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Getting out of gang life

KALW has partnered with radio producers inside California's oldest prison to bring you the San Quentin Prison Report, a series of stories focusing on the experiences of these men, written and produced by those living inside the prison's walls.

Gang life is a dangerous proposition for young people - data from a number of U.S. cities shows the chances of dying from violence go up if you are in a gang. Still, many young people find ample reasons to join: to get protection, to gain acceptance, to find community, to gain status and wealth...that makes it worth the risks, even if it lands them in prison. Markee Carter says he was one of those gang kids who ended up behind.

Carter says that growing up in Long Beach, California in the early 1980s, shootings between rival gangs were an almost everyday occurrence.  Tensions were at a breaking point, and Carter decided that he needed protection. When he was just eleven years old, he joined the Crips.

“Me and Little Rob walked up into Kings Park,” says Carter.  “All the homies were over there in the middle of the park. Little Rob walked up and said, ‘Hey, he wants to get jumped in.’”

In order to become a gang member, Carter first had to be “jumped in,” a kind of initiation. In his case, he had to fight members of the gang for three minutes to test his toughness. Carter passed the test and was given the name Kiki.

When asked what drew him to the gang, Carter explains, “They had on the starched Pendletons, the starched Levi pants and khakis, with their pants...hanging off their behinds, and the blue rags hanging out their back pockets. They had the brand new Converse with the fat shoes strings, the golf hats, baseball caps, bandanas wrapped around their heads, and the LOC sunglasses. The way they were standing and looking, you could just tell they did dirt for the turf. I was hooked.”

When he returned to middle school, kids suddenly look at him differently.

“We pulled up in low riders,” says Carter. “Some of those same dudes that were talking stuff to me before, ran in front of me like, ‘Yeah, what's up!’”

At that moment Carter was seduced by the glamour of the gang life and the money, power, and respect that came with it. After all, Carter was just an 11 year-old kid. Soon, he got to the point where he could shoot at people.

“I had the I don't give a f*** attitude,” Carter says. “And when you’re in a gang, the most important thing is to prove to your gang that you’re down for your gang.”

He was down for his gang, meaning he would do anything to be accepted. In 1994, he was arrested for three counts of attempted murder, convicted, and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences.

Four years into his sentence, he had a conversation with his mother that shook him to his core. He says he can still hear her words, telling him that his gang wasn’t going to help out.

“You gave your life for this gang. I sent you money, I sent you packages. Not one of them come to my house and say, ‘Do you need anything, is Kiki alright?’ Now you really need them and they are not there for you."

Carter says his mother’s words were crushing.  

“My whole inside dropped, and it crippled me. It was hard to face that I have all this time now, and it's for nothing. I got these tattoos and put in all that work for nothing. I was sitting here now, like, why am I getting in trouble, going to the hole, showing these other gangs that I'm down for my gang?”

He noticed other gang members that acted tough on the streets weren’t so tough now that they were inside. And in the meantime, his gang had left him hanging.

His family situation was also weighing on him. “All that, and then my kids [ask], ‘When are you coming home?’ I can’t tell them, because I don't want to tell them that I'm never getting out of here.”

In 1997, Carter decided to put the gang life behind him. “A lot of my homeboys [said], ‘Aww man, you’re soft. You can’t take this time.’ Yeah, you don’t got life so you don’t know how I feel to have all this time. You don’t know how it feels for your street family to leave you high and dry.”

After being transferred to San Quentin in 2006, Carter joined a group called Real Choices and started mentoring young kids.

He says if he could go back in time, he would listen more to the adults who were in his life - the police, barber shop owners, gym teachers, and especially his grandmother. “There were a lot of people trying to tell me stuff for my own good, and I was letting it go through one ear and out the other when I really should have heard them out.”

He says he’s learned a lot from meeting parents who have lost their kids to street violence. Knowing how their children’s deaths affect them, even decades on, has made him think about the hurt he himself caused when he was in the gang. “When you ain’t high or drunk and you have all this time to do, it makes you think,” he says. “When people get on with their life and they act like you don't exist, you can't help but change. Why love something that doesn't love you back?”

This is the latest installment of the San Quentin Prison Report radio project – a new series that brings you stories produced by men currently serving time in California’s oldest prison. You can listen to more stories from this series at www.kalw.org.