‘Blessings came to me through Eric’
Ann Draper --- sister of a noted juvenile justice advocate --- connects with convicted young offenders, much to her surprise and gratitude.
“The average cost of incarcerating a person is $22,000 annually. A life sentence that begins in one’s late teens can be expected to last at least 55 years. But with rising costs of older inmates, beginning at age 55, the annual cost is closer to $65,000, yielding a lifetime cost to taxpayers of $2 million per prisoner.”
---The Sentencing Project: “The Lifes of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey,” by Ashley Nellis, Ph. D., March 2012.
As she saw the 23-year-old bus boy playing with his two young kids in the garden of the restaurant she and her husband co-own in Carmel, Ann Draper reflected upon the lives of two other young men she recently met, who will never be able to have that opportunity in their lives.
Eric Benites and Steven Melendez, both 19, will live their lives in prison, receiving few if any visitors. Both received sentences of 50 years to life for “187 homicide,” a prison slang for murder; Benites’ initial sentence was 255 years and eight months to life, but the “judge felt bad” and shortened the punishment.
Both remained for three years at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. Draper, a retired teacher and family therapist, thought the sentences were “cruel.”
That, and the encouragement of her brother, Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy (co-chaplain at Sylmar’s juvenile hall and executive director of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative in Culver City), led Draper --- after much reflection and meditation --- to become more active in juvenile justice issues. On March 3, she headed to Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad.
Finding common ground
It was the first time the blonde 62-year-old Carmel resident, a graduate of Sacred Heart High School in Sacramento who likes to think of herself as a “stylish girl,” visited a prison. And not just any sector of the prison: She was visiting Level IV, the maximum security level in any prison.
It was Benites’ first visit from anyone since he was transferred to Salinas Valley in 2010 from Sylmar, where he was housed for three years.
At the time of her visit, Draper was still mourning the loss of her mother-in-law Jean Draper, who had passed away in January. She had been Jean’s caregiver for the last six years, “24/7 the last six months.” They had a close relationship.
“It was very rewarding, but overwhelming,” she said of her caregiving. From her reflections, she discerned that visiting Benites would give her a much-needed relief. She just wanted to be present for someone like him, who was also “mourning a loss” in a way.
But there was a hitch from the start.
Following the advice of her priest/chaplain brother, she had “really dressed down” (“I am stylish, I like fashion, wearing makeup and like to be a pretty girl,” she quipped), but once at the prison’s security check she was denied access. She had forgotten the inmate’s identification number provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a must-have when visiting the incarcerated.
That, however, was a small glitch. Within a few hours she was back at the prison and finally was let in to a guarded visiting room where she waited for a “too-long 40 minutes” for her “host” --- Benites --- to appear. “This was a whole new world for me,” said Draper. “A sea of sorrow.”
As she waited, she prayed, “looking at the blue sky of the pristine day and being present in the moment.” She kept repeating to herself: “I just want to be there for him, just be present.”
Finally, Benites appeared. “Thank you!” he said, again and again throughout the 90-minute visit. He could not believe he was out of his cell for the first time in a year.
During that time they got to know each other’s tastes (after getting food from the vending machine) as well as their emotions (both overwhelmed at times and calm at others.)
But what really struck Ann was Benites’ optimism about life and his case. “He has a great hope that things might change and his sentence could be reduced to 20 years.”
Losing the mask
It was a mindset he learned while still at Sylmar, where he joined the
“Warriors of Light,” a “community” started by Father Kennedy, where juveniles sign the “Book of Life,” together with their parents, during their confirmation ceremony, held inside the halls.
It took some time for Benites to lose the “strong guy” mask he was using to hide the pain of losing his brother in a gang-related incident, which in turn led to his own revenge-motivated crime.
Because he was already in the juvenile hall, he was not able to attend his brother’s funeral, but using Ignatian contemplation, Father Kennedy walked him through the painful burial so he could say his last good-bye to his sibling. That gave way to the youth’s recovery from his anger and a realization that a change in his lifestyle was necessary.
After joining the Warriors of Light, he started “providing good advice” to the other youth at the Sylmar facility.
“Eric is a good guy,” Kevin Chavez, 19, told The Tidings in a phone call from his prison unit in Norco. Chavez lived with Benites at Sylmar Juvenile Hall for a year, and joined Warriors of Light after watching Benites’ change.
“He was always giving me advice,” noted Chavez, “telling me to take advantage of the school programs, to take college classes and to always set goals and achieve them.”
Former incarcerated youth Jonni Alcantara, 18, who also met Benites in Sylmar, spoke with his friend the day after Draper’s visit in Salinas. “Almost choking, he told me he was really grateful to be in contact with another human being,” said Alcantara. “He [Benites] was tripping out and he said, ‘I feel so overwhelmed that someone actually came to see me.’”
As she was leaving her visit with Benites, Ann Draper was struck by the “loneliness, sadness, the brokenness and the barrenness of prison.” In her case, she had a nice home in Carmel to return to, where she was able to take the time to “re-group.” She called her brother-priest who provided comfort. “I also have a beautiful husband who is always present,” she smiled.
As she reflected on her visit, she realized that Benites shared her feeling of grief. “It was great timing,” she said. “My brokenness reflected his brokenness.”
Draper also realized the young man had “essentially guided” her in the conversation, which made her feel “the presence of God, the presence of love.”
She compared her “life-changing” experience with a trip she took in 1980 to Calcutta, where she stayed for two weeks working with the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa.
These people who were really dying were a blessing in her life, she said. On this occasion in Salinas, she observed thoughtfully, “Blessings came to me through Eric.”
‘Light and joy to offer’
Two weeks later, on March 17, came the time to visit Melendez. At first Draper was overwhelmed with trepidation.
“Why am I going?” she asked herself. “What is this about for me?”
She recalled how prison is the “darkest, bleakest place in life at an emotional level,” but then she also knew that in response she had “light and joy to offer.”
It was pouring rain that morning, which increased her doubts, but there Draper was, filling out the forms to get in before noon.
Although completely “dressed down,” she was aware she was not the type of woman anyone was used to seeing in prison. Still, she was determined to “exercise politeness” and not feel intimidated by anyone or anything in the “rough environment.”
And in a way, all her previous feelings vanished when she met Melendez.
The introverted 19-year-old, she said, was nonetheless “engaging and warm.” His mother Luisa was present during the visit.
Again, 90 minutes went fast while the three shared life stories --- including Luisa’s frustration with the justice system after advocating with other mothers for the approval of SB9.
That bill would give California juveniles sentenced to life without parole, who have displayed good behavior, a chance to get their cases reviewed and change their sentence. Melendez will spend the rest of his life in prison, unless there is a paradigm shift in the justice system, when juveniles are not tried as adults by the criminal justice system.
Her visit was fulfilling, Draper said, yet again she could feel the “sadness and brokenness” of the environment. “Reality set in at a different level, at a deeper level,” she said.
Still, for several days she could not pinpoint what it was exactly that she was feeling, until that day she saw the young busboy playing with his children.
“Great contrast,” she thought. “Here was a life full of potential with his children. There’s pride in it. Whereas Eric and Steven lost their opportunity to have a married life with children.
“Don’t get it. I can see these boys are not a threat to society. It’s a waste of intelligence. Lack of compassion.”
A few days later, she was still coping with sadness, but grateful that her home is her “sanctuary,” where she can take comforting walks by the beach, just five minutes away, a luxury for which she is grateful.
And then she reflected on her new, life-changing ministry.
“I couldn’t have done this if not for my life as caregiver,” she admitted with a smile. “God has a time when souls are together for a purpose.”
Eric Benites and Steve Melendez were moved in early April to Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran. SB9 will soon be voted by the Legislature. In 2011 it was not approved by one vote. The U.S. is the only country in the world that applies such punitive sentences to juveniles.
Prayer of the MonthPapal intentions for November: That priests who experience difficulties may find comfort in their suffering, support in their doubts, and confirmation in their fidelity. That as fruit of the continental mission, Latin American Churches may send missionaries to other Churches.
Papal intentions for December: That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.