Backstory: Breaking barriers

For nearly 15 years, Gabriel Sanchez and Charles Mancillas were sworn enemies and they didn't even know each other. That's because at the ages of 12 and 13, the two joined opposing streets gangs, the Norteños and Sureños, in California. The two Latino gangs harbor a brutal rivalry that dates back decades. Had the youths ever met, they probably would have tried to kill each other.

But today, the two men, now in their 30s, sit next to each other at a steel table in cell pod 5C at the main jail in San Jose, Calif. They joke and laugh. They talk about playing cards. They even compare tattoos.

"If we were in a regular prison, we would be enemies," Mr. Sanchez says. "Over here, we are human beings."

The two men are part of an unusual program aimed at breaking one of the most pervasive - and violent - influences behind bars and on the streets of urban America: gangs. In a quest to overcome deeply ingrained and often fatal differences, the initiative brings together former rival gang members in one cell pod to eat, sleep, and live.

The program, "Breaking Barriers," offers counseling and courses - from substance abuse to poetry readings - to help overcome the causes of gang fealty and drug addiction. The goal is to get inmates who move through the Santa Clara County central jail to permanently sever ties with gangs, and thus reduce violence, when they transfer to a state prison or return to a life on the outside.

Experts consider it one of the only local programs of its kind in the country. While the initiative is still young - only two years old - it has already shown some success in rehabilitating individual lives. "It's given me a second chance with my family," says James Barnes Jr., an inmate whose former affiliation with a Latino gang is evident in many of his tattoos. "You learn to open up."

Gangs are nothing new to prison life, but over the past four decades their presence has increased dramatically. One national study found that, of the nearly 2 million people incarcerated in the US, more than 43 percent associated with a gang. "Gang numbers are growing in the streets and they grow in the facilities," says Edward Cohn of the National Major Gang Task Force.

The gangs found inside prisons mirror those on the streets. Most are divided along racial lines and controlled through a strict hierarchy. Inmates who enter prison already affiliated with a gang have it easy: They simply continue their allegiance and receive protection. Inmates who are considered independent must decide whether to go it alone - and often quickly become targeted for assault - or cave to the status quo. "It's the culture of prison," says James Houston, a criminologist at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. "It's one way to feel safe, to get material things, to have ... a sense of autonomy."

What's difficult to determine is how much of the violence behind bars is gang-related. While inmates involved in melees rarely reveal that orders came down from a gang superior, experts say much of the violence in prisons is planned attacks by gangs, not random acts. And the easiest way for wardens to avoid mayhem is often to house inmates together based on their affiliation.

For prison officials in San Jose, violence was the catalyst behind Breaking Barriers. A couple of years ago, inmates who had dropped out of gangs were being targeted for assault or death by other prisoners.

To protect them, administrators decided to house the dropouts together in one cell pod, separate from the general inmate population. But officials wanted the program to be more than just a management tool.

"We found that there was an opportunity here to provide these inmates with tools - recovery tools, education tools, addiction counseling," says Edward Flores, correction chief for the Santa Clara County Department of Correction. The hope is that these guys can turn their lives around and influence others, particularly young male family members, to avoid gang life, he says.

To qualify for Breaking Barriers, an inmate must be serious about severing ties to a gang. The program is structured around a variety of classes. Topics range from faith-based courses to anger management. Homework in the form of personal essays, family history papers, and poetry is assigned weekly. Four days a week, the inmates gather for their class session.

On this day, the topic du jour is substance abuse recovery. Roughly 55 men sit in chairs as their teacher, Robert Gochez, a short, energetic Latino, reads the day's lecture. "Off the top of your head, who can tell me what relapse means?" he asks. Ten hands shoot up.

Some of the men lean forward, listening intently. Others rest their arms on the backs of chairs. After one inmate reads an original poem, he is applauded. The meeting closes with the men reciting a prayer.

It is a long way from the streets for inmates like Sanchez, who joined a gang in San Jose because it was the thing to do. Now 30, he is facing a charge of firearms possession with the possibility of receiving 50 years to life in prison. But it wasn't the prospect of a long jail term that propelled Sanchez to drop out of a gang. That happened in 2003 when his father was gunned down in prison by a rival gang member.

Four months into the program, Sanchez credits Breaking Barriers with teaching him a new way to live. "I've learned to take care of myself," he says. "My old way of thinking is wrong."

While it's easy for inmates to conform within the confines of cell pod 5C, the real test is when they leave prison. Mr. Mancillas knows the reality of relapse all too well. This is his second stint with Breaking Barriers. "It was embarrassing. I thought I had it - to make it outside," says the inmate, back to serve time for domestic violence. Now poised for rerelease, Mancillas is eager to prove himself again. "Now I know what my relapse triggers are. I know how to cope out there," he says.

Mr. Flores admits that it is still too early to determine the program's effect. Cell pod 5C has become one of the calmest in the 4,600-inmate county jail, mainly a holding facility for those awaiting trial. Most of the men end up convicted and shipped off to a state prison. Will they stay out of gangs? So far only six graduates have made it out. Four of them are working at a local Salvation Army center. The other two can't be accounted for.

Still, inmates like Sanchez believe the program is worth it. "If I don't get out, I want to help someone else ... the young kids coming in," he says. "There is a better way to live."

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