“I grew up inside the system,” says Raul, one of the Coordinators for teens in our Foster Care program. Like many of the youth who enter our programs, Raul was born into a cycle of poverty, abuse, and neglect. “From the age of two to 21, I was in foster care. I’ve been through a lot of homes. I’ve been through mental institutions, residential treatment centers, group homes, and then slowly went downhill to juvenile jails and prison.
His childhood constants were starvation and abuse. He began as a toddler in crisis, and the systems that should have protected and supported him fell short, or worse, punished him for the accident of his birth. Far from exceptional, Raul’s story reflects a struggle that is all too familiar to black and Latino boys growing up in poverty.
“Just picture a three bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side. You have four adults and over nine kids living in the home, so there were constant battles,” he says. By battles, Raul means that the adults in the home would abuse the children, beating them for playing the TV too loudly when others in the crowded apartment were napping, for being extra mouths to feed, and for fighting back however they could.
Raul and his five siblings were left in the care of his aunts when he was a toddler. His mother was either homeless or in prison. His aunts, victims of sexual abuse themselves, were self-medicating with drugs and verbally abusing the children. When Raul was seven, he fought back against particularly violent abuse at the hands of his cousin by lighting a bed on fire in the house. His aunts kicked him out, prompting his placement in a foster home at another agency.
“That’s when I was severely abused,” says Raul. Though it’s hard to imagine that his earlier abuse wasn’t severe, the spectrum for Raul is distorted by extremes which few people can imagine.
“Punishments started slowly, from screaming and yelling, to pulling my hair, to smacking, to punching, to getting hit with belts. I’ve been hit with belts, extension cords, hangers…. I’d say I got immune to the physical abuse, but the mental abuse was what broke me.”
Raul’s foster mother lied to his teachers and his foster care agency to conceal her abuse. When he was 10, he stood up to her the only way he knew how. “I told her, ‘You’re not my mother!’ She picked my little body up, brought me into the kitchen, moved the rice and beans that was on the electric stove, the kind of stove with the coils that turn red when they’re hot, and pressed my whole face on the burner.” She told Raul that worse things were in store for him if he spoke up about the abuse. If he stayed quiet, she’d let him go. The child psychologists tried to get Raul to open up, but the choice was an easy one for him. He stayed quiet.
Stealing to Survive
After a brief stint in a group home, Raul was back with his aunts who realized they could be paid to be his foster parents. As Raul recalls, they had sunk deeper into cocaine dependency and needed the money to feed their habit. “At first, we had a piece of bread to eat in the morning and then dinner, but if you tried to have two servings at dinner, my aunt would be verbally abusive. In that environment, you become discouraged from eating food, and that was when we had food to eat. Slowly, my aunt started hiding the food inside her room, for her son. She was giving her son clothes and sniffing coke with my foster care money. My brothers and I always had a joke that our aunts only provided water for us, but not food, just enough so we wouldn’t die. But that’s all she really had in her fridge: a gallon of water and a box of baking soda, to give the illusion of cleanliness instead of destitution.”
Without food, or another place to live, Raul and his brothers were starving. Raul describes how they turned to crime to appease their stomachs and their abusive aunts. “When I robbed someone, I didn’t keep the money for myself. I would give some of it to my aunt to make her feel happy. I’m not sure if you know the habit of a cocaine addict, but they are angry and irritable until they get their fix. Even knowing she was using the money for drugs, I did it because it made life bearable in that environment.”
School became another symbol of his helplessness, and the site of one of the worst experiences in his life. “I got a call in the middle of school. I was told over the phone, ‘Hey, your mother’s dead.’ After my mother got out of prison, she had contracted HIV and died when I was 15. I remember seeing the body.” Good grades might have spared Raul longer sentences and harsher punishments for his criminal behavior, but like food and housing, good grades were beyond his reach.
Next: A stint in a residential juvenile justice dormitory for theft. He did well at first until Raul was put on punishment for allegedly smoking cigarettes.
“I hadn’t been smoking, but the staff weren’t hearing it. They claimed they could smell it on my hands.” Raul’s punishment was to wear an outfit of moldy, mildew-covered clothing for a day. “That wasn’t considered abusive back then.” Rather than suffer the indignity for something he insists he didn’t do, Raul ran away, becoming an instant target for police.
Punishment for Poverty
“I was on the run in New York City, and I needed money to survive, so I started selling drugs in exchange for a room in a crack fiend’s house.”
His tumultuous childhood made this frightening experience feel normal. He started doing time in an adult prison for the first time when he was caught for selling drugs. “I take responsibility for the things I did. I did rob people and I’m very regretful for that, but there were a lot of things that contributed to it.” He could only wonder what might’ve been if he grew up under different circumstances.
On Rikers Island, what might have been a short stint for a 16 year-old youth who had never known stability, security, or a full stomach, spiraled out of control. He fell into a violent and increasingly severe six-year period of incarceration in maximum security prisons and solitary confinement. Less than a year has passed since New York became the 49th state to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, in part because of the torture and eventual suicide of prisoners like Kalief Browder, held in solitary confinement on Rikers without trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was cleared of the crime when it was too late.
Today, Raul likely wouldn’t have gone to Rikers at all. He would have had another chance to turn his life around and gain the skills to succeed—without relying on crime—in a home like one of the residential juvenile justice homes Sheltering Arms operates. He would have been treated for more than a decade of severe abuse in one of our mental health facilities. But many of the laws that protect young people of color emerged after Raul’s imprisonment.
In another bizarre twist of fate, Raul was on Rikers at the same time as his older brother, who convinced him to throw himself in solitary confinement on purpose – just so he could “live” next to his brother. He recalls how he broke a piece of metal off of the radiator and went through the metal detector, and reunited with his brother in the adjacent cell.
Unlike defendants outside of prison, those who allegedly commit infractions in prison have no right to fair trial or legal representation. Makeshift courts pitted Correctional Officers (COs) against inmates and resulted in what Raul describes as increasingly perverse punishments. One sanction would beget another, as often, the only “crime” was being in solitary confinement in the first place. “They perceive you as a threat for just being there,” says Raul. Though the uniform was sometimes the only thing separating violent COs from violent inmates, the uniform conferred moral superiority, and COs argued that the inmates deserved abuse or else they wouldn’t be there.
Solitary Confinement and Other Euphemisms for Torture
“Just imagine this: You’re locked up 23 hours per day in solitary confinement. You are supposed to go to recreation or to the library for an hour. What if the COs don’t feel like bringing you out? You’re stuck there 24 hours per day.”
Raul starts every part of his story with “Imagine…” before describing some other-worldly scenario prisoners endured. He knows that most readers must plumb the depths of their imaginations to picture what he has gone through. His intros imply that his audience has to imagine, since they can’t possibly identify with him from shared experiences. We don’t even speak the same language. Imagine going through life, as Raul does, with the burden of misunderstanding, where your every life experience has to be constantly justified, explained, and believed before any dialogue or collaboration can begin based on a shared set of facts.
“Imagine: You’re agitated because you’ve been locked up for 24 hours a day in your cell. If a CO perceives that you’re giving him a problem, like if you need medical attention, which requires a CO to do more work, he’s going to make life harder for you. They can deny you food. They can let other inmates into the shower to attack you, even though there’s only supposed to be one person in the shower at a time in solitary. Or, from the control tower, they can pop open two cells while you’re sleeping so the other person can attack you. It happened like that.” To this day, the grating noise and the clang of the remote control prison gate haunt Raul’s dreams.
“Picture this: Rikers Island has a special unit called the Emergency Response Unit (ERU Team), but we call them the turtles because they’re all dressed up in bullet proof armor, shields, masks, batons. Imagine you’re sleeping at night and then around 2:30 in the morning, you just hear your cell door crack open. That sound is traumatizing, the rrrrrmmm-boom of the door. Imagine you get up, and you see a man in robotic armor and a giant dog, because they have dogs that sniff for drugs. And then a CO tells you to strip down butt naked in front of him. You’re stripping, you’re also bending down, vulnerable, exposing yourself, coughing twice so they can make sure you don’t have drugs concealed in your anus. You have to show your thing, peel back the skin. There are little things like that which are inhumane. Then you have to be escorted out of the cell naked. Imagine you’re butt naked and cuffed behind the back and they link you standing on the line with all the other prisoners. The COs had a joke. They used to say, ‘I wanna see nuts and butts!’ Like, you have to be up on top of the person in front of you with your thing on the person’s backside, naked. That’s traumatizing.”
Sometimes it’s hard to separate the horrors Raul says he endured in various “correctional” facilities and the violence he endured at the hands of his abusers. “Sometimes the ERU team wants to be evil, just because you are in solitary confinement. When they search your cell, they rip up your pictures. They rip up your mail and refuse you the little contact that you have with the outside world. They throw your sheets in the toilet bowl. They cuff you and beat you with batons. If you try to fight back with just your feet, really, or your head, they would lift you up and ram you against a wall. Or on Riker’s, they have the metal detector before you step into the unit, so they just smash your elbows onto it. They deny you medical attention.” Raul says his brother’s beatings by COs were so violent that he has lesions on his brain and blindness in one eye. The cycle of violence within prison, exacerbated by his brother’s behavior and his own gang membership, put him on track to a maximum security prison.
“They sentenced me to two years in solitary confinement. I spent every day there for two years.” Remember, Raul’s whole journey through the prison system was triggered by the phantom smell of cigarettes which Raul says he hadn’t been smoking, but which earned him an inhumane punishment and sent him running from juvenile detention and into the drug trade to survive. It might seem like a random chain of events that put a child in a supermax prison, but it’s a painfully common chain of events for kids in poverty, especially young men of color. Events that would be smoothed over for a white person or an affluent child, hardly worth remembering, spell doom for many Latino youth in poverty. Instead of becoming experts at their chosen fields, youth like Raul become experts in survival, and in dodging new and creative tortures in prison.
“There’s a punishment they called food deprivation, where they’d take away your meals and instead you would get a loaf of ‘bread’ which consisted of kitchen scraps that they didn’t want to use, formed into a nugget. So you have that small loaf of ‘bread’ and a small cup of cabbage for the day, no juice, no water, no nothing. Another punishment was called water deprivation. The CO is supposed to come around every three hours to turn on your pipes so you can use the bathroom and get water from your sink. But the COs don’t come. So you have to hold your defecation in. You have to make sure your toilet bowl is always clean because you have to drink toilet water. That’s beyond inhumane. It’s violating the Eighth Amendment. But that’s how it was.”
Right after Raul maxed out of prison, they introduced a Behavioral Health Unit for everyone who had been in solitary. So many people ended up hurting themselves or committing suicide that they had to create special mental health services for them. Raul, too, cut himself in solitary.
When he came before the Parole Board the first time, he explained his remorse and his commitment to change. “I told them I did rob people, but I was living in poverty and starving. That doesn’t negate the fact that I did do these crimes, and I’m remorseful for it. I remember the lady on the panel was like, ‘But you had four walls and roof.’”
Raul might have had a floor to sleep on, but four walls and a roof never fed him, clothed him, taught him, or loved him, the way that any child would need to be in order to thrive. Worse still, those four walls and a roof had always been the sites of unimaginable pain and torture for Raul. What signifies safety, security, and home for people like the head of the Parole Board, confer imprisonment and agony for Raul.
Rebelling against his treatment in prison, two years in solitary turned into four. After serving the maximum sentence, Raul was given $40 and a recommendation for a homeless shelter in upstate New York. “I only lasted one night in the shelter. Imagine being in solitary for all those years, and then you come out and you have so much stimulation, people moving around, loud noises. I felt like I was hallucinating. The panic attacks were debilitating. I still have flashbacks and I wake up screaming.” The “correctional facilities” had broken him and he was left to pick up the pieces.
Building Bridges to Healing & Justice
Raul’s homecoming was as serendipitous as his flight from the city, the time he went AWOL from juvenile detention and ended up in prison for a decade. “Do you remember what happened on August 14th, 2013? Because I remember it as clearly as if it happened yesterday. That was the best day of my life,” says Raul. The day Raul fled the homeless shelter after his release and headed back to New York was coincidentally the same day as the 2013 city-wide blackout. After evacuating from the subway, Raul had to walk from Brooklyn to 122nd Street and First Avenue in Harlem where his aunt lived. Because of the blackout, stores were handing out soda, ice cream, and food. “I felt like a king,” says Raul, as he describes his tour of the city, snacking on the free bounty from all the bodegas which had lost power.
In a bizarre way, the event was the opposite of the scenario that sent him to juvenile detention in the first place. The same stores he had robbed in desperation a decade earlier were now handing out limitless food to a starving, homeless youth. It was the first time anyone had ever given Raul food freely and not as a method of control or manipulation, or not as a grudging obligation. No one had ever bought Raul an ice cream cone or thrown him a pizza party during his childhood. A free soda from a bodega was all it took to make Raul feel like a king. It was a hero’s welcome, foreshadowing what he would come to mean to the youth in our Foster Care and Juvenile Justice programs.
Today, Raul is one of two leads for our Preparing Youth for Adulthood program, which supports foster youth in obtaining and flourishing in their careers, succeeding in school, and developing 21st Century skills. He helped us pioneer our mentored internship program, where youth learn job skills in structured internships at Sheltering Arms where they can build their professional skill sets among employees who understand their trauma and unique challenges. Two thirds of eligible youth in the program secured jobs or vocational programming in 2016, putting them on track for independence after they age out of the foster care system. The US Department of Health and Human Services found that fewer than 45% of foster youth age out of the system with any earnings. 47% of them are unemployed when they age out, but Raul’s cohort are beating those odds with flying colors.
Raul had to fight his way out of the past and into a job where he could demonstrate his full potential. Because of his criminal record, he could only find temp work in three to four city maintenance jobs at a time, sleeping only two to four hours per night to support his wife and son. He was simultaneously paying tuition for a GED program and an Associate’s in Criminal Justice, followed by a Bachelor’s in Sociology. After writing a letter to the Sheltering Arms CEO, Raul secured a full time position that draws on his unique qualifications: his empathy for youth who have experienced severe poverty, abuse, and neglect; his ability to earn their trust and act as confidant; and his inspirational drive and guidance, which emboldens youth to succeed in new and frightening environments – from college, to jobs, and foster home transitions.
While guiding youth to their first triumphant achievements, Raul was celebrating his own transformed life. He has surrounded himself with a loving wife and son, in whom he has discovered a family he never knew as a child. He named his son Chance, with a nod toward hope for the future, a future in which is son will know love and stability unlike anything Raul experienced growing up. He crossed the stage to accept his Bachelor’s diploma amid cheers from his wife, siblings, and from Sheltering Arms’ Executive Director. It was the first time anyone had been there to celebrate his accomplishments. Now Raul is there for teens in foster care at Sheltering Arms.
“When I first started here, I was in the crisis unit with youth who had been exposed to severe trauma like me. These kids realize when somebody else has been through something too. It’s how they talk, how they walk, how they can maneuver in a room. I had kids who would only speak to me because they knew how strongly I would advocate for them.”
“Whenever I needed a helping hand, he was always there. He will stop doing anything to help or give advice,” says Emily*, a youth in Foster Care at Sheltering Arms. “When I had a serious altercation that could have turned violent and sent me off track, he helped me understand why I felt how I did. He could put my feelings into words and he understood exactly where I was coming from when I felt that no one else could.
It’s not enough for Raul that he has fought a tide of inequality and climbed out of a pit of poverty, fraught with decades of severe abuse and inhumane incarceration. He is on a mission to protect hundreds of kids like him, and to inspire their own difficult journeys to healing and inspiring children who come after them.
“He inspires me to be better than yesterday, to always keep my head high, and never to let my past stop me from becoming bigger and better. Because of him, I already have.”
*This story is told as Raul remembers it, based on his recollections of events.