By Yeymy Garcia, Managing Editor
You might see Robert Garcia, or Bobby if you know him well enough, a muscular guy with a tattoo on his right bicep walking around campus confidently with his shaved head held up high ready to greet you with a smile and a “wassup.” He may look a little older than a typical CSUDH student, like many who enroll in college after gaining work and life experience in the so-called real world. Except in the real world, Garcia, 43, spent 21 years of his life behind bars in a federal prison.
His story inspired the creation of Scholars United, an organization at DH designed to help previously incarcerated students. In just five years, Garcia has managed to get involved in multiple organizations, pursue a degree in sociology and will be graduating in 2020, got married to his high school sweetheart and had two little girls, and just this month he bought a four-bedroom home.
While the successes in his personal and work life are admirable, Garcia says he is not trying to bury his past life. He wants to use his experiences to help others and that is why he is majoring in sociology.
Why sociology? He says it’s based on his life story. He grew up in poverty with a single mother and was convicted for a murder he didn’t commit at the age of 16. Being marginalized and stereotyped in prison, it got him curious to learn more about groups. He hopes to use his sociology degree to give back to the people who helped him.
“When I got out [of prison], I wanted to give back to those who were inside because those are the forgotten people,” Garcia said. “…I lived with them, I grew up with them and most of my change came from inside so then when I came out I was like, ‘I want to give back.’”
However, change did not come easy. Garcia slowly changed his mindset throughout his 21 years in prison but his journey started when he was just a kid growing up in North Hollywood.
“My dad was gone physically and my mom was gone emotionally so I had to learn how to grow up fast and I grew up on the streets,” Garcia said. “We had no money in the house so we had to hustle on the street whether it be selling drugs or whatever but I used to make ends meet or sharing my pants with somebody. I had to live like that.”
The day he was arrested, he and four other friends were part of a robbery. One of his friends shot someone from an opposing gang after Garcia left but under the old Felony Murder Rule, which allowed someone to be convicted of murder even if they were not the killer, it didn’t matter if he was the one who committed the murder because he was still a part of the robbery.
“I remember going back to the holding cell and just crying because I was like, ‘what the hell happened’ and then they wouldn’t let me talk to my mom,” Garcia said. “The first time I saw her was in juvenile hall…we didn’t even talk for the first 30 minutes we were just crying.”
Garcia was sentenced with first-degree murder with a sentence of 25 years to life. He only served 21 years because he managed to change his life during his time in prison.
The seeds were slowly planted by people who possessed something that Garcia didn’t: a belief in him. The first was a correctional officer who told him she saw something good in him. That one comment made him at least consider the possibility that his life wasn’t over.
The next came two years later after a razor fight between opposing prison gangs. For his role in it, Garcia was sent to administrative segregation, also known as “the hole,” a jail within a jail that houses prisoners who have committed serious institutional infractions such as assaults, gang violence, and serious disruptions to institutional security.
Garcia spent four years in solitary confinement from 1997-2001 where he only had one blanket, toilet paper, and a bar of soap. He remembers vividly that he had to place his hands behind his back into the tray slot door so the officer could remove his handcuffs.
Every three years, a correctional officer comes in and checks on inmates. Garcia met his while he was in the hole at the age of 23 with shackles encircling his wrists.
The officer asked him if he believed he would ever go home again.
“Someday,” Garcia said.
“Well you know what, right here it says you assaulted a police officer…This is not going to get you home.”
“Man, I gotta do what I gotta do,” Garcia remembers saying.
“You’re still young but get your act together because you’re going to go home,” the correctional officer finally said.
Garcia thought he was going to die in prison, but he didn’t want to die as the same person he came in.
“I said if I’m going to die in here, I at least want to die a different person so that way if when I die my mom will say ‘oh well at least este cabron changed his life’ you know?” Garcia said.
Garcia was also heavily inspired by the 1992 film, “Malcolm X” he saw while serving his time. He saw that Malcolm X was able to change his life in prison. Because Malcolm X read the dictionary to get smarter, Garcia also started reading the dictionary. If he heard a word he didn’t understand on TV, he’d write it down and write a sentence using that word the next day. Then, he would read the thesaurus to learn how to make his words bigger.
“The more education I got the more people believed in me and the more self confident and more self-worth I got,” Garcia said. “They helped me believe in me. So believing in me is what set the trajectory for all of this that I have today.”
Garcia received his GED in prison. He spent hours alone in his cell working to get his associate degree in social and behavioral sciences, sociology and the arts and humanities through Coastline Community College correspondence courses.
After he learned something new, he taught it to others. He tutored ESL to people who didn’t speak English and helped non-English speakers without representation with their legal paperwork. This is where Garcia found his passion to help others.
In 2014, a new law, Senate Bill 260, or the Second Chance law, passed in which anyone who committed their crime as a minor would be considered for parole after serving 20 years. Garcia’s case was considered largely because of his determination to get an education, he said.
The first thing Garcia wanted to do after his release was go to the beach and watch the sunset. He describes the moment he went to the beach while he was on parole:
“I was with like four people that did 20-30 years in prison and I remember around 4:35 p.m, the sun was going down and I remember [someone] telling me, ‘Did you ever think you would be standing here looking at the sunset?’ and I tell them, ‘Nah man. I thought I was going to die in prison.’ And they were like, ‘Just take it in.’ I remember I started crying…I ran and ran across the sand and jumped in the water and I just felt alive like fuck this is real.”
Garcia wanted to start college right after his release. After he took a few more classes he couldn’t take in prison at community college, he decided to enroll at CSUDH because he didn’t understand why DH didn’t have programs that help formerly incarcerated, marginalized and system impacted like CSULA with Project Rebound. He wanted to come here and change that.
Find out more about Scholars United here.
As treasurer of Scholars United, along with founder Jacquelyn Ramirez, he hopes to bring Project Rebound to help formerly incarcerated students graduate and become a resource to everyone.
Garcia has more plans than Scholars United to help those who have been system impacted. First, he wants to graduate May 2020 with his bachelor’s degree in sociology and apply to get his masters. With that, he wants to create a transitional housing center for those coming out of prison.
In addition, he is also considering becoming a foster parent because he wants to give a child a second chance to a better life because so many who are in prison are from the foster system. It is the reason he bought a four-bedroom home when he only needs two.
Garcia said that while he’s only been out of prison for five years, that time has felt like a new life ripe with possibilities, but also a life he wouldn’t be experiencing without the people he met who helped him. He said prison taught him resilience and he wants to spend his freedom helping others get a taste of what he’s found.
“[Prison] showed me what resilience really means,” Garcia said. “You can see someone get a bad grade and then they get a good grade and they’re like ‘wow I can bounce back up!’ But in prison…a lot of people [are in the worst] circumstances [and] you could see the power of the human spirit when you decide your life is going to be different no matter what and once they firmly believe that and have that conviction in their head, life changes. And it’s funny because people would say, ‘oh people who go to prison they never change’ that’s somewhat true, but the main thing is how much is society investing in him and how much he is investing in himself. If both parties are playing into it, people do change.”