Romeo's Story


“I became this enraged kid growing up and I didn’t know how to express myself... on top of that I was being bullied in school... I started gang banging at 10 years old and I was just like, ‘You know what? Let’s just do whatever, I’m going to do whatever that I have to do to get my respect, to get people to respect me. Back then, the way I interpreted respect was through fear…

You know, growing up [in Brooklyn], it just made me a fighter, physically. So, I guess my goal now is to just be a fighter mentally and spiritually and just put my hands down and use my mouth as my weapon and my tongue as my sword. You know? That's basically my goal right now - to achieve positivity and to influence anyone I can to be positive and to stay positive, honestly.”

Romeo is a 22 year-old credible messenger and graduate of The New School’s Institute for Transformational Mentorship. He grew up Brooklyn, and as a young boy and teenager, he loved athletic pursuits, in particular baseball and Taekwondo. Throughout his teenage years, he was on probation and in and out of detention, pushed out of school for fighting and other activities stemming from his gang association. Because of felony charges he received as a youthful offender, he was forced to give up his dreams of pursuing a professional career in the martial arts. During his late teens, he was incarcerated at Rikers Correctional Center and served time in prison in upstate New York. In 2016, when he was 20 years old, he finished his full term of parole and was released from supervision.

Interview with Romeo, conducted by Joann Self Selvidge for The Juvenile Project (TJP) on September 5, 2018 via phone in Brooklyn, New York.

Joann: Tell me your name and how old you are.

Romeo: My legal name is [_____] Gonzalez but I go by Romeo. I am 22 years old.

Joann: Tell me where you grew up and what your childhood was like growing up for you.

Romeo: Wow. Um. Well, I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. You know my whole life was always up in Brooklyn. I never lived anywhere else. I grew up in Bushwick, Bushwick, Brooklyn for the first 11 years of my life. Then I moved to Crown Heights Brooklyn for about a year, and currently live in New York and basically, I’m in Brooklyn different parts of Brooklyn but been around different part of Brooklyn.

Man, growing up. Growing up was interesting. It was really interesting because I had a family that was very confusing. Me, I was always the black sheep of the family. I never really got that much attention especially after my little brothers came along. So, that caused friction between me and my mom and the kids because I was upset, you know, I was very angry. Growing up, me and my mom never had a great relationship at all. Me and mom was always fighting like we was cats and dogs. But of course, sometimes we’d have our good days but it would be ruined by her complaining about something. She would get upset because eventually I got old enough to speak my mind and she didn’t want that. You know, she didn’t want me to grow up. She didn’t want me to be a man, you know. Just the way my mom grew up, she didn't herself finish school so I feel like my mom envied me a lot. She never finished school she dropped out of 6th grade. She was into the streets, gang banging and selling drugs and stuff like that. And she was a woman I am telling you about, you know, this is a woman doing all these types of things. I knew everything she told me was true about her past because I had some of my associates that I associated with tell me like, ‘Oh, you’re this woman's son? Yo! Your mom was crazy back in the day!’ And then people would just go off telling about how my mom used to do this all this types of criminal activity and all this extra stuff. But yeah, me and mom never really got along.

My father, my biological father, I never met my biological father. I don’t know who he is. I barely know his name but I don't know even know if its his real name. I don’t know if it’s his real name or his alias. But the father that I know, the father that took care of me for parts of my life, he’s around but he’s not around. He left the house right before I moved out of Bushwick so I was about 8-9 years old when he left the house. Later on, I found out that was because my mom was very abusive. My mom was very abusive to him. She always used to, you know, she had a drug problem. She had an alcohol problem. She was very abusive to him and my father wasn’t the type to hit women. So, I guess all that anger built up and he just decided to get up and leave and left us, sadly. I guess that alone drove me insane because as a child, even though my mom had her flaws, right before my father left there was order in the house. There was a man and there was no fighting. It was just a peaceful family. As soon as my father left, everything just went down the hill.

Me and my mom started fighting more and more often. I started fighting in school. I started hanging out with the wrong people. Me getting into trouble and stuff like that, didn’t only stem from my family, you know. The things I was going through with my family, like, there was many deaths around that time. I think there was 3 or 4 in like 6 months of my family members that had passed away from either drug abuse or natural causes. I became this enraged kid growing up and I didn’t know how to express myself.

Joann: So, you had a lot of deaths in the family. That’s heavy on top of everything else.

Romeo: Yeah, that was very heavy. You know, on top of that I was being bullied in school. I was just this short chubby kid. I wasn’t the most handsome kid. So, I really didn’t get that much attention. I was basically a nerd, you know? I was a little nerd, I was fat, small, not that good looking. I was just kind of funny. I was kind of funny and I say kind of funny because I would crack a good joke every now and then and I had the whole class laughing for like the whole day. So that ended up making me the class clown. It became a habit to me - making everybody laugh and disturbing class and stuff like that. I now notice what I didn’t notice before, it was I wanted attention. I didn’t get that from home and I didn’t get that from other people so I decided to disrupt class and do all that extra stuff while I was in school. Which is very wrong of me and I know that now.

I just got bullied constantly from Elementary School all  the way up to I’d say the beginning of Middle School, um, got bullied. That same bully that bullied me in Elementary went to the same Middle School as me so it was like even worse. You know, by then, I’m a little older. This one time I came home and I had a black eye cuz I got into a fight at school and this dude blindsided me and punched me. I came home with a black eye and I tried to cover it up with shades and my mom was just like, she cursed me out. She was like ‘What the hell? This is what I send you to school for? You know what? We’re going to go to your school and if you don’t go whip that dudes butt, I’m going to whip your butt.’ So it was just like, okay. I’m going to go try and whip this dudes butt but I don’t want to get my butt whooped by my mom. Mind you, my mother at the time, she was 5’9”-5’10” and she was about 250lbs. So, she’s a big woman. That scared me.

Sadly my mom put fear in me since little, since I can remember. She’s always wanted me to be scared of her and that wasn't supposed to go down like that, honestly. Your son isn’t supposed to be scared of you. They’re supposed to love you and trust you and I know that now. So, me being bullied. Aw man, and that led to me going into hanging out with the wrong crowds and turning to the streets.

Joann: What happened that particular day? Like that day you came home with the black eye, did yall go back up to the school?

Romeo: Oh, well, yeah. I ended up going back to the school and I went and I punched the kid in his face and didn’t stop. And, I didn’t stop until I seen the dude with blood and you know, his face, you know, he was bleeding, he had a busted lip. It was really bad, you know? From then on, I was just like ‘I guess this is how I’m going to have to be.’

Joann: How old were you when it happened?

Romeo: I was in 6th grade so I had to be about 13. At this time, I was already gang banging, you know? I was already into that gang life. I started gang banging at 10 years old and I was just like, ‘You know what? Let’s just do whatever, I’m going to do whatever that I have to do to get my respect, to get people to respect me. Back then, the way I interpreted respect was through fear. I put fear in a lot of people because right after that incident where I punched that kid in the face and I had to go back up to the school to retaliate, my mom put me in karate.

She noticed I was rising within the ranks in karate, like really fast, really fast. I was a natural at it, you know. Eventually, I did that for a little while, I would say for about a year and I rose up pretty quick to a black belt. I wanted to do more, but my mom, unfortunately, she had more kids so she couldn't afford it. So, here I am stuck with the knowledge I know now, that I knew then about martial arts and I wanted more. I wanted to learn Boxing. I wanted to learn akido, I wanted to learn all these different types of martial arts and I didn’t have the funds to pay for it. So, I was reverted to the streets. I started to get into selling drugs and paying for my classes. From there, I caught my first charge, you know, and ever since then, like, my whole life just goes spiraling down from there. My whole life just started spiraling down.

Joann: Tell me about that first time that you got your first charge. What happened?

Romeo: I was about 14-15, I would say. I was in this precinct program. It was 83rd precinct, it was an open gym. They hosted an open gym where they had the kids, the youth, from the neighborhood come over to the gymnasium and play basketball or whatever sport was available inside the gym. One night, I went with my older brother and an ex-associate and the gym was closed. At that time, I was going through a lot. My mom was, you know, abusing me. She was talking down on me telling me she regrets me and all this bad stuff. Everytime she would tell me something like that, 8 out of 10 times she’d be drunk or on drugs, you know?

So, a lot of that stuff is processing through my head and the gym was closed so we ended up going a different route and I stopped because my ex-associate at the time, my associate at the time, had to use the bathroom so he picked a corner and he peed wherever it is he peed. Like, I remember this dude coming up the block and I just punched him straight in his face. I punched him straight in his face and pushed him again and I punched him one more time. By the 2nd punch, he was already gushing blood. He automatically went down and we ran, you know? We ran.

And the next thing you know we go to the store, and we come out the store, the dudes father that I just beat up, for no apparent reason, his father hopes out his car with his gun, he had a glock on him, and he’s like, ‘Did you guys just beat up my son and rob my son?’ And I was like ‘Whoa. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I see these dudes running the other way.’ So he goes, ‘Okay.’ He hops back in his van and he peels off, like he peels off really fast. Then the blue and whites come and the kid is in the car and they’re doing a canvas. And the kids face is all bloodied up and I can see it from where I am standing form where he's at and he points me out, you know, well, he points in our direction. He doesn't point out any of us specifically and he was just like, ‘It was them.’ We ended up getting arrested.

Come to find out, we go to the precinct and it’s a retired detective son. He ends up in a coma. The police officers are just bashing me, like, ‘You’re a fucking animal’, excuse my language. I do quote, they did say I’m a freaking animal. I’m disgusting. I’m a nasty person. You know, all these racial slurs and of course, these are all white officers that are telling me all types of racial things like, ‘It’s all you people do - beat up on people for no reason. Y’all need to get a life or just disappear from the earth.’ Like, they was just telling me all types of nasty stuff and I’m sitting there like… and on top of that, at the time that they’re telling me all this stuff, they're like, ‘Yo. If this kid dies, you’re doing 25 to life.’ So, I don't know what it is they're doing but maybe they're doing a scare tactic, what I now know that they was doing. He’s telling me, ‘Yo. You about to do 25 to life.’

At the time, right around that time that I first caught my charge, I was still in martial arts, I was boxing and stuff like that. From there on, I lost my license to box. I wasn’t allowed to go pro the way I wanted to. I ended up doing about 3-4 months in juvenile. My mom told me that she wasn’t going to bail me out. She said I deserved what I got. She said I should rot there for doing whatever it is that I did. But she bailed me out, but she ended up bailing me out along with my godmother. Come to find out years later, it was my godmother who convinced her to bail me out. So, I was finally free and I was pretty happy. I was pretty happy.

It didn’t stop there, though. I went back to school. Everybody was just like, ‘Yo! Romeo, what’s up bro? Where the hell you been at? I heard you was locked up?’ So, I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’ So, I start smiling and automatically I think this is something cool, which I now know it’s not. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, man. I was locked up, man. I did some shit but it ain’t about nothing,’ like, I’m trying to be cool, you know? I ended up fighting this case for about a year and a half. I ended up getting sentenced to 6 months, which is 6 months in the program or incarcerated and 5 years probation. I ended up taking the 6 months in the drug program and the 5 years probation. I ended up doing a program and I completed the program 6 months, thankfully. I kept catching little BS charges like hopping a turnstile. I caught a charge for possession of a weapon and I only had a boxcutter and at the time, I was working in a warehouse so we had box cutters. So, because I was on probation I couldn’t have none of that stuff on me. They got me, they caught me. That was the charge I had at Sunset. You know, I got charged with fighting in the street, assault. I just got into, you know, I was trying not to get into stuff but I just kept getting into stuff.

And then, one day I go to probation and I have a warrant and I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ My PO, she tells me, ‘Yeah, you got a warrant. I’m taking you in right now.’ I was like, ‘Wait. Whoa, whoa. For what?’ She’s like, ‘You know this case that you caught that you thought you was slick?’ I was like, ‘Listen, look. I didn’t know I had a warrant. I did not know. They did not tell me my court date.’ She’s like, ‘Well, listen. I’m going to give you one chance. You go tomorrow morning and you go fix that. If that warrant is not fixed, I’m taking you in. I’m not playing with you.’ Telling me shit like that. I’m like, ‘Nah. I got you. I got you, for real. I'm not trying to get into no more stuff. I’m just starting to get my life right.’ She’s like, ‘alright,’ then her supervisor pulls out his handcuffs and was like, ‘Yo. Listen. I’ll take you in right now. You don’t mean nothing to me.’ I was like, ‘Listen. Look. I don’t want to go in. I’m not trying to go back to that. Like I said, I was starting to get my life together. Just give me a chance and I will fix the warrant. I will fix everything and everything fine.’

By this time, I’m about 16. 16 going on 17. So, I done completed about 3 and a half years. About 3 years in probation and again, me and mom were not getting along. We never really did get along for a long period of time and it just wasn’t working. So my mom decides to call my probation officer and tell her that I'm doing all this types of stuff that I'm not. She was was telling PO that I was selling drugs. She said I was getting into fights in the streets. She said that I was abusing my brothers which is untrue. She said I had drugs and weapons in the house, which is not true. I go to probation again and she tells me, ‘Oh, you have to go to court.’ And I’m like ‘For what?’ And she’s like, ‘Probation Court. I have to violate you, violation probation court.’ I’m like ‘Okay. Why?’ She’s like, ‘Your mom called me saying that you did this, this, this, and this and this is what you doing. So, I have to violate you and you already signed the paperwork and I’ll see you Friday.’

I go back Friday and I learned this time already I had kicked out my first school. They kicked me out of my first school. They had tried to blame me for something I didn’t do. It was a serious offense, you know? I got kicked out of that school so I transferred to a school in Manhattan and I’m thinking that I’m just going to, you know, go to court, they’re going to give me another court date and then, you know, that’s all that’s going to be. I have never been to violation court. I go in with a friend of mine who is now incarcerated, it’s crazy. We go to the court and I’m like, ‘Yo, bro. Don’t worry about it. After court, we’re out. I’m going to have a hookie party.’ I was going to cut school and have a hookie in my house. At the time I was living with my aunt but I had the whole house to myself because my aunt lived with her boyfriend. So, basically, I had my own crib, I had my own apartment. I go to court and I’m like this is nothing. I give my boy, my friend, my stuff. I’m like, ‘Hold my phone. Hold my wallet. There’s my other stuff.’ And he’s like, ‘Okay.’ So I got in front of Judge Wong of Supreme Court in Queens, New York. He looks at my rap sheet and he’s like, ‘You’re an animal. You don’t need to be home. Hey, yo, lock him up.’ As soon as the correction guards went behind me, I knew it was over. I looked back at my friend and I was just like, ‘I’m done. I’m going in.’ And they took me in.

I served about a couple months on Rikers Island  and I ended up getting in a program, and inpatient program to come home. In that program was, damn that program was… what was that programs name? Oh, Phoenix House. Yes, Phoenix House, in upstate New York. I ended up going. Everything was great. I went up there and they was telling me while I was riding up there, everybody was like, ‘Yo. This is not even a jail. This is not a prison. This is a halfway house. You get your dorm. You got a room with about 3 other individuals. They got females on the other side but you can’t talk to them. Or you can talk to them, but like yelling through the door, but you can’t interact with them in no way shape or form. They were like, ‘Yo. You're going to get good meals.’ By this time it’s already around Thanksgiving. October had just passed and Thanksgiving was coming up. I go and I settle in and a few weeks later it was Thanksgiving. So, I’m like, ‘Damn. I’m not going to be home for Thanksgiving. I have to be here with the crappy meals. Come to find out, I go to lunch room and it’s all like a fun house for kids. It’s like, ‘Oh, wow! I can do this. What? Six months? This ain’t nothing.’ They got like Playstation 3. They got like Xbox. I’m like, ‘What? This is awesome!’ They got the whole game room. They have a gym where you can work out, a gym where you can play basketball. I’m like, ‘Yo! This is like heaven right now. I’m doing 6 months then I’m going home then I'm doing my thing. I’m getting my high school diploma here.’ So, I set up a whole bunch of plans for myself to succeed.

Just one day, after Thanksgiving dinner - we had a big Thanksgiving dinner. They had candied yams, turkey, collard greens. They had all this types of stuff - macaroni and cheese and rice and beans.. Aw, man. It was just awesome. Two days later, we go down to the gymnasium and, you know, we’re guys, we’re men. We’re all between the ages of 16 to 20, or 21 or 22 or around that age. So, we get to horse-playing and this other individual, which I forgot his name, this brother, we ended up - I would call it stage fighting, you know? Where we don’t actually hit each other and it’s just more of the face performance type thing. And somebody actually gets hit. The kid, when he gets hit, he only got hit with the knuckle, like with the finger, like one individual knuckle on his eyebrow. I guess he had sensitive skin and his eye just busted open and he was just bleeding. We was all horse-playing and when he got hit, I was holding him but we was all playing around. It's just the fact that he actually hit him by mistake. He kept saying, ‘Yo, sorry bro. Sorry bro. I didn't mean to hit you.’ But then he blew it out of proportion. You know, they had to use the video tape and it looks like we was jumping him like we was all beating him up. And I was like, ‘what? We were not beating him up!’ The video doesn’t look good and I’m telling the kid, ‘Yo, you know we was playing around? He just slipped and hit you by mistake.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I know, you did not do nothing. We was all playing but he was actually the person that hit me.’ What the video showed and how it had no audio, me and that other individual was kicked out.

The same night, I came home and it was my little brothers birthday, December 4th. So, I come home and my mom, she know a little bit but doesn't know much. I didn’t want her to start me in get on me for what I’ve done. I had court maybe about 2 weeks later and I spoke to my lawyer and my lawyer was like straight up, ‘Look. Judge Wong is not going to have it. They’re going to send him the video and it doesn’t look good. No matter how you put it, the video doesn’t have audio so it’s not going to help you at all. So, you gotta do something.’ And I’m like okay so I enrolled back in school and I went back to school. I started doing good at this point. At this point, I’m getting straight A’s and B’s, you know, I’m getting certifications. I’m getting certificates of completion.

Joann: Did you go back to your old high school? How old were you?

Romeo: No. The first high school I got kicked out of so I couldn’t go to that school. So I ended up going back to school in Manhattan. The school is called Rapid Communication Arts. On 5th Street in Manhattan. So I went back and I’m doing so well. I ended up going to court and I bring all my certificates and stuff like that, recommendation letters from my teachers. They’re like, ‘Yo. Romeo is a great student. He’s very intellectual. He’s very intelligent.’ You know, like very good positive recommendation letters. I’m bringing all that stuff and I give it to my lawyer to give to Judge Wong and he just looks at the paper and looks at the stack of files and just throws them aside. He watches the video and he tells me again, ‘You’re an animal. You do not deserve to be home. You need to learn your lesson.’ I’m like, ‘Listen. Look. The video is not what it seems. It's literally not my fault. It’s not what it seems. It’s really not what it looks like.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I've heard that before. Look, listen. I’m going to give you the truth right now: you either take a 1 to 3 or 1 in 3rd and 4th. You pick. If not, I’m going to pick right now.’ So, I consult my lawyer very briefly and was like, ‘Yo. What is a 1 to 3rd? What is a 3rd and 4th? Which one is less and which one is more?’ He’s like, ‘Listen. A 1 to 3rd is 1-3 years. You could come home in a year but your CR date is 2 years so you’ll do about 2 years and come home and run your parole.’ And I’m like, ‘Damn. What’s a 1 to 3rd and 4th?’ He’s like, ‘You’ll do maybe about 2.5 years and come home with about 2 years of parole.’ And I’m like, ‘Whoa, what?’ He’s like, “Yeah, that’s what it is. Yeah, you pick.’ I was like, I will take the 1 to 3.’ So, he stamped his little mallet I guess, whatever you call it, little hammer and he goes, ‘Alright. That’s it. Take him in.’ I looked behind me and of course I was by myself, I’m just going in, and back to Rikers Island I went.

I went to Rikers Island. Aw, man and by this time, it was worse, you know? Being that I was gang affiliated it became much more difficult for me to be positive while I was incarcerated and stay away from the bullshit. Excuse my language. It was just really hard. That was like a huge challenge for me, you know? Of course, I’m not going to sugar coat nothing, you know I do what I have to do to survive in jail. Whether it's fighting or whatever. Whatever it is I had to do to survive to make sure I was well fed, well kept, I did it, you know?

I went upstate and, of course, everything upstate is better, you know. I just went and I just tried to do my thing. I have been told that I seem way more calmer. I got jumped about twice. I got into a fight about twice. So, I had to move around. I finally got to this one housing unit and everything was calmer. The POs were like, ‘Yo. Listen, look. This is the type of housing unit where we just relax. We chill. We don’t want no problems. We here. We get all the privileges. He’s telling me, don’t get it twisted, we got the most gangster kids here. But they all chill and they all have a goal and that goal is to go home. They want to make their parole board and go home.’ He actually like, ‘Look. I notice you being a Crip, you gotta know there is no problems. There is no fighting. None of that. We discuss all our issues like grown adults.’ I’m like, ‘Okay. I like that, you know, I can be mature. I don’t play that disrespect from the mouth. There’s a lot of phrases that people use to disrespect one another and I’m not with it. Like, I’m not with him or being directed towards me. I’m not doing that.’ And he was like, ‘Okay, I can respect it. Like I said, we all chill here, we’re not nothing, we’re all basically like a little family.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know about all that. You know, this is prison and I don’t believe that.’ I guess he tried to make me feel comfortable, you know?

I was in that housing unit for the rest of my time until I went to parole board. Then when I made my parole board, I went home from the housing unit. I only had 1 issue in that housing unit. I was with another kid that, you know I was pretty cool with him, but he disrespected me out the mouth, you know? He told me to - excuse my language - he told me to ‘suck his dick.’ You know? And, in jail terminology, that’s really disrespectful and that means you’re just trying to have fights. He told me that of course he was joking around but I told him from the beginning that I don’t joke like that. I'm not a serious person but I don’t play like that, you know? I will say a joke or 2 but I don’t play like that. For the most part, I’m serious and I’m all calm and to myself. He told me that on his gate one night and I was like, ‘You know what? Just lock out with your shoes on tomorrow. That’s it. You don’t need to say no more.’ He was like, ‘Yo, but bro, I was just playing. You’re taking things too serious.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to hear it. Just lock out with your shoes tomorrow and meet me in the bathrooms.’ So, he gets upset and was like, ‘Aight, aight. Whatever. We gonna fight. We gonna get it.’ I’m like okay.

So in the morning I come out and I put my sneakers on. I go in the bathroom and was like, ‘Listen. We ain't gonna make it hot. Just go in the bathroom and I’ll go right after you.’ The CO that was on shift, he was really cool. I told him, ‘Listen, look. This kid, he disrespected me out the mouth and this is the situation.’ So he seen my face and he’s like, ‘Whoa. I know your face. You’re angry. You upset.’ I was like, ‘Yeah. I’m clear the bathrooms real quick.’ Then the CO told me, ‘Uh oh. With who? You cleaning the bathrooms with somebody? That means you’re serious because you don’t bother nobody. You a chill dude.’ I’m like, ‘Exactly.’ I was like, ‘Listen, CO, allow me this 30 seconds. Just 30 seconds. He going to get my point in 30 seconds.’ He goes, ‘Alright, well, 30 seconds and that’s it.’ I was like, ‘Alright. Gotcha, 30 seconds.’ He goes in and I guess he put the time on his watch and we ended up fighting. You know, we ended up fighting and I finally beat him up. It just happens that everybody was like, you know like a few people had seen the fight but they didn't want to make it obvious because the CO would get in trouble for letting us fight in the bathroom one-on-one. You know, everybody held it down. We fought a fair fight. I knocked him down and knocked him out. He got up and I shook his hand and was like, “Listen, look. This ain’t about nothing. This fight is nothing. This is just about respect. I tell you, you'll respect me. I’m no bozo dude, I’m not no punk kid. I’m not no tough guy neither, but I will stand and fight for my respect.’ He was like, ‘Look, I apologize. I understand. You got it. Peace.’ I was like, ‘Yo, peace to you my brother.’ And that was it.

I made my parole board. Aw, man. I was so excited. It was 4 months I was going home. When the time came for me to go home, the night before I got my ass whooped by 4 CO’s, the night before I came home. They messed up knee.

Joann: What instigated it?

Romeo: No, the CO, I guess he, the CO’s, they wanted to teach me a lesson of being locked up and they didn’t want me to come back, I’m assuming. They was like, ‘Look here. Don’t come back. This is what it is.’ They came in the bathroom and me and another individual that was going home on the same day, came in the bathroom, and once they locked the door the bathroom - it was a big bathroom with showers and stuff like that - they started like ‘Yeah, we got them guys.’ Then we turned around and me and the inmate looked at each other, like at the time, we didn’t associate with each other, me and that inmate, you know, we didn't have a problem. We just went about our business, that’s it. It was like, ‘Hey. What’s up,’ you know, and kept it going. We looked at each other and automatically we knew had to team up. We went back to back and we ended fighting the CO’s but these dudes was freakin huge. Like, one was an ex-NFL player that used to play for the Giants. Like, what the hell? The dude is like 6’6” and 250 lbs of muscle, you know? And here I am only like 180, lean cut. Compared to him, I’m a small dude.

We ended up fighting the CO’s and these CO’s kicked our asses - excuse my language. They beat us up. I ended up walking out the bathroom with a messed up knee. Until this day, it’ll lock on me and I will have to pop it so that it won’t be painful anymore. Yeah, I kinda got messed up. I ain’t even gonna lie. I shed a tear or two because of the pain in my knee, you know, like the pain was so severe. I didn’t want to go to the director, you know, I didn’t want to go snitch. I didn’t want to go tattletale. I was going home the next day. I was already blessed, you know? I was like I can take that, I can beat that. You know, I went home the next day and it was like a breath of fresh air. Actually, on my way home, I had to stop the bus and get out to throw up because the air was so different, you know, from upstate New York coming down to the city. The air was so different that I had to have the driver pull over so I could throw up and I didn’t have nothing on my stomach so i was throwing up stomach acid, which is unhealthy. I started throwing up and the CO was just looking at me because he came with us to take us to the terminal or whatever. He was like, ‘Look. That’s your freedom. Don’t lose it for nobody.’ I looked at him and was like, ‘Thank you. For real. I learned a lot being locked up. I learned a lot.’

I came home and I went upstairs and knocked on my mom’s door and the first thing I did was show her my GED. Threw it right in her face and was like, ‘Look, I got locked up because of you and came home because of me.’ I came home with 3 certifications, a GED and I mentioned to her that I scored the second highest in the whole facility. She just looked at me and goes, ‘I’m glad you’re home.’ In my mind, I’m like, you know, you’re the reason why I was locked up so don’t hand me that bullshit. But, I was just glad to be home and didn’t want no issues, you know, I was on parole. I didn’t want the same thing to happen again, you know, I didn’t want things to reoccur.

Joann: How old were you when you got home? How long had you spent inside?

Romeo: All together, I guess technically about 2 years. Yeah, about 2 years I was locked up. All together, I gave the system from 15, because the longest I had ever been home from a charge is I think 6 or 7 months? Basically, I was catching charges, you know? I gave basically my whole teenhood to the system - from juvenile prisons to jail to adult prisons and jails. So, 2 years back to back.

Joann: How old were you when you got out that last time?

Romeo: I went in when I was about 18. I remember 18 because I had turned 18 in Rikers Island box. Everybody in the box, one guy from the box, he sent me a cupcake. It was a little muffin but I called it a cupcake because he tried to make it look fancy. It was a muffin with a little match inside. Oh, I’m sorry, it was a wick. It was a match, it was an imitation of a match but it was a wick. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with a wick is?

Joann: Tell me what it is.

Romeo: A wick is basically, you know, when you buy a candle, they have that thing that you can light, you know, so it can burn, that wick. But the wick that we made was out of tissue that was wet and molded to make hard and twisted into a candle shape-like.

Joann: Did you light it?

Romeo: Yes, of course! We made lighters, like, we took batteries and we broke the radios. The radios that we had we called them our ‘cars.’ You know, we named them after cars. So, if you had a Sony radio, it was a Chevy. If you had a little crappy $2 radio, it was a Honda. So, say like on the island they say like, ‘Yo. You got your Chevy with you? I’m trying to go take a ride. They like, ‘Nah. I'm cruising right now, I cruising right now. I’m bumping that fire.’ You know? And that would basically mean that I’m using my radio right now and I’m listening to some good music. So, you can’t ride with me, you know? Basically, you can’t ride with me. Or, like, somebody else will make fun of people that got the Hondas, you know, the little crappy radios that break in like a week. He’s like, ‘Yo! Such-and-such cell number 25 has a Honda, yo. You better tell that dude to go to a mechanic and bump up to a Chevy.’ What that basically meant was go to the store and go buy a Sony radio because you gonna go every week buying a new radio and waste your money. You’re wasting your money like that. Or even people would yell out, ‘Yo! Anybody selling they Chevy? You know what I mean? I will pay this much for it or I put this much through or I will give you $10 in commissary.’ Or, ‘Yo, somebody gimme a Honda. I need it for tonight. I don’t care if it’s messed up as long as I can listen to music. Tomorrow I’m going to the store so I can buy my Chevy. You know, things like that. So, we used our imagination. We used our imagination to make the time pass by fast.

Although, it was a negative experience, I turned it into something positive. You know, by coming home with certificates, certifications, my GED - I came home with a 5 year plan, you know?

Joann: So, you were about 20 when you came home?

Romeo: Yeah, I was about 20 years old when I came home.

Joann: So, you jumped straight into your 5-year plan? What was the first thing you did?

Romeo: Well, the first thing on my list was to get my GED. Initially, I wasn’t going to get my GED, I was planning on finishing high school but I was too far behind. I barely went to class, you know, and I was just too far behind. So, they offered the GED and I was like, ‘you’re not supposed to take the GED instead of coming home and going to school at 20 years old. You don’t want to do that.’ So, I’m like, ‘you know what? You’re right.’ Boom. I went. Practiced. Took it. Passed it.

When I got home, the second on my list was to go to college. So, I came home and jumped straight into college. I went to ASA College in downtown Brooklyn and my major was Medical Assisting. I stayed in college for about almost a year but due to the type of college that I was going to, they did not provide me with metro cards, or funds to get books and stuff like that so I had to take out student loans to buy my books. At the time, I had just came home, you know, so I didn’t have a job. I barely had money. I had about $800 to my name that I came home from commissary with. So, I ended up dropping out of college and I had to go work because at this time, my mom was going through her stuff and she was getting evicted from her place and stuff like that. She told me straight up, ‘Look. I don’t want you to live with me. You're already 20 years old. That's it. Find your own place.’ And I was like, ‘What? I just came home and you’re gonna do me like that? Okay.’ So, I ended up working for JFK Airport. I worked in the airport for about a year and I continued to work and work and work. I never got the chance to go back until now. But this time, I’m taking up a different major. Yeah, so yeah, that’s the most of it. That’s as fast as I can get it.

Joann: So, I’m making an assumption that that last charge that you got was a felony. Did you get a felony on your record?

Romeo: Yeah, I did get a felony but, you know, thankfully, my lawyer did convince the Judge to give me a youthful offender after everything was done. So, that’s how I got the job in JFK because once I turned 18, it was expunged from my record as far as if I wanted to go into the military I could still go. If I wanted a government job, I could still do it. You know, whatever it is. Anything that limited me to when having a felony, you know, everything at 18 would be expunged.

Joann: So, that happened when you got back?

Romeo: When I got back, because I had already turned 18 in the box, I was good. I didn’t really know all of this until after I got the job and until I started speaking to my lawyer more like, ‘Oh, what job opportunities do I have with the YO?’ And he’s like, ‘Unlimited. You’re not limited to anything because you have a YO. If they search you name in the criminal history, nothing would pop up.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, cool.’

Joann: Wow. So, you kept in touch with your attorney even after you got out? You still had probation, right?

Romeo: I had parole.

Joann: Oh, parole. Sorry, that was afterwards. Parole. So, you had the rest of it, like another year of parole?

Romeo: I had another 2 years of parole.

Joann: Oh, wow.

Romeo: Yeah, I had 2 years of parole.

Joann: Are you still under supervision or are you freed up?

Romeo: Oh, no! I’m free at last! Free at last!

Joann: Congratulations!

Romeo: My sentence and parole, I finished parole in 2016. In 2016, I finished parole successfully with no rearrests, you know, completion of everything. You know, I was always home when my parole officer came over. So, I successfully completed 2 years of parole and I’d never felt better than the day I got off.

Joann: Congratulations.

Romeo: Thank you.

Joann: So, tell me what's up now. So, you’re in school? Where are you staying? Where are you going to school? Working?

Romeo: Right now, I currently work with ITM and it’s the Institute for Transformative Mentoring. Basically right now, I’m just trying to perfect my skills to transform them into being a mentor to the youth. Right now, I’m a credible messenger. I’m just trying to enhance and advance my skills so I can go out there and tell my story and hopefully influence someone else in a positive way to make sure that they become somebody and not make the mistakes I did and learn from something that I had done. You know, just to reach out to the youth and grasp their attention and take it away from… I would rather take their attention and put it towards me than have them individually chase negativity. So, that’s what I’m doing now. I’m in the process of getting college credits towards that field. I’m hoping to make it a career, which I will. And just teaching and, you know, share my story. Hopefully, one day a few years from now maybe even open up my own non-profit organization for the youth and for the black and brown people. You know so, that’s it… I mean, for now.

Joann: You mentioned a godmother. Do you still have a relationship?

Romeo: Oh, yes. Yes, I do. She always works, you now, so I don't really get to see her much but I do keep in contact with her, I do talk to her. You know, I do anytime I have an issue, I feel like I’m upset or whatever, I do hit her up and be like, ‘Look This is just how I feel. Can we, I don’t know, link up and let’s go play, I don’t know, play pool or something like that.’ Then we just go and we literally go to a bar and have a drink or two and I’ll come home and go to sleep. But right now, I currently live, I’m in a relationship right now with my girlfriend. She’s my heart and my soul and we currently live together in an apartment. I’m just trying to live and stay away from all of the negative and absorb all the positive, you know, absorb anything that I can learn and become more wiser.

Joann: Well, it sounds like you’re in a good place to do that.

Romeo: Yeah, like, I’m just shooting for the stars. Because growing up, I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, you understand what I’m saying? Like, I wasn’t privileged growing up. I had to fight for everything I ever had - literally and figuratively. Whether it’s from outside, stopping my own brothers from stealing my sneakers or whatever it is, I still had to fight for anything I ever had. I had to fight. Growing up it was really hard for me as a hispanic young man - because I’m hispanic - I’m Dominican and Puerto Rican. I’m brown skinned. I’m kinda a little darker than caramel all summer so I might have got a tan. Yeah.. yeah. I might have gotten a tan, I might have gotten a tad darker but, you know, I’m caramel skin colored but I’m definitely not white. Let’s just put it that way, you know, I’m definitely not white. I’m slums of Brooklyn, basically.

You know, growing up here, its just made me a fighter, physically. So, I guess my goal now is to just be a fighter mentally and spiritually and just put my hands down and use my mouth as my weapon and my tongue as my sword. You know? That's basically my goal right now - to achieve positivity and to influence anyone I can to be positive and to stay positive, honestly.

Joann: Man, thank you so much for sharing all of that with me. I really appreciate it, you know?