Curtis Howard
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Curtis Howard talks about his past.

When I was released from prison in June of 2008, I received $200 in cash. They call it “gate money.” It’s the standard issue for all parolees leaving California prisons, and it does not matter how long you have been there.

Gate has been the same issue for at least the past 50 years. It has not been adjusted to fit the current cost of living.

When I was released from Pelican Bay maximum-security prison, more than half of that gate money was spent on my bus ticket home to San Diego. Pelican Bay is located in Crescent City, California. It’s actually the last place on the California coast before you cross into Oregon.

For clothing, I was given beige khaki pants, black Vans, and a white T-shirt. They call this release clothing “dress-outs.” I was charged $30 for them. Keep in mind that it rains nine months out of the year in Pelican Bay, so of course I needed a jacket, but that jacket would have cost me the remainder of my gate money, so I went without. I figured, why buy something that I’m going to immediately dispose of once I get into town? Yes, dispose of.

You see: dress-outs are a parolee’s first problem when returning home. Gang members and law-enforcement officers know your story when they see them, and both are inclined to make contact with you because of that fact. To avoid detection, you need to at least ditch the pants and shoes, and I did get rid of the pants and shoes, but it cost all the money I had left to replace them.

I do have a family, and they had been through this “welcome home” reunion with me before. But after so many times visiting, writing letters, and sending money, they got burned out.

I joined the Crips in 1977 at 14 years of age. From then on, I was in and out of trouble so much that I was forced to bear my own burdens. The first time I was charged with a crime, I was in the eighth grade. It was for strong-arm robbery. I had taken a wristwatch from a fellow student at O’Farrell Junior High, in exchange for letting him “pass go” on the way home from school. I looked at the watch and threw it away. This happened shortly before I joined the Crips. My mom retained a criminal defense attorney for me named George Leibers, and he got me a reduced charge of theft and probation.

Probation was given to me at the onset of my gang career, and I suffered more run-ins with the system as a result of that supervision. More criminal laws did not have to be broken for me to face incarceration, just rules. Staying out past curfew and not going to school were common violations. I started out smoking weed and joy-riding in hot models (stolen cars), and then I escalated to robberies and weapons.

My gang life catapulted as a result of going to juvenile hall and the youth authority for those crimes. Everyone there was gang-affiliated and hell-bent on proving themselves.

The Neighborhood Crips gang is located on 47th and Market Street in the Chollas View area of Southeast San Diego. When I joined in 1977, there were hardly any other Crips or Bloods in San Diego, but over the years I’ve watched the ones that are around now come into play or transform. For example, the Southside Bloods of today were once called the 5/9 (Five-Nine) Brims; this was their title when I first became a Crip. Those same 5/9 Brims were themselves the product of a mid-1970s gang known as the Central City Gangsters, located near 40th and Ocean View Boulevard.

One month out of prison, the author (right) hangs out with his best friend and fellow former 47th Street Neighborhood Crips member Kenny Davis. Five months later, Davis was killed in a dispute.

One month out of prison, the author (right) hangs out with his best friend and fellow former 47th Street Neighborhood Crips member Kenny Davis. Five months later, Davis was killed in a dispute.

The Lincoln Park Piru of today were once called Paul Lowe’s Control (PLC), a short-lived title named for their hangout, a popular liquor store that was owned by a former San Diego Chargers running back who lived in the general area of Euclid and Logan Avenue. It was rumored that Paul Lowe expressed disapproval of his name being used as a gang title. Out of respect for him, PLC became the Lincoln Park Players or the Lincoln Park Boys — I can’t recall the exact order, but I certainly recall the titles.

The Skyline area was once occupied by the Eastside Hanging Gang (EHG), but they reemerged in 1979 as the Skyline Piru. I was at a house party in Encanto when Skyline made their debut as the first Piru gang in San Diego. I remember warning my homeboys at the party that night about their potential to expand. Skyline was such a big area that Piru could eventually outnumber all of us. It was me (Curt Dog), Ken Wood, Tye Stick, Boss Man, and Will Kill.Also, Alvin “Al Capone” Smith, who was eventually killed by that same gang four years later. The Blood that was rumored to have caused his death was then killed by the West Coast Crips the following year.

The West Coast Crips have got to be the longest-standing Crip or Blood gang in San Diego. I recall them being active as the West Coast Mafia Crips as far back as 1972, when I was just a kid. This was the same time period during which the Crips and Bloods were originating in Los Angeles, making San Diego the next major city to host them after L.A. Incidentally, the Neighborhood Crips, the West Coast Crips, and the 5/9 Brims were all founded by original L.A. gang members.

In 1979, the new gangs started doing more drive-by shootings. This caught us off guard, because the established gangs had built their reputations through fighting only. The new gangs were not the first to carry guns or use them. At least a couple of guys from each gang had been shot, but not killed. These were isolated and/or personal incidents where firearms had been used as a last resort.

I started carrying a gun because the new gangs raised the bar. I had always felt that drive-by shootings were cowardly, so the first time I shot someone I did it face-to-face. Instead of stealing, I started robbing face-to-face, as well. This life inevitably led to trouble with the law. I did time in the youth authority, and at 18 years of age, I was charged with Possession of a Concealed Weapon and committed to the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) state prison in Norco, California.

This was in 1983. I was the youngest inmate there, and all the black prison organizations tried to recruit me. They targeted young guys with career-criminal potential, so that they would always have members in prison to carry on their legacy. I was first approached by the Vanguards, a semi-militant black-awareness group that aimed to educate and organize black inmates.

I also spoke with ranking members of the notorious Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), a militant and politically motivated black-power prison organization. They were founded in 1966 by incarcerated members of the Black Panther Party, and they were arch-rivals of both the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood white-supremacy gang. They routinely engaged in wars.

I eventually became the sergeant-at-arms for the newly founded Consolidated Crip Organization (CCO). It was an organization where all the Crips in California united as one. The Bloods had a similar organization called the United Blood Nation (UBN). They operated under the same general rules and guidelines that we did.

I was released in December of 1985 but suffered major adjustment problems with supervised parole. It’s rule-breaking, not law-breaking, that gets you back into trouble. The rules were so easy to break, eventually I gave up on conforming. There were violation charges for things like failure to report, drinking beer, and smoking weed. My first violation charge was for moving in with my new girlfriend (changing address without approval). I got 90 days.

I later realized that parole violations were my responsibility. But at the time, I didn’t want to be held accountable, and I minimized my failings by complaining about how petty it was every time I got busted for not doing what I was supposed to do. As a result, for the next few years, I was in and out of jail, serving small terms for petty violations.

This cycle continued until my parole ended in 1988. By then, I had lost a few fellow Crip gang members to drive-by shootings and felt a personal responsibility to make up for it. On one occasion, I went across town on foot with a two-piece assembled shotgun and fired upon a large gathering. The crowd frantically dispersed, and I heard screams and screeching tires, people hauling ass. As I hid behind a small truck to disassemble the gauge, the vehicle’s owner ran straight toward it. He was ducking and looking in all directions in an effort to avoid more potential gunfire. “Get me outta here! They’re shooting!” I yelled. “Where you headed?” he asked, fumbling to unlock the passenger door. “I’m going to 47th and Market Street!” I said. The location I gave him was the heart of our gang’s territory. I would be safe there.

We had a few words on the way, but not much. When we arrived, I had to readjust the shotgun while climbing out, and he saw it. His eyes got big, as if he’d sighted a UFO. “Thanks for the ride, cuz,” I said, casually walking off into the night.

My first trip to prison made me tougher. All I did was gain more weight and muscle. My attitude stayed the same because I was still around the same crowd. It was all I knew. As a result, it only took me a year to be recommitted for another weapons-possession charge. But this time, things had changed.

In 1989, when I returned to prison, the order of the black-inmate structure had been lost. I was at Chuckwalla Valley Prison this time, and there were no more Vanguards, no more Consolidated Crips. The Black Guerrilla Family now operated more as a private sector. This was a result of the new-generation gang members who refused to follow orders. Even the Mexican Mafia and Aryan Brotherhood took hits by their new generation, but not as bad as the blacks did. As a result, black inmates became the target of unprovoked racial attacks, which were previously unheard of. Race riots were previously declared by council, but now they were random, and they always involved the blacks versus others. I eagerly took part in every war that I could. On one occasion, I attacked five Southern Mexicans alone. It wasn’t intended to happen that way, but the control-tower guard failed to electronically open the cell door of the Black Guerrilla Family member from Oakland, California, who was going to help me. I was shot three times with a riot gun and drenched with pepper spray by guards who ran in to break it up, but I felt good that I had made a statement.

After an early-1990s race riot, I was deemed unsuitable for general population and sent to open the new Pelican Bay maximum-security prison for incorrigibles. I spent my time in isolation, working out to maintain my sanity and reflecting on my past. This prison trip ended my gang life.

The race wars had given me a stronger sense of black awareness. Whether Crip or Blood, I would always be judged first as a black man. At this point, I knew I could never return to the community as a Crip fighting my own people. So I never committed another gang act. I would like to give special thanks to the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia for enlightening me.

When I was released from Pelican Bay in 1992, I returned to San Diego homeless. I didn’t go back to my old neighborhood because my business was done there. Instead, I remained in downtown San Diego among the street hustlers. I didn’t have long-term plans because my homeless situation didn’t allow me to think past the day. I started smoking crushed crack cocaine in cigarettes, to numb my reality. They call these “primos.”

These drugs made me approach my situation more aggressively, with no regard for anyone. I tried selling drugs, but the users annoyed me. They never had enough money to buy, so I sold everything below cost and then smoked the rest after realizing I couldn’t meet the quota necessary to re-up (buy more).

One night, I was approached by a smoker (crack user) who had only six dollars. He insisted that I sell to him, but I didn’t have anything. He became agitated and went to a guy who was waiting in a car. The guy handed him something rolled up inside of a pulled-off jacket. As the smoker re-approached me, I studied his hands to see what he was going to pull out. He never got the chance. Once he was within arm’s reach, I stabbed him with the full length of my pocket knife, and he collapsed. He didn’t know my real name, but he knew my gang name, and that was enough for police. Every officer from the San Diego Police Department’s Gang Detail Unit was familiar with Curt Dog. I was arrested a week later and charged with attempted murder. I was sentenced to 15 years in state prison. When the judge struck the gavel, my entire body went numb.

In 1993, I returned to prison a loner. The new generation had taken over, and it was a madhouse. I stayed clear of prison politics and stopped volunteering in racial conflicts. It was all a bunch of bullshit. I realized that I didn’t really have any racial issues. It wasn’t the Mexicans and whites that I disliked. I stayed clear of my own people, as well. It wasn’t about race. It was about ignorance. Ninety percent of inmates that are locked up for murder are there for killing one of their own. There are many Mexican, black, and white families in the community that have been victimized by the same ignorance that I was dealing with. Suddenly, when they get behind bars, they all want to show off their so-called “unity”? Crips or Bloods, Mexicans or Skinheads: they should all be here trying to better themselves. They should all pay for the senseless shit they did on the streets — to their own people — instead of taking it out on others.

All these things frustrated me, and after my first year, I refused to accept a cellmate. After being in isolation for so long, I couldn’t imagine having to share a small space for 15 years with another man. It made me paranoid. I couldn’t adjust. So I stopped trying altogether. I began a military workout regimen, and once I had gained all the muscle mass and stamina necessary to fight anyone, I took a stand: no more cellmates.

The prison administration refused to give in, sometimes sending me three to five cellmates a day. As soon as I got rid of one, they would send in another. It became an arena event to the prison guards. They made bets with one another as to how long the new guy would last in the cell with me. I was six feet, 225 pounds, and they were sending in fools who were six-five, 280 pounds.

Once, they sent in a founding member of the Los Angeles Bloods. Originally serving a five-year term for armed robbery, he was now doing life for killing an inmate at another prison. I tensed for battle. I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy one. However, after he realized what the guards were doing, he left on his own.

I spent a year standing guard at my cell door, after which the prison psychiatrist diagnosed me with anxiety disorder and officially documented me as a single-cell inmate. I went through hundreds of cellmates. Most of the encounters did not involve physical confrontations — it was mainly warnings and them being uncomfortable with my unwelcoming behavior that caused them to vacate. But if the message was not received well enough for them to exit on their own, it became personal.

I started to write about my past and associated with only a few inmates. One was a guy named Ghost, a former captain of the Consolidated Crips Organization. On the streets, he’d been a founding member of the Venice Shoreline Crips in Venice, California. We talked about how the prison structure had changed. We pitied the new generation.

I was a maximum-security inmate and served time in places like Salinas Valley, Tehachapi, and Lancaster Max. At Lancaster, I had only one regular associate, Michael “Harry O” Harris. He was a former drug kingpin and the original founder of Death Row Records. From prison, he signed over $1.5 million to his partner Suge Knight, to run the company. Harry O gave me lots of literature to read regarding the history of his record label, as well as other educational materials. We worked out together at least three days a week on the pull-up bars in the prison yard. He also reviewed my manuscripts, and I made changes based upon his advice. Although Michael Harris was “approachable,” he was discreet with his associations and spared little time for outsiders. Sometimes inmates would interrupt our workout to audition rap songs. It was hilarious. We were eventually separated when Harris transferred to San Quentin.

Between jail stints in 2003, the author worked a construction job at Lake Elsinore High School.

Between jail stints in 2003, the author worked a construction job at Lake Elsinore High School.

I received letters from family members, letters and pictures from my homeboys, Roc Miller and Bull, and even from long-lost ex-girlfriends. When I first got that time, I thought that it would never go by, but after the same day-in and day-out regimen, my release date finally came. In November of 2001, I was released after serving roughly ten years of my sentence with good-behavior credits. I did a lot better this time and held down jobs in construction. I even helped build Petco Park. I got a car, an apartment, and before you know it, I was off parole. I changed many bad habits and views of my past. I truly felt that I would never go back to jail again. However, this is when I learned the biggest lesson about giving up my past. Many people who get out of this life try to please both sides when transitioning. They please the law by not breaking it, and then they please their friends and homeboys with random visits or invitations. I learned about the risk of doing that.

One night in October 2005, I was returning from Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. I saw one of my old friends, Big T, who was a known crack dealer. He was standing on the corner of 13th and G Street with several guys. He called my name after seeing me walk toward my car, so I stopped to shake hands. A few more guys noticed me and joined in on the reunion. I was hanging out with them.

Once I became aware of how much time had passed, I bid everyone farewell and took off. However, on my way out, I was approached by Mike, who was in the reunion crowd. He wanted me to “cop” from Big T for him. “Curt Dog, I know that you and Big T are cool. For this 50 dollars, he will give you double what he will give to me. I need for you to get it for me.”

I looked Mike in the eye and snatched the money from his hand. I didn’t want to think about it too long, so I headed back toward Big T. Big T was hesitant, because he knew that I no longer used. “Who are you getting this for?” he asked. He looked around, smiling suspiciously, trying to figure out who. It was common for people to use go-betweens in better standings with the dealers in order to get larger quantities. Big T was used to this, so he didn’t argue with me. He handed me the dope, and I headed back over to Mike, who was waiting across the street. Just then a police cruiser came by. They looked right at me, and I knew they were going to turn around, so I threw the dope down and walked quickly away from it. They pulled up on me hard and fast. “Hey, you!”

The cop said that he was looking at me because I wasn’t a familiar face in the area. He also said that he saw me throw something down. The police back-tracked my steps and found the drugs. I was devastated. I was charged with possession of a controlled substance and faced 25 years to life under the three-strikes law. If it weren’t for the fact that I had been crime-free for the past five years, I wouldn’t be here to talk about it today.

After doing my time, I took a bus to San Diego from Pelican Bay. Once in town, I had to report to my parole agent within 24 hours or a warrant would be issued for my arrest. Since I did not have a stable address that I could be supervised from, I was placed into a residential reentry program. It’s considered a “savings program.” The residents are required to obtain employment and then to turn in 75 percent of their earnings (per paycheck), until they feel that they have saved enough to make it on their own. They can stay for up to a year.

There are two of these programs in downtown San Diego. One, the Volunteers of America (VOA), is located at 11th and G Street. The other is located in Barrio Logan on 17th and National Avenue. It’s called Module X, but the parolees call it Bachelor Flats, which, many years ago, before the state took over, was the name of a popular nightclub.

The author, standing, with two former gang members at a 2010 reunion. Both are paralyzed as a result of gun wounds.

The author, standing, with two former gang members at a 2010 reunion. Both are paralyzed as a result of gun wounds.

Arriving at Bachelor Flats, I faced the same people and living situation that I had in prison, but worse. There were four guys to a room instead of two. I had to follow many rules. Few people appeared to be taking the program for what it was worth. Guys drank, did drugs, broke curfew, and got kicked out for everything in the book.

I did get a job as a telemarketer, but I didn’t turn in my first three paychecks, and when they kicked me out for that, I was happy. In late July of 2008, I left the program with about $600 and rented a room in downtown San Diego at the C Street Inn. It was an old building occupied by roaches and SSI recipients with medical issues, but it was mine. If you had a job, curfew at the program had been 8:00 or 10:00 p.m., so I walked around downtown until midnight, just to feel what it was like to stay out that late. I stayed up until 4:00 a.m. and took the next day off work, spending money to eat out, and enjoying my freedom.

Before the next month was up, however, the cost of living kicked in. Because I’d left the program, I now had to pay for my own food, laundry, rent, bus pass, and clothes. I rented my room by the week for $180, and my weekly paycheck was $280. Besides my cigarette-smoking habit, I had to eat out every day. I eventually got backed up on rent, and that’s when the reality of my bad decision to leave the program set in. The hotel management started calling me every day at work to inquire about past-due weekly payments. To get caught up, I would have to give up my entire next five paychecks. Confronted with this dilemma, I was forced to make a choice, immediately.

I could turn back to the streets as a drug dealer or return to the program and stay. I knew I could never make it selling drugs because I’m too paranoid. Drug addicts are unpredictable; plus, I think everybody is police nowadays. Besides that, I might be tempted to use again. I had to go back to the program.

It had been almost five months since I left Bachelor Flats. I thought about how much money I would have saved by now, and that motivated me, so I called my parole officer, Agent Lopez, to see if he could help. He told me that the program was priority for new releases, and that he might have to pull some strings to make it happen. But he was glad I wanted to try again. I was really hoping he could pull that off for me, because my back-up plan was self-destructive. A few days went by, and just as I began to worry, Agent Lopez contacted me with the good news: “Whenever you’re ready!” he said.

I set a date with him for the following week, so that I had time to mentally prepare for it. My biggest challenge would be sharing a room with three other men. There was only one two-man room at Bachelor Flats, and the chance of landing there was slim to none. It was a privilege, offered to the employed resident with the longest stay, once the room became vacant. On average, a resident might be in the program for up to nine months before getting a shot at it.

That following week, on October 6, 2008, I took a day off work to move back into Bachelor Flats. Once again, the program was filled with newcomers who were not focused. Guys were getting kicked out for dirty drug tests on a regular basis. The other big problem was females. Guys would meet a girl and go AWOL to spend the night with her. Some would even discharge from the program with their savings and move in with a girl, but then the girl would kick them out once the money was spent.

The unemployment rate was also high when I returned, and because of that, there was an opening in the two-man room. The other guys who had been in the program before me were content where they were, so I was offered a spot in the upper bunk in that two-man room. I was elated. Until I made it upstairs.

The door to the room was open, and my new roommate had his back to me. His shirt was off, so the first thing I saw was the “White Power” tattoo proudly displayed on his back. I was used to seeing these tattoos in prison, but not in the same room with me. Being roommates with a member of the Aryan Brotherhood was more than I could fathom. My thoughts started to scramble but were abruptly cut short when he spun around without warning and looked at me straight on.

To my surprise, he broke out with a smile and reached out to shake hands. “Benny,” he introduced himself, as he waved me in. He headed toward the closet.

“You can use this side to hang your clothes.” He took inventory of my bags. “I’ve been here about four months,” he said, “and have saved roughly $2800 so far. I’m working at the shipyard. I leave at six, get back about three, shower, watch a li’l TV, and talk on the phone with my girlfriend. You can watch the tube whenever you want. And, oh, yeah; here’s the coffee pot. Let me show you how to use it.” He showed me where he kept the coffee and offered it whenever I wanted.

Benny was cool. He didn’t have the typical appearance of most white-power prison-gang members. Most of those guys had long hair or bald heads. Their entire bodies were saturated with race-related ink.

In contrast, Benny was clean-cut. He had only a couple of tattoos and a barber haircut. With a shirt on, he looked like your average white guy. Most drug dealers might even suspect him of being an undercover police officer. I would.

Benny and I talked every day after work and then we did our own thing, him on the phone with his girlfriend, and me reading or writing. Neither of us ever talked about prison. It was what it was. As long as we got along now, that’s all that mattered.

I came into the program on a Tuesday. That next Friday, when I returned from work, Benny was ecstatic. He told me that he’d landed a job making $25 an hour. It was some type of skilled construction that he was experienced with, and he was happy as a lark.

Benny was scheduled to start on Monday, so I took off on Sunday morning to spend the day out. I wanted to let him collect his thoughts and get ready for his big day in peace. However, when I returned to sign in before the 8:00 p.m. curfew, a staff worker at the front desk stopped me.

“What room are you in?” he asked.

I could sense that something was wrong. “Room 12,” I said.

“Okay, so, you’re Benny’s roommate, right?”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“The medical examiner just took your roommate out. He was found deceased up there a few hours ago. I need for you to go upstairs and pack his property for his family. They should be here soon. We don’t know what is yours or his, so we were waiting for you.”

Benny had overdosed and died right there on the floor. I guess it was his last hurrah before starting work, which to me was even more reason not to use. I was very upset and disappointed. I was disappointed with Benny, but I was also disturbed by the fact that other guys in the house were in on the drugs with him when the accident happened. Maybe they chose not to get help because it would have implicated them?

I also don’t believe that Benny was a regular user at the time. He may have been in the past, but his system was not accustomed to it at the time. That’s why it was so easy for him to overdose. He probably died quickly.

Later that night, I received a call from the program director, Ms. Turner. She asked me if I wanted to relocate, but I was afraid that I might lose my two-man room status, so I stayed. I had taken Benny’s television and radio downstairs, and after the mandatory lights-out rule at 10:00, I spent the night alone in a dark and quiet room. I slept in the top bunk, and after Benny’s death, I remained there, leaving his bed empty for three days before I moved down to the lower bunk. I exchanged mattresses, as well.

Most residents thought that I was weird for staying in the room, but I was thinking the same thing about them for not moving in. I wondered why hardcore convicted felons and gang members would have a problem with staying in a room that someone died in, but not have a conscience about all the people they have hurt or killed in their pasts.

Ms. Turner told me that it was the first death ever in either of the programs, which have existed since the early ’70s.

This particularly caught my attention, because in June of 1981, I carried the casket of the first gang-related death between the Crips and Bloods in San Diego. It was a guy named Tony Mikell, who I grew up with. He wasn’t officially a Neighborhood Crip, but he was shot by the Bloods while attending a house party where Crips were present. Plus, I was one of the first inmates to open Pelican Bay prison. More than half of their cells were still unoccupied when I arrived. I found it odd to be involved in so many “firsts.”

Benny’s death motivated me even more to complete the program. I attended the Narcotics Anonymous meetings held there twice a week, always made curfew, and broke few rules. Incidentally, Benny’s death also kept people from wanting to move into the room with me , and I used that to my advantage. I made sure to let all newcomers know that a guy had died in the room, and out of the nine months that I was there, I spent at least six and a half of them alone.

I watched my savings grow by monitoring the receipts they gave me with my balance after turning in paychecks: $1475, $2840, $3750, $4665, $5900, $6830.

When I reached nine months, I start looking online for a place to rent. I thought that it would take awhile, but I found something sooner than expected. They charged me double the deposit, plus first and last months’ rent, due to poor credit, but I had it. I even paid a couple of more months’ rent in advance, to build a cushion.

I have now been living here for over three years, and if it weren’t for the savings program, I don’t know where I would be at this point. I’m no longer on parole, and since I have a place to stay, I no longer hang out on the streets. Of course, the savings program didn’t “set me for life.” I still struggle to keep a job and pay bills, but at least the program gave me a fighting chance to survive.

In October of 2011, while passing through downtown, I ran into a fellow inmate who served time with me at Tehachapi maximum-security prison. He was serving 34 years for armed robbery, but now he was out, after doing only 17 of it on good behavior.

I’ve known him for about 20 years. I met him in 1993, in a county jail courthouse holding cell, and I have to say that he is fairly intelligent. Even in prison, he held the most trusted job, a position as personal clerk for the lieutenant of the prison guards. He documented and filed disciplinary reports that inmates received for fighting, stabbings, drug possessions, and numerous other rule violations. He prepared the paperwork for upcoming hearings, in which the accused oftentimes received extended sentences.

He is gay, but he was discreet about it. He knew that there was a stigma attached to associating with gays, one that prevented guys from being cool with him. So he always stayed within his boundaries. Most convicts in prison are not homophobic. We come from a world that accepts people who “keep it real”; therefore, undercover gays are ostracized in prison, but openly gay people are not.

Standing on the corner of Ninth and Broadway, he told me that he was in the VOA savings program at 11th and G Street. He’d just gotten a job a few days ago but didn’t expect a check for another couple of weeks. He said that he was doing really badly. I knew that he was in need of toiletries and pocket change for cigarettes, like I had needed when I went into the program, but at the same time, I knew that he wouldn’t dare ask.

“I get paid Friday,” I said. “Call me after work, and I’ll hit you with a few dollars.”

That Friday, he called, and we met at the McDonald’s several blocks from my apartment, on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Texas Street. I still didn’t want anyone from my past prison and gang life knowing where I lived. He was there when I walked in, so I handed him $30. He did call a few times to update me on his progress, and then he fell off the radar.

I don’t know at what point he lost focus, but one day after returning home from work in March of 2012, I saw his profile on the evening news. There was a mug shot of him, and then the details: “Harvey Henry Duson; Wanted for the home-invasion robbery, beating, and kidnapping of former San Diego City Councilman Harry Mathis.”

The cops had his car surrounded on the freeway, but he had eluded capture. I looked at his cell-phone number in my contacts. I started to press send, but then thought otherwise. For one, he had two accomplices who had not been apprehended yet. Anyone who called his number would automatically become a suspect, and with my criminal record? No way.

A few days later, I saw that he’d been captured after a high-speed chase in Arizona.

He’s now facing 115 years in prison, and if found guilty, he will most likely receive every bit of it. But what’s even more amazing is that “one-fifteen” is the code name for the bad-behavior reports he documented as a clerk for the lieutenant in prison.

I’m still doing phone sales. I’m a great closer, but I have yet to find a company that will pay me fairly. It’s either minimum wage or commission only. What a rip-off. I’ve worked for telemarketing companies a few times, and all of them strongly encouraged me to “overcharge” every client as much as possible. They said that whatever I overcharge, they would split it with me 50-50. On the streets, we call this “setting someone up to get robbed.” And all throughout my life, I was thinking that these people were better than me because they didn’t have criminal records?

It’s okay, though, because God is great and blesses people like me who continue to strive for good. He gives me confidence to look any man straight in the eyes, despite my past. I am a better man. I pray for us all.

Times are hard for me right now, and I’m late on bills again this month. But that’s life, and life’s not easy, but freedom and wisdom? They’re priceless.

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Hiyellared Nov. 7, 2012 @ 7:23 p.m.

Curtis is someone I knew of back in the day. As well as Kenny Davis and Alvin Smith "Capone", used to see them around the way and some of same people that he named.

Curtis although you been through the things (All on your accord/admittance) that you have. Glad to see that you have changed your life for the better, sometimes it takes some longer than others, but NO MATTER the length of time you did it/made it through.

Every day is a struggle, but without them you can't Move Forward. Keep your head up and keep pushing Forward.



Jay Allen Sanford Nov. 7, 2012 @ 9:13 p.m.

Powerful and riveting story -- could be the Reader's best cover feature this year --


jenjen Nov. 7, 2012 @ 10:42 p.m.

Should be required reading for high school kids. No glamor here.


LosPlumasHombre Nov. 8, 2012 @ 9:39 a.m.

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.


SurfPuppy619 Nov. 8, 2012 @ 10:12 a.m.

Author has a story to tell, a good story, and tell it he did.

Should make this into a book, it would work.


Elizabeth Salaam Nov. 8, 2012 @ 1:36 p.m.

Wow, Curtis. What an amazing transformation. I'm inspired by your fortitude. I know it can't be easy out there. And your candid, self-reflective storytelling makes for a seriously compelling read. Nice work.


Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Nov. 8, 2012 @ 1:57 p.m.

Excellent job, Curtis. Congratulations for taking control of your life and responsibility for your actions.


maria52 Nov. 19, 2012 @ 11:13 a.m.

Curtis: glad you showed mainstream just exactly what phenomenol odds you were up against... and you made it! Wow! This story gripped me and did not let go...I even cried. I've seen many, many in your situation, and most don't make it. You told this story beautifully: sweet poingnancy coupled with pierciing reality. You should write a book. You've got talent up the ying-yang!


curtis Nov. 30, 2012 @ 9 p.m.

Hi Maria, it's me Curtis! Glad you read the article with an open mind. I appreciate your review. I have in fact written four(4) books. I received great news the other day from someone who is willing to sponsor me on having my latest book self-published! It's called "Cellmates & Cellouts". It's basically an extended version of the article with many more episodes, trials, and tribulations. If you enjoyed the article, you will love the book. I'll sign it for you when it's done. Thanks again! Curtis howard


SurfPuppy619 Dec. 1, 2012 @ 3:57 p.m.

I received great news the other day from someone who is willing to sponsor me on having my latest book self-published! It's called "Cellmates & Cellouts". It's basically an extended version of the article with many more episodes, trials, and tribulations. If you enjoyed the article, you will love the book. I'll sign it for you when it's done. Thanks again! Curtis howard

That's weird, I was thinking the exact same thing, expand the article into a book by adding in some more stories from the hood and/or the Joint. Great minds think alike.

I'll buy a copy too. As long as you don't jam me for more than a C-note.........


MsSunshine Aug. 23, 2013 @ 10:59 a.m.

Hello Mr. Howard your story had me in tears to hear the struggle you went through to get to where you are today. I hope things has gotten even better for you. I have a 63 year old uncle who is going through similar situations out there in San Diego as your were in the beginning. I'm praying he surrenders and gives it all up. I am looking forward to reading the book. Blessing and Peace to You!



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