Above: Jeremiah Castillo, left, and his father, Richard Castillo.
By Jeremiah Castillo
Images via Jeremiah Castillo
Editor’s Note: Jeremiah Castillo, 14, is one of our youth reporters and is also a criminal justice reform activist in Merced. In this interview, he speaks with his incarcerated father about growing up, becoming a father, and his hopes for his son.
I was very young when my father was locked up, and I had a difficult time processing his incarceration. At one point, I felt like he had purposefully left us. But as time went by, I realized things were not so black and white.
My father faced many obstacles in his life. Even though he had dreams and aspirations, he became trapped at a young age in the cycle of violence and incarceration that traps a lot of young people in our community.
The eldest of three children, he was born in San Jose, California, but fled to Merced when he was seven years old. His family had been the victim of a violent home invasion over a drug debt. Both his parents were heavy drugs users with gang affiliations.
When he was 15, his mother went to federal prison for 14 years. She was convicted of trafficking drugs across state lines. Left with his father, he was subjected to beatings and forced to sell drugs. His life began spiraling out of control.
My dad then began drinking and sampling the drugs he was required to sell. Eventually, he became addicted to methamphetamines and alcohol. He wound up in juvenile hall and was later sent to prison.
Because of his circumstance, it was impossible for him to ‘pick himself up by the bootstraps’ and be ‘successful.’
But despite his incarceration, he has always been there for me, even if we only see each other through a window or speak on the phone during visits. This tall, quiet, soft spoken funny man is the person I most admire. His piercing blue eyes reflect the sadness in his soul from all the trauma he endured.
My dad is my role model because he holds on to hope that we will be reunited one day. Because he is determined to love me when he was never loved. And because, even though he has been through so much, he is willing to help others.
I asked him to help me with this assignment and he agreed. Many people see him as just a ‘criminal’ and ‘inmate,’ but I see him as much more than that. He is the person who fuels me to advocate for others in my community. He is the person who will help me beat the cycle of incarceration.
Below is the interview with my father, my superhero.
When you were my age, did you see yourself in this position?
No, I didn’t see myself living this way. I thought I could make a difference at your age and change how things were going until I ended up incarcerated. I used to play sports, graduated from high school early, and even had a job, but somehow still wound up going from juvenile hall to probation to prison.
Do you think if someone invested in and guided you things would have been different? Yes, I do. My father was absent. I had no role models to teach me right from wrong and put me on the right path for a successful future. Now, when I look back, I can remember other young people in my community were struggling to survive too. If there had been something more for us, I believe many of them would not have died or ended up in prison. One day I hope to be able to use my story to change the minds of today’s youngsters and prevent others from experiencing what I’ve been through.
When you became a dad did you worry for the future of your children? Yes, when I become a dad I was worried for you and your baby sister. When I was first labeled as a “gang member,” it was because of who the cops say I was related to. My fear for you especially, son, was to have a target on your back because I am your father. I pray everyday that you won’t fall into the system or be hurt in some way. Now that I’ve been in jail for so long, I worry for you both even more. I never intended to be gone for so long. I’ve missed so much these past four years. I hope you can forgive me one day.
You’ve been in jail without trial over 4 years? What keeps you going?
Honestly, I pray and try to meditate on positive things like you, your sister and your mom. For a little while I had some rough times when they stuck me in Administrative Segregation for over a year without a reason, then the hunger strike in Sept.- Oct. 2016. Those were some of the most difficult days and I admit at times I prayed God would take me because maintaining focus was too much. Being locked up changes you, it’s like you are becoming an animal but still fighting to hold onto your humanity and dignity. What has kept me strong is knowing I have you out there. You and your sister are the future. I think about all the things we will do when I come home and how our family will move forward from all of this darkness. My faith in God, reading scriptures out of the Bible, and talking to you guys on the phone puts me in a positive mood.
When you come home what do you hope to do?
Well, first and foremost I’ll have to make sure that I get a job to support my family, and ensure that I keep you all safe from any danger or any physical harm. I will be getting involved more in my community by outreaching to troubled youth, volunteering to help clean up, helping my elders, or stepping in at churches just like before I went to jail.
Do you have any advice for at risk youth who are struggling on the streets?
Get involved with any community activities in your area. Focus on school; girlfriends and boyfriends should come later. Look for someone positive who you can look up to and avoid getting into trouble. My biggest piece of advice for young people is: Know Your Rights. Sometimes you can do all the right things and still fall victim to a corrupted system. If I had known that way back then maybe things would have turned out different for me and so many others.
Jeremiah has been in an avid contributor of We’Ced since 2014 when he was only 11 years old. In addition to being one of our youth reporters, he is also a video game enthusiast and proud big brother. Jeremiah additionally spends most of his free time advocating for various issues affecting young people in Merced.