‘God has a plan’: Surviving LWOP
‘I liked being good’
In reality I am from Los Angeles
I am from the city of concerned memories
Jonni Alcantara discovered in his early teens that he had writing skills. He was a “little hyper,” he says, but a good student, maybe better than average though not exactly a straight “A” student.
His teachers were eager to help him whenever he lagged behind, and the soft-spoken boy --- who sometimes stuttered, and often said nothing at all --- was good-mannered and responded favorably to advice.
I am from private wishes or maybe instinctive urges
I am from a conscious want that created conflict
He recalls the day a teacher reprimanded him for misbehaving in class; his “punishment” was to learn the Ten Commandments by heart.
“I loved it,” he smiles. “I liked being good.”
One of his favorite memories, in fact, is what the teacher said that day.
“I love you so much,” the teacher told him. “I had your sister in my classroom before and it’s great that now I have you.”
The same teacher gave him a portable television set when on one occasion the boy left for Las Vegas to visit his mother.
“That teacher taught me it’s easier to be good than to play around. It’s better to be relaxed than to show hyperness,” he said. “And I liked being good.”
I am a fear of public opinion
But in my mind I know I am from a dream
That turned into a nightmare in the City of Angeles
But at age 15, Jonni was on trial in an adult court. The “good boy” description offered by teachers, friends and relatives was a far cry from the typical boy-from-the-hood-turned-criminal. Yet his upbringing was not unlike many incarcerated juveniles.
Nightmares and neglect
He was born in June 1993 in the area known as Koreatown, to a native Angelena and an aerospace engineer born in the Philippines, whose presence was rare at the house.
“Dad wasn’t there very often,” Jonni recalls. “He jumped in and out a handful of times.” Later on, his mother was also “jumping in and out of the house.”
The family grew --- two half-brothers from his father and a half-sister from his mother. But Jonni can’t really remember living together with both parents because, at the age of six months, he and his three-year-old half-sister Samantha joined the foster care system. The day they were picked up by a social worker, their mother had left “to party” and the children were found home alone.
For the next 18 months Jonni and Sam lived in a government institution, on Seventh Street and Vermont, just a few blocks away from what used to be their home. During those days at the institution, he would remain unchanged or unfed for long hours; many times his older sister would sneak in his room to give him something to eat.
(Those experiences led to nightmares Jonni suffered for the first seven years of his life. Only years later, with a help of a therapist, did Jonni fully comprehend what had happened.)
Finally, when he was about to turn two, Jonni and his sister went to live with their maternal grandmother, Isabel Meza, for the next 11 years. Back in Koreatown, there were only two things kids could do to have fun, he says, either gangbang or skate. “I chose to skate,” he muses.
Despite very limited financial means, their grandmother managed to enroll Jonni and Samantha at St. Paul Elementary School, but they had to leave before he could complete fifth grade, due to his sister’s misbehavior.
By this time his mother was given a second chance to keep her children. Samantha left to live with her in Las Vegas; Jonni stayed behind to live with his grandmother, who he still thinks of as his real mother.
He finished fifth grade at Hoover Elementary, a public school where he was “picked on a lot” for coming from a Catholic school. Things got better when he enrolled at Marina del Rey Middle School and Performing Arts Magnet Center in Culver City that was bus-convenient. After two years there, he completed eighth grade at Emerson Middle School, graduated with an average score of 88.
A drastic slide
At Belmont High School near downtown Los Angeles, he thrived academically in ninth grade, and was involved in ROTC, computer classes, a UCLA writing program and a health college course.
But in tenth grade things started changing.
His grandmother lost the townhome where they had lived for 11 years and decided to move to Las Vegas with his mother. Because his mother was a stranger to him, Jonni moved to his uncle’s home, where he lived under a lot of stress. “It was hard living there,” he said, but he had no other place to live.
Before long, he was ditching school, going to parties every weekend, drinking and smoking cigarettes and marijuana. At the same time, his grades were going downhill and he did not care about homework.
“I was beyond lazy,” he admits.
After three months he got tired of partying. He learned he didn’t really like smoking and he “hated” alcohol. Still, several teachers who had noticed the change started addressing his low performance in school.
By now Jonni had made some friends at school, including a classmate and “best friend” Stephanie, with whom he hung out when ditching classes. On one of those occasions she confided to him that her boyfriend Daniel Romero was cheating on her. He advised her to leave him.
At a party on May 2, 2009, Jonni encountered Romero, who seemed to have been drinking and “drugging,” and was carrying a bottle in his hand. The two exchanged words regarding Jonni’s advice to Stephanie; that led to a fist-fight that ended within minutes with, seemingly, no serious damage.
Then Jonni went back to pick up his iPod, his jacket and a knife he carried wherever he went --- “for safety,” he said --- but when he was about to put the knife in his pocket he felt a blunt object hitting his face.
It was the bottle Romero had been carrying in his hand.
Jonni opened the knife and suddenly everything turned blurry.
‘I was scared’
The boy inside of me cries and leaves a tearful trial.
He cries because of the sorrows he must face and also for the ones others must face as well.
“You stabbed him three times in the abdomen!” he heard his friend Gaby exclaiming on the other end of his cell phone. She had been the only witness on the scene.
Because he was highly intoxicated, Romero started bleeding to death within 20 minutes of being stabbed. He was taken to the hospital, but nothing could be done to save his life.
He cries because he knows why the caged beast must pace;
To ponder and dwell upon his fate.
It was 9 p.m. when Jonni got home. “I was freaking out,” he recalled. “The only thing I did was tell my cousin. I had never hurt someone in my life. I was scared.”
Then came a second call from Gaby. “He died,” she said.
Jonni was in complete disbelief. “Stop playing with me,” he told her.
Because, he explained later, after Romero hit him with the bottle it was like his adrenaline reached its peak, and the next minutes had vanished from his memory.
What comforted him was thinking that if he had not used the knife, he would have been the one dead at the hospital. All he had done, he reasoned, was defend himself from being killed. He went to sleep with that in mind.
But, faith keeps him grounded.
Rooted to the boy who sheds droplets of pain.
He did not feel like going to school, so he told his relatives he felt sick. “It was very surreal,” he said, “like a dream.”
A day later he told his uncle what had happened. They called his parents and sought the services of an attorney. A week had passed when about 30 policemen raided his house the evening of May 9, 2009.
During the following five months at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey he went back to school and was embraced by Religious Sister of Charity Teresa Doherty and the group of volunteers she heads there. He helped during liturgical services and completed his confirmation.
What he really enjoyed, he confides, were the private times at the chapel reading the Scriptures. “It was an escape for me and it gave me faith and hope.”
For it is he who knows him best and it is for he who is still free.
Alive and glistening like a rose smothered in morning dew.
On October 3, 2009 Jonni was transferred to Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. Treated as an adult, he had been sentenced to life without parole (LWOP).
He felt devastated, but still carried some hope.
“This isn’t what I’m supposed to do,” he whispered (or screamed) to himself.
Quickly he got in contact with the facility’s Catholic chaplain, Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy, and his team of volunteers. Through prayer and meditation and the interaction with other juveniles, his faith and hope grew stronger.
“They all pushed me in the right direction,” the teenager noted. “It was a collective spirit.”
His case was re-filed a couple of times and in the trial process Romero’s aggressive behavioral pattern came to light, contrasting with Jonni’s good record, facts that challenged the judge’s ruling.
Finally, on the day before Thanksgiving 2010, he was released. Again, he was in disbelief.
(So too, in a way, was Father Kennedy, executive director of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative. This is the second time in the 20 years of serving incarcerated juveniles, he said, that he has seen a juvenile sentenced to LWOP be released.)
Accompanied by Father Kennedy and a member of the prison staff, Jonni walked down the hall where, during the 14 previous months, he had walked only in shackles and wearing an orange jumpsuit. Then Jonni broke down and started weeping, something unusual at Nidorf where “little boys-turned-men don’t cry.”
He was happy, “but a different type of happiness,” he says. Now he was leaving behind some friends “unjustly sentenced as well.”
A new priority list
Jonni’s case is not over yet. When Jonni turns 18 in June, he will become a parolee. In the meantime he has shared his testimony with other incarcerated youth and has visited schools and other venues where he shares his unique experience.
So beautiful and carefree;
Oh, the wonders of purity.
For it is the boy in me which cries for the man caged within the beast.
With lessons learned, he says, he now has a priority list: “God, my family, my girlfriend, school and working for restorative justice.”
In jail he completed his GED and is now a freshman at Santa Monica College, where he will pursue a degree in social work. His writing skills also improved while in jail, where he attended the InsideOUT Writers program.
“I learned that God has a plan, and for some people it requires painful experiences, hardship,” he muses, “and it seems God thinks I can take it and I’ll see when it finally blossoms. I’ll be there!”
For more information about the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, visit www.jrji.org or call (310) 559-0777. The italicized text includes verses from two poems written by Jonni Alcantara while attending the InsideOUT Writers program at Barry Nidorf Juvenile Hall.
Photos: see Tidings 04-01:
TRANSFORMATION --- Jonni Alcantara blesses Father Michael Kennedy during an Ash Wednesday liturgical service at Loyola High School, where they spoke to students.
LIVING THE PAIN --- A group of Loyola High School students experience how incarceration feels, as part of a series of activities held during Juvenile Justice Week (March 7-11).
PALS --- Jonni Alcantara chats with Paul McMahon, a Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative member who has brought hope to incarcerated juveniles nationwide by exchanging letters with them for the last 10 years.
HEALING --- During a March 19 workshop at Religious Education Congress, Jonni Alcantara and Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy show the book of healing where relatives of incarcerated youth share their testimonies.