Criminals and Gang Members Anonymous and Guilt Treatment – ​​SAPIENS
3 mins read

Criminals and Gang Members Anonymous and Guilt Treatment – ​​SAPIENS

The dark, abstract artwork depicts the interior of a prison. “Nothing ends with us, everything begins with us” is written vertically along the right side of the artwork.

At 14, Chalo joined his mother in Los Angeles. She remarried, and when his new stepfather began drinking, he became violent. Chalo immediately ran away from home and soon joined a gang. “I didn’t care about anything because I felt like my parents didn’t care,” he said.

Feeling numb to the violence and emotionally detached, it wasn’t long before Chalo was arrested and sent to county jail, where he faced a life sentence on charges as a juvenile. “I really wanted to kill myself then,” he recalled. “I went from being a full-blown gangster to the shame I brought to my family to the guilt.” The next nearly 24 years of imprisonment brought little relief from the violence.

These memories and feelings weighed on Chalo. One day he spoke about this guilt in a way I hadn’t heard before. “It doesn’t mean that when the courts say you’re guilty, I’m guilty of much more,” he said. “I’m guilty of being a human being, of my circumstances… of being born in a country that was very brutal. In other words, I accept my guilt.”

Although the CGA initially provided Chalo with a community, he opposes the individualistic conception of criminality propagated by rehabilitation narratives. And while he considers himself spiritual, he rejects organized religion and its moral “scripts.” According to Chalo, these narratives portray people like him as “broken things.”

Instead, he tries to contextualize his guilt in terms of social relationships and larger circumstances. It is this perspective that motivates him to continue living.

MOVING BEYOND BLAME

For Mariana, finding community through sharing experiences allowed her to come to terms with her guilt through faith.

Chalo now works for the Beacon Foundation and spends most of his time mentoring new members. Once, when someone went missing, Chalo spent the entire day searching for them, wondering if something terrible had happened.

“I’m worried,” he said. “It’s actually a good thing. It means I retain some of my humanity, that I care about him. Because inside (prison), I couldn’t show that I cared about (anyone).”

Mariana and Chalo aren’t the only ones grappling with moral issues. And the consequences of internalized shame can be severe: Despite decades of calls for reform, California prisons have long had a higher suicide rate than the national average for state and federal prisons in the U.S.

Blaming only individuals for crimes, prison and rehabilitation discourses often contribute to deepening people’s deep sense of guilt.

But there are movements that challenge this perspective. Scholars have identified the complex interaction between politics, capitalism, and social inequality as a fundamental driver of mass incarceration. That’s why abolitionists call for widespread systemic change—to imagine and build a healthy, just society without any need for prisons.