverty. Despite his attempt to succeed within the circumstances, despite parental support, societal influences played a stronger role in his life at a very early age. Between the surfers, skaters, taggers, white power groups and gang members, as a Mexican American, his natural inclination was to join a gang at the age of 13. It’s a generational pull from older family members and friends who have already succumbed to the street life that easily pulls at our children.

Michael and his grandmother

Unfortunately, at 15, Michael involved himself in a gang related murder that took the life of another young man. He wanted to prove to his gang that he belonged in order to show loyalty. Most kids in these circumstances want to belong to something they feel is important in order to be accepted. Most kids in poor communities yearn for the resources and recognition of their more affluent peers. So, they form their own groups in anger to validate themselves within society as a presence not to be ignored. Michael was a knowing participant of the intent of his crime. He along with three other kids got into a car looking for trouble. When they found the person they were looking for, the young man in the passenger seat directly in front of Michael, shot and killed another young man who was believed to be a rival gang member.

Michael was immediately arrested, tried as an adult, and at 16, was sentenced to 15 years-to-life for being in the back seat of a car.

To a 15 year-old, the court procedures, the legal guidelines, and constitutional rights, can be a nightmare not fully understood. Giving a young adult a life sentence says, ‘we don’t ever want you back in our society’ and that ‘you’re hopeless, good for nothing and a monster’. It’s the same message that poor communities have heard all of their lives.

On the day of his seventeenth birthday, Michael took his first bus ride to state prison.

CDCR was still housing people under 18 with adults at that time. His first cellmate was old enough to be his grandfather.

In prison, the belief is that if you have a life sentence then you’re never going home. So, you’re growing up in prison and society hates you, the people you’re with are just as hurt, anger, and bitter as you’re, and there is no hope of ever going home.

After almost a decade into his sentence, Michael had a very important experience. He met a very courageous woman who came into prison to tell her story.

She told her story in tears and described how her son was murdered and died in her arms. This was the wakeup call for Michael that allowed him to understand and take responsibility for his crime. He started going to the chapel and found strength in Christianity. Most prisons lack programs, but most prisons have a chapel. This experience only allowed Michael to cope with his situation.

It wasn’t until Senate Bill 260 passed and went into effect in 2014, which gave young adults 17 and younger a meaningful opportunity to parole, that Michael along with so many others had hope. This bill essential dispelled what kids like Michael were told all of their lives: that we believe you can change — that you were very young and faced many challenges but could still prove to be different and mature — and that society has not forgotten about you and we want to give you a chance.

The men and women who come home after serving more than a decade have a lower recidivism rate. There is more of an appreciation for their freedom after having to work so hard on themselves to prove that they are no longer the monster’s society believed them to be at very young ages. In Michael’s case, he had supportive parents throughout the whole time of his incarceration. He realized the opportunity he was being given and earned an Associate’s degree. He developed insight into why he was incarcerated and how to prepare himself never to come back to prison.

After traveling through nine different prisons, he was found to no longer be a threat to society in 2014 and released six months later. He was released almost 300 miles away from his entire family not knowing anyone. He hit the ground running. Three months after his release, he enrolled into his first semester at San Francisco State University and is considering law school almost three years later.

Michael’s first job was picking up trash on the highways. He lived in several different housing programs until a friend took him in before he was almost homeless. His struggle upon reentry was as he would describe, “a beautiful struggle”. There is an appreciation for his freedom and circumstance that most people would take for granted and complain about. Michael is now the Policy Associate for #cut50, where he oversees the California policy advocacy efforts in hopes of giving those individuals who have gone through the justice system, like him, a second chance.

Michael (far left) and several other criminal justice advocates with California Governor Jerry Brown