November 13, 1998

Voices From Juvenile Hall — Any Town USA

Buried Alive In Prison

By Mario Rocha

March 17, 1998

On Friday the 13th, I woke up at five o'clock in the morning as a probation staff member unlocked my door. I got up, quickly threw on my orange pants and top, put on my shoes, walked over the restroom and began to wash up. As I splashed some cold water on my face, out of nowhere a crazy thought occurred to me: Today's my funeral. I wonder who will show up and pay their final respects. I declined my breakfast and walked back to my room. I folded my sheets and blankets and placed them neatly at the head of my bed. I lay down, opened my Bible and read a few scriptures. A few minutes later, I got up, positioned my knees to the ground and placed my arms on the side of the mattress. I lowered my head and began to pray: "Father God, without you... I am nothing. Without your love, my life is pointless. Today, as I enter the courtroom, be with me. Let your Holy Spirit fill me with your confidence and comfort and let everything go your way. Bless my family, and be with all those who have been there for me. Amen."

About an hour later, I was in the basement of the Criminal Courts Building awaiting to be called for court. Lying on a metal bench, in a graffiti-invested holding tank, a million thoughts ran through my mind as I closed my eyes: 18 years old... my life can't be over yet! God, why am I facing so many years in prison? I have so much to look forward to. There's a world out there that I have never seen. Regardless, I have faith!... I'll be okay. Everything is going to work out. So maybe I'm gonna have to go to prison and do some time... Damn... Prison! My dad used to always tell me, "M'ijo, I never want to see you in a place like that-locked up como un animal!" And my mom, she would always say, "If something were to happen to you, m'ijo, I'll go crazy!" But they've been okay these past two years. They have faith that I'll be with them soon. And when I was convicted, their confidence remained. I always tell them that I know there's a reason for all of this. And that gives them hope. They see that I'm okay —God's love is in me... Man, there must be a reason. If I would've never come to Central, I would've probably been in some warehouse right now, driving a forklift all day, unaware of my potential— lost in a troubled world, drinking beer and smoking weed to escape my problems. I would've never met all the wonderful people that I am now very close to. People who have helped me find myself. I would've never discovered my true gifts... Man, I know there's a reason!

The Trial

I dozed, awakened, dozed awakened, and finally the electric caged door of the holding tank slowly opened, making a loud buzzing sound that always gave me a feeling of anxiety. A voice shouted: "ROCHA." It was time. "Get on 12," a male deputy ordered, as I walked out of the holding tank. I approached the three elevators to the right of the building. Elevator 12 was already opened. I walked in. The doors behind me immediately closed. I began to pray as I felt my body gradually rise: "Father God, let everything go your way. Hear my prayers and the prayers of all my loved ones. If it's your will that I get sentenced today, help me accepted whatever comes my way." Suddenly, the lift came to a stop. There was a high-pitched sound, as if I had answered correctly on a game show, and the doors opened. Before I stepped out, I gave myself the traditional Catholic Sign of the Cross: In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mi Vida Loca

At the age of 13, I started smoking weed and ditching school. I searched for excitement: parties, girls. I eventually started drinking and experimenting with stronger drugs. At the age of 15, I started taking LSD. I would drop a tab a few times a month; sometimes less, sometimes more. The drug awakened my imagination, and the experience rekindled a spark of my creative passion.

I would wake up in the morning with a fresh idea—a point of view. I would open my eyes with a broad perspective on life and its meaning. I knew it was the acid creating this illusion, but I began to write down my ideas and thoughts; and deep inside I felt a blooming sense of purpose. I was a human being, and my life was part of the world seen and unseen. I had broken the barriers of my mind, and somehow I was making sense of the world in which I was living.

February 23, 1996, it was a Friday morning when a mob of police officers raided my home. I was still in bed half asleep in the room I shared with my older brother Danny when they burst in with guns drawn, ready to open fire! As they hollered "Don't move! Hands up! Get down!" I threw myself to the floor with my hands above my head and was immediately rushed. One of the cops kicked me in the back of the head with his boot, while another twisted my arms behind my back and placed the handcuffs on my wrists so tightly that my hands instantly went numb.

What I remember most vividly is not the physical pain, however. It is the anguish that I felt inside as I looked into my mother's eyes. She had been inside the whole time and witnesses the horror. She was just a few feet away from the front door when it was suddenly rammed open! They pointed their guns at her and ferociously yelled at her, and then they took away her two youngest boys in handcuffs. I was 16 years old.

We were taken to the LAPD's Hollenbeck Station for questioning. Apparently we were suspects in a murder along with two other individuals who were already at the station when we arrived.

A week prior, a friend had invited me to a "flyer party" that his friends from school were throwing. Since it was going to take place just a few minutes from my home, I decided to attend. I arrived with two friends whom I had known since childhood. At the party the three of us met my brother Danny, who was with his girlfriend and another female friend. There were many other people at the party, which was in the backyard of a house. The music was loud. It was dark, and people were drinking alcohol, drawn from a beer keg stationed in the yard.

Everyone seemed to be having a great time until a scuffle erupted between two groups of guys. There was screaming, kicking and swinging as the fight escalated toward the driveway about 20 feet from where we were standing. Suddenly there were gunshots. As everyone began to scatter, we rant back toward the farthest portion of the yard. I know the shots had gone off toward the front of the backyard where the scuffle had concluded, but I had no idea who was shooting or in what direction the shots were headed. There we stood behind an old van parked in the back until eventually the ruckus calmed. As everyone began to exit the party through the driveway leading to the street, I saw a body on the ground.

Something inside told me to stay and help—do something! But the frightened voice outside yelled: "Mario, let's go! C'mon!" I should have followed my heart and done something. Instead I was blamed—falsely accused. At the police station, I tried to plead my case: I wasn't involved. I didn't see who shot. I was with my friends! But there was nothing I could do. I was voiceless. I was booked and taken into custody. My brother was released.

As I sat in the back of the police car while on my way to Juvenile Hall, I stared at the free world as if in a trance. People were walking, smiling. For them it was just another day. The sun was bright which made me realize that I had been in the police station the entire morning and into the afternoon. I stared at kids running on the sidewalks, ladies coming out of grocery stores carrying bags, people standing at crowed bus stops.

As we stopped at a red light, a man selling oranges on the street corner looked at me and shook his head. I could see in his eyes as they connected with mine that he felt sorry for me. Then it suddenly hit me. I had always considered these men pathetic and looked at them with sympathy. Sometimes I would tell my mom to buy their fruit just to help them out. The fruit wasn't appealing, but they were in desperate need—trying to feed their families, or to pay the rent that was probably way overdue. I always thought their lives were worthless—they were nobody, and they had nothing in this world.

As the light turned green and the car began to move, the man raised his clenched fist as if to say, "Be strong!" And his pitiful look turned to a solemn gesture of support. At that moment, I realized I had been wrong for judging him and every other man like him. He was a human being just like me. I didn't know his past—what he had been through— why he was selling oranges, and it was none of my business. He was a man, and he had displayed his compassion to me. He had something in this world that many have lost: a heart.

I continued to watch my freedom slip away. And my trance ended as the cop driving glanced at me through the rear-view mirror. Until then I had not even noticed the overwhelming silence in the car. I then sensed the eyes on me—his quick looks, brief stares. He was in his mid-30s, and Hispanic. "How old are you?" he asked as he put his eyes back on the road.

For some reason, a strange though came to my mind: Maybe he can help me. He's Mexican. Maybe he cares—I'm one of his people! He probably has family in trouble with the law—or maybe he's been through this himself. Somewhere in his life, though, he made a change—he decided to walk on the right path, and he made it! He understands what I am going through, and now he wants to give back to his people!"

"I'm 16," I said. Eyes still on the road, he shook his head. And then a smirk appeared on his face. "Man, by the time you get out you'll be older than me," he said.

"But I didn't do it!" I quickly responded, defensively.

"Sure," he said sarcastically and smiled, eyes back on the rear-view mirror. "C'mon, we know you did it!"

I can never forget those words. I felt like screaming, "You don't know what the hell you're saying!" But I said nothing. I held everything inside, and as I spent my first night in Juvenile Hall, his words echoed in my mind: "C'mon we know you did it!"

That night, I drenched my soul with tears of helplessness. I was lost.

La Pinta

It was my first time in jail. I was 16, and I was charged with murder. On my first court date, I was expecting to go home. The detectives told that I would get a D.A. reject—but that was a lie. I spent the first three months in Juvenile Hall awaiting the results of my judicial fitness hearing, where the juvenile court would determine if I was "fit" or "unfit," to be tried as a juvenile. It was decided that my case would be transferred to adult court—the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles. I was ruled to be unfit.

I had no idea what the system had in store for me. I didn't know about the law. If someone would have mentioned a "fitness" hearing when I was out, I would have replied, "What's that?" I didn't know that as a high risk offender (HRO) I would have to wear the orange attire at all times and that when one if being tried as an adult, while still housed in Juvenile Hall, a transfer to the county jail was not at all rare, even if you were still a minor. Fortunately, I was able to remain in Juvenile Hall while my case was pending.

As the court dates started to pass by, some two to three months apart, I began to search for a purpose in my crisis through a spiritual path within. Yes, I had made many mistakes in my young life, but I wasn't a murderer! What was the real reason for my false arrest? I had been misidentified by witnesses, and that led to marking me a suspect—but many people knew I was innocent, and I believed the cops knew I was not guilty. There was more to it, something beyond the facts and statements.

(con't next week)

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