Opinion: Post-incarceration, the Underground Scholars program helped me reclaim my own narrative

Tojino is an officer for the Underground Scholars Initiative at UC San Diego, where he is working towards his undergraduate degree in literature/writing. He lives in Chula Vista.

Every once in a while, I like to dig around my computer to read old pieces of my writing. In my old essays, I sound unrefined. I sound naïve. There’s an overall feeling of incompleteness. I eat away feeling gross most times. Going to writing workshops at the University of California San Diego taught me that this is a good thing. The more disgusted, the better. After all, how else could I measure my improvement as a writer? I thought I could apply the same ideology to my life.

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A few months after I turned 15 years old, I experienced a mental health crisis culminating in my incarceration. I spent most of my high school years split between incarceration here in San Diego and in a group home in the San Joaquin Valley. When I was finally able to attend a “normal” high school again, I tried my best to keep my head down. My probation officer would pull me out of class for drug tests, despite me never having a documented drug history. My classmates both ridiculed and feared me. I spent my lunch hiding out in the theater, avoiding eye contact with anyone I passed on my way there.

That’s what I was taught to do. I spent three years begging for forgiveness from my judge, the District Attorney’s Office, group home administrators and probation officers. I figured the best way to apologize to my peers at school was to slip into the background. The disgust I felt for myself turned into hatred. I believed that I deserved to be ostracized.

It was a toxic, radical sense of ownership for my past. I thought, maybe, the worse I felt about my incarceration, the more it proved that I had learned a lesson. I thought that the only way to redeem myself as a person was to take responsibility for everything that I could — which eventually began to include my very existence.

I was experiencing an internalized social death.

Following the normal script of redemption stories, this is where I tell you that the Underground Scholars Initiative at UC San Diego or the Restorative Justice program at Southwestern College helped me find “healing.” This is where I’d tell you that my ideology shifted, and now I’m “giving back.” In this version, though, this is where I tell you that this isn’t supposed to be a feel-good story about my character development. I’m not writing this as an uplifting piece to make readers feel good or to be otherwise tokenized.

Our lives within institutions, both prison and collegiate, have largely been defined by our individual narratives. I answered my essay questions to the UC application in the same tone I would have answered a judge. I answered with the knowledge that this entity held control over my future.

For me, the Underground Scholars Initiative is most important as a means of deindividualization. If mass incarceration was the result of thousands of individual failures and independent circumstances, organizations like ours wouldn’t exist. When a student fails a test, the student bears responsibility. However, when an entire class fails the test, we have to begin scrutinizing the teacher.

I’m tired of telling people how hard I worked to get into college. I’m tired of telling people how many nights I spent drafting stories in my cell, only for my journal to be thrown away upon my release.

Most of all, I’m tired of being asked to address my narrative as if my story is the only utility that I can provide.

The Underground Scholars program has let me take back my own narrative. It’s allowed me to do more than just feel bad about my past. It’s helped me take a step back and shift some burden of responsibility to the systems that got us here. We are plenty more than a collection of redemption stories.

I look at our program as a means of creating our own agency. It’s a means for advocating for ourselves, a seat at the proverbial table. After all, the most knowledgeable people in the movement against mass incarceration are formerly incarcerated students.

This essay is in the print edition of The San Diego Union-Tribune on March 24, 2022, with the headline, I’m tired of my narrative being used to define who I am

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