Physically imposing, Jose Cabrera’s biceps are covered in traditional Aztec and Hispanic cultural symbols: pyramids, gods, the eagle with the snake. Below the elbows, tattoos depict the skin ripped from his body, revealing a raw, biomechanical inside. With an F-bomb on the right forearm and “Y’all” on the left, he tells the world that he no longer cares what others think. His upper arms are his past, his lower arms his present.
He is now the case manager at the David Lewis Reentry Center in East Palo Alto, where he works with formerly incarcerated men and women, providing them with services to help them become productive members of society. However, 32-year-old Cabrera devoted his teen years and his twenties to a street life that resulted in four years in California prisons.
“As a kid,” Cabrera says, “I always wanted to go to prison.”
Cabrera grew up in East Palo Alto where his four older brothers were members of a Northern Hispanic street gang, an early feed gang to the notorious Mexican prison gang Nuestra Familia.
Little communication existed between parents and sons. Out all day working, Cabrera’s father and mother had difficulty monitoring their children’s activities.
At 13, still too young to fully understand the complexities of gang life, Cabrera eagerly joined his brothers: “Once I became a gang member, I knew I wanted to be better than my brothers.” They had made it to the county jail but none of them had made it to prison, and Cabrera wanted to be the first.
In part by chance, and in part by a conscious decision he made to never return to jail, the pivotal moment in Cabrera’s life came four years ago, two months into his second stint in prison.
As usual, the noise from the African-American group segment — prison officials often assign inmates to segments by race — continued late into the night. Other prisoners in the dormitory typically kept to themselves to avoid conflict, but Cabrera no longer cared.
Angry and irritated that he was back in prison for a petty parole violation — possession of a gun — Cabrera strode over to the African-American group segment to order them to shut up — an action that would later make Cabrera fear for his life.
“I shoulda listened to my momma back at home, to my dad back at home, you know what I’m saying?”
For Cabrera, gang life was about forming a brotherhood. He looked forward to selling dope, buying cars, lots of women and living “happily ever after.” But he soon learned that gang life wasn’t that simple or easy. He was always looking over his shoulder in fear of rival gangs and law enforcement, and conflict often ended in the loss of friends’ lives. He knew it would happen, “but it’s different when it happens to your boy, you know what I’m saying?”
He knew he shouldn’t have done it. He knew it could start a riot. The next morning at breakfast he sensed that everyone was on edge.
Cabrera was one of the few members of his prison gang in Santa Rita Jail assigned to have a makeshift knife on him at all times. The day after his confrontation with the African-American group segment, his gang leaders asked for his weapon fearing he might use it on them; he knew a punishment by his own gang was imminent. With a very-real threat to his life in the near future, Cabrera acted quickly with a pre-emptive strike.
“For a gangbanger, going to prison is like going to college, you know what I’m saying?”
After nearly 15 years of running the streets, the “bad guys” arrested Cabrera for robbery. He had finally made it to University.
Before arriving at San Quentin, he dreamed of meeting new homeboys and busting gang moves together. “But then you find out real quick that not everybody is going to like you,” he says. “You think it’s fun and games; once you get there you can feel the tension.” When he was finally released after three years, he knew he never wanted to go back.
Unfortunately for him, after only a few months out of the penitentiary, Cabrera violated his parole. While walking down the street, the cops pulled him over for a search. There was nothing he could do; he was surrounded with nowhere to run and no way to hide the gun in his possession.
Cabrera appraised his options, trying to calculate what scenario would be safest for him. He decided to make his move while in the vicinity of guards to ensure that whatever happened, it would not get too far out of hand.
While standing in line for dinner, Cabrera lashed out at the prison buddy he was with, beating him until the guards pulled him off. The moment was monumental. Cabrera had attacked one of his own kind, forever severing ties with his gang.
After the incident, the correction officers decided to remove Cabrera from the general population, eventually placing him in the Sensitive Needs Yard, a segment comprised of inmates who abandon their gangs while in prison. For Cabrera, dropping out of the gang was an impulsive decision made out of anger with himself and the system, but “it came as a blessing, you know what I’m saying?”
Cabrera was finally released in 2010 and his parole officer mandated that he seek help from the David Lewis Reentry Center. In addition to his determination never to return to prison, the aid and care he received at the center fueled Cabrera’s rehabilitation and assimilation.
In 2012, he returned to the center as an employee. One of his co-workers, Delores Farrell, recalls meeting him when he first came to the program as a client. While physically imposing, she soon recognized Cabrera as “highly intelligent … very bright.” Farrell realized that “those first opinions that you have of people, they’re way off base sometimes.”
Cabrera now works full-time, acting as a role model for those going through the process, and oftentimes helping them find and apply for jobs. Speaking for formerly incarcerated men and women, Cabrera pleads with society: “All we ask for is just a chance, you know what I’m saying? … Most of us are so eager to get that chance, to prove everybody so wrong, that once we get that chance we go full speed and do the right thing.”
On June 3, Cabrera received the news that the center may close in the next three months. After having been a part of the center for four years, the news hit him hard; he hopes they can find a way to remain open and continue serving the community. While he is unsure of what will happen, he says, “I am still a resident in this community and [I am] going to continue to help and spread the word to our formerly incarcerated loved ones that I come across that there is a different way of living, and [they can] hopefully become law-abiding citizens in this great community.”
Also on Peninsula Press: Without funding, East Palo Alto prisoner re-entry center on the verge of closing