“Here, we spend 19 hours a day locked in our cells.”
By Danilo Cortez
I came to the U.S. with my mother — a single parent at the time — when I was one and a half years old. It was 1982, and she was fleeing the aftermath of the civil war in Nicaragua. After a couple years living in Florida we moved to California and lived with my grandmother. Later, my mother had my younger sister and then a few years after that she married my stepdad and had my brother.
I got mixed up with the gangs when I was a teenager, and was sent to prison when I was 17. I was sentenced to life without parole, even though I was a juvenile.
But I was determined to pay my debt to society. I got my high school diploma in prison and earned vocational certifications as well. I’ve got skills in auto body repair and auto mechanics and as a forklift driver. But what I’m really passionate about is community service and campaigning against youth violence.
As chairman of a program sponsored by a community organization in Salinas, I was responsible for connecting at-risk kids with inmates whose testimony and experiences would be relevant to them. Sessions ran from six-thirty in the morning until two in the afternoon. Through mentoring, counseling and role- playing, we used our knowledge of gang violence to help deter kids from joining gangs.
“Through mentoring, counseling and role- playing, we used our knowledge of gang violence to help deter kids from joining gangs.”
A lot of these kids are impressionable — so we provided insight into that kind of life. We recognize the warning signs because we’ve been there ourselves. Building that trust — that’s important. These kids just want to be seen and heard. Sometimes their behavior comes from problems at home; we talk about feelings and struggles we had at their age. And we help them understand themselves better and let them know they aren’t alone.
I’m married to Celia, whom I’ve known for over 20 years. She’s the sister of a friend of mine who was in prison with me. We became good friends after she started visiting me in prison in 2011. She’d had her own struggles; she was a widow, with a daughter. She’s been so supportive, all throughout my prison sentence and court appearances, and despite the fact that I’d been sentenced to life without parole. We had a strong relationship that only got stronger through my ordeals. I married her on February 4th.
Earlier this year I filed a petition to Governor Brown to have my sentence commuted. On Good Friday, March 30, my petition was granted.
I was released from prison on April 6. I had an INS hold, so I knew there was a chance I would be picked up by ICE, but I hoped that since California was a sanctuary state, I might still be allowed to leave prison as a free man. But instead, as I was leaving, I was met by ICE officers who said they were taking me to San Francisco for fingerprinting and questioning. They gave me a form to sign, one that indicated that since I was a legal permanent resident, I would be allowed to see a judge in ten days. I was very careful to read it thoroughly first because I’d been told by others not to sign any documents given to me by ICE.
I was then taken to Rio Consumnes Correctional Facility, where I stayed for two months. I was in a dorm area with about twenty to thirty immigrants, confined to just one small room with a phone. We could call our families, but it was very expensive. The food was horrible.
I was terribly sleep deprived. Every hour the guards would come in, slam the door and do a head count. Even at four in the morning. Then we’d be given breakfast at four-thirty. It was impossible to get even three or four hours of sleep. I think they do everything they can to make conditions difficult so that people will get discouraged about staying to fight their case.
I prayed to God to help me hold on. I had to deal with it. There was no other way.
In June I was transferred to Yuba County Jail. Here, we spend 19 hours a day locked in our cells. We’re integrated with County inmates and the officers here don’t do much for us detainees. We’re not allowed to participate in programs for things like anger management that might provide us with better communications skills when the time comes to face a judge. They have a single outdated educational video that we are forced to watch every morning. It’s like a form of torture. There’s a small area with TVs, but they won’t turn them on. So we sit there for a couple hours, then we are sent back to our cells. When we submit a grievance, we don’t ever get a response. That’s just how it is here. I try to be very courteous. I’ve never been written up for anything.
I’m mentally preparing myself, always thinking ahead. From my time in prison, I’ve learned coping strategies that are helping me deal with the conditions here. Others have a much tougher time, and give up and sign their deportation papers.
The hardest part for me is being away from my family, and also being unable to do what I want to do most: helping others. I want to give back however I can.
“I want to give back however I can.”
But if I’m deported? I’ve lived here since I was a small child. In Nicaragua, I have an 88 year-old grandmother who suffers from diabetes, and an uncle, also suffering from diabetes and going blind. That’s it. I don’t know if they could take me in. And the country continues to be consumed by political instability, strife and violence.
If I can stay in the U.S., I can pursue additional certifications in drug and youth counseling. I can continue to work as a mentor to teens.
I just want a simple life: to be with my wife and family. To have a life that, by anyone’s definition, would be considered normal.
I’m so grateful for the help and support I’ve received from Faithful Friends and Freedom for Immigrants. They are like a ray of light.
My wife created a petition asking Governor Brown to pardon me. 965 people have signed it. I’ve always been a person of faith. I believe in second chances. To those of you who read this, I ask you to please consider giving me a second chance, too. Please consider signing the petition so we can reach our target of 1,000 signatures.