Finding a Purpose after Prison
By Eric Breier
Being sentenced to prison wasn’t the most terrifying experience of Martin Leyva’s life.
When you’re arrested for the first time at age 13 and you spend the next two decades in and out of jail and prison, it’s easy to become accustomed to life behind bars.
No, terrifying for Leyva was stepping on to a college campus for the first time.
“I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t look like anybody else, I didn’t feel like anybody else,” Leyva said of starting classes at Santa Barbara City College in 2007.
It didn’t take long for Leyva to realize he wasn’t alone in those feelings, that there were others on campus who could relate to his struggles with alcohol, drugs and incarceration.
It soon became Leyva’s mission to help those who faced struggles similar to his own. A mentor in prison told him as much during what Leyva vowed would be his final stretch locked up.
“My elder said, ‘When you get out of prison, you help the people. Help the people,’ ” said Leyva, who was released in April 2007. “I always think to myself, ‘I have to help the people. Whoever my path crosses, I’m going to help them out.’ ”
It’s a mission that started a decade ago at Santa Barbara City College. That mission didn’t end after Leyva earned his associate’s degree. It didn’t end after he obtained his bachelor’s from Antioch University. And it certainly isn’t ending now that he’s at Cal State San Marcos preparing for his final year in the Master of Arts in Sociological Practice program. Nor will he stop when he continues his education next year as a doctoral student.
“I’ve been clean and sober going on 15 years,” said Leyva, who is 44 years old and was recently named a Sally Casanova Scholar, a CSU award that helps students explore and prepare for doctoral programs.
“I’m no longer on probation. I’m not on parole. I go to sleep at night knowing I’ve helped another person and I’ve done some good. And I wake up with the ambition to go out and continue that work. It’s my routine. Helping another person is helping myself.”
‘I became my environment’
It was the summer between sixth and seventh grade. A friend asked Leyva if he wanted to smoke pot in a creek where kids in his neighborhood often hung out.
“No, I can’t do that,” Leyva told his friend. “But I’ll go with you.”
Seeing his friend and another acquaintance smoking, Leyva changed his mind.
“Why not?” he said.
Santa Barbara is often referred to as the “American Riviera,” home to upscale boutique stores and restaurants, multimillion-dollar homes and a favorite for celebrities seeking a getaway from Los Angeles.
But the Santa Barbara that Leyva knew was nothing like the idyllic beach-side setting most envision.
“I was born around drugs and violence,” he said. “I had a loving mother, but she worked a lot. I had no good male role models. My male role models were into negative things. I became my environment.”
While Leyva was accustomed to the chaos of his neighborhood, something was different when he got home after smoking pot for the first time. He felt free of the turmoil and the chaos faded.
“I attached my drugs and my drinking to emotions,” Leyva said. “If I was sad or angry or anxious, I taught myself at a very young age, just use drugs and it will go away.
“But it never goes away. It just gets temporarily covered up.”
It wasn’t long after getting high for the first time that Leyva had another first, one that would define his life for the next 20-plus years. At 13, he was arrested for possession of a stolen moped. A friend stole the moped, but it was Leyva who was caught while cruising around on it.
The arrest, coupled with his drug and alcohol use, began a spiral that was difficult to escape. There was a DUI. An arrest for gun sales. Parole violations.
Leyva’s substance abuse became so bad that his mother began to view his incarceration almost as a blessing.
“I must have been in my mid 20s and my mom said, ‘I actually like it when you’re in jail because I know you’re sleeping and I know you’re eating,’ ” he said. “It makes me emotional just thinking about it.”
Clean and sober
Leyva stopped drinking about a year before he went to prison for the final time in 2004. He kicked his drug habit shortly before beginning his sentence on a robbery charge.
He remained clean and sober while locked up, no easy task given the proliferation of drugs in prison.
“It’s so easy to stay high in prison,” he said. “Any drug you could want. People even make their own alcohol. It’s a big issue in the prison system. As long as you have the money to pay for it, you can stay high.”
Leyva said he made a conscious decision to stay clean in prison, and he stuck to it. It wasn’t the only conscious decision he was making to improve his life – he also was determined to make this the last time he would ever be locked up.
The words of his prison elder – “Help the people” – were a guiding force, and a newspaper article he received from his mother shortly before his release in April 2007 provided a final push toward change.
The story detailed the death of 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares, who was stabbed in the middle of the day on Santa Barbara’s renowned State Street. A 14-year-old was charged with the murder, which was part of large gang brawl.
Leyva had never been a gang member, but the story resonated all the same.
“I said, ‘I can go home and continue being part of the problem – even by staying silent – or I can go home and do something to help the young people in the community,’ ” he said. “That article really put me in a different place.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do, I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I was going to do something positive when I got out.”
A new life
Less than five months after his release from prison, Leyva walked on to a college campus for the first time.
It was a short stay.
Leyva got off the bus at Santa Barbara City College and just stared at the buildings. He began pacing while he continued to eye the administration and student services buildings.
When the next bus rolled up to the stop, Leyva got on.
“I can’t do this,” he told himself.
But the next day, his niece, also a student at Santa Barbara City College, told him to get in the car. She was going to drive him to school.
Leyva met with an academic adviser, who suggested a drug and alcohol treatment certificate program. Reading his class material was like reading his autobiography.
“I was thinking about my neighborhood, my family dynamics, the people I met in prison,” Leyva said. “Everything I was reading was about me. And I fell in love with education.”
Considered a high-risk parole offender as he began college, Leyva was required to report to the parole office twice a month. Each time he was there, he saw two men he recognized from Santa Barbara City College. Eventually, he approached one of the men. Leyva told him about the anxiety he felt at school, the feeling of not belonging, of not wanting to raise his hand in class for fear of being labeled stupid. That’s when Leyva learned he wasn’t alone in those feelings. Together, they approached the third person they had seen at the parole office, and he, too, echoed their sentiments.
By the end of the semester, Leyva approached the administration about starting a formal support group for formerly incarcerated men and women. By the summer of 2008, the group had its first cohort of the Transitions Program, whose mission would be to provide access to higher education for formerly incarcerated individuals and create a smooth transition from prison to community college.
Santa Barbara City College recently graduated its 10th Transitions Program cohort. Leyva has helped launch a program at MiraCosta College and is hoping to do the same at Palomar College.
“Martin aspires to erase the margins and empower society’s underdog by helping them become successful through higher education,” said Dr. Xuan Santos, a CSUSM assistant professor of sociology who has known Leyva for more than 10 years.
“As a graduate student, Martin has worked tirelessly to bring the Transitions Program to North San Diego County as more men and women experience mass incarceration and the tentacles of the Prison Industrial Complex. As more people are re-entering society, we are looking for felony-friendly employers and institutions of higher learning to become OGs – Opportunity Givers.”
Leyva wants to create a pipeline that will help formerly incarcerated individuals transfer to four-year colleges and universities. To help facilitate this transition and the transfer process, Santos said they are planning to start a CSUSM chapter of Project Rebound, a program being used at nine other CSU campuses. Santos noted that Leyva also has spearheaded a student organization at CSUSM called “The Transitions Collective” for formally incarcerated students and their allies.
Leyva plans to continue his work, and his education, after he graduates from CSUSM in May. He’s looking at a Ph.D. program at the University of New Mexico as one possibility. Regardless of where he attends school for his doctorate, he will continue to follow the directive his prison elder gave him – “Help the people.”
It’s a mantra that guides him every day.
His mother, once relieved when her son was incarcerated so that she knew he would have meals and a bed, now tells Leyva, “I don’t have to worry about you anymore.”
She knows he doesn’t drink. She knows he doesn’t use. She’s been at restaurants with Leyva and seen strangers approach to shake his hand and thank him.
“She sees a whole different side of me,” Leyva said. “I’m blessed to have her and blessed that she knows her only son is actually doing good.”
Turning his life around has also allowed Leyva to have a relationship with his daughters. Leyva calls it a “healing relationship” because he was on drugs or alcohol, incarcerated or simply absent for much of their lives. His older daughter, Alix, is 25 and lives in Santa Barbara, while younger daughter Kailani is finishing high school in Hawaii.
In June, all three were together for Father’s Day. Leyva took Alix and Kailani on a tour of CSUSM and all three donned University sweatshirts for their first Father’s Day photo together.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” Leyva said. “When my kids can see that the father that they knew or heard about is no longer that person, it’s a beautiful thing.
“Ten years ago, right out of prison trying to figure out what I was going to do, I couldn’t look in the mirror and say, ‘You’re a good man. I love you.’ Today, I look in the mirror and say, ‘You have a purpose in life. You love yourself and you love others.’ ”