A new documentary profiles an inspired minister to incarcerated youths.
Kern Valley State Prison is a level-four institution. Spray-stenciled into the cinderblock threshold that leads into the day room are three words: “Disparo sin aviso." No Warning Shots. For those who can’t read, guards armed with M-14s bring home the point. The prisoners here are doing “presidential numbers,” that is, a succession of multiple-year counts, often as high as 250. Among inmates, this is called “getting washed.” This is the last stop for many of them; some will be on lock-down 23 hours a day for the rest of their lives.
Even the most dedicated professionals in the justice system often write off the men at Kern Valley as lost causes. What can they do? There are too many new young men entering the system. (Many are minors who have been tried as adults.) There are always new fitness hearings, new battles to fight.
Yet, one man has not given up on them. He sits alone at one of the steel tables bolted into the floor, notebook in hand, his sinewy frame fitting perfectly into his slim-cut slacks. The sleeves on his vintage button-down shirt roll up to reveal a script tattoo on his forearm. His name is Cricket TwelveHawks, and he is waiting on an inmate he has known for nearly seven years. Their relationship goes back to the inmate’s days in the juvenile justice system.
A Long Way From Akron
Unless you’ve worked in California’s juvenile penal system, you have probably never heard of Cricket TwelveHawks. Outside of his work, he does very little socializing. His interests include music, poetry, and writing. He has no need for social media, is disinterested in politics, and generally eschews conformity. Although he is young, single, and lives in Los Angeles, TwelveHawks prefers Ironwood State Prison to hanging out on the Sunset Strip.
“I’m not comfortable around mainstream culture,” he says. “As you grow older, there’s the danger of becoming apathetic.”
Cricket is comfortable where most “apathetic” adults would be frightened: working as a mentor, teacher, counselor, and advocate for the most violent juvenile offenders in Los Angeles. (Imagine a younger, secular Father Greg Boyle–but with “indie-band” cool.)
Cricket arrived in Los Angeles 15 years ago from Akron, Ohio, not exactly the schoolyard for learning about gang life. Yet, as different as that world was from the streets of Lincoln Heights, Echo Park or The Jungles, Cricket sees an universal truth in the kids.
“They just want to be heard.”
And Cricket is there to listen. At East Lake, Sylmar, The Ventura Youth Authority, Camp Afflerbaugh. All of them. “Grillo,” (Spanish for Cricket), as most of the boys call him, is there for them. All too often, more so than their own families.
I first met Cricket TwelveHawks years ago via the Catholic Church during a brief time with restorative justice. It is a volunteer experience that continues to haunt me.
I remember the first time I went through a security scan before stepping past the double-helix razor wire that led to the my assigned unit, “K/L.” Walking through the yard were dozens of wards moving in formation. At a distance, it was unnerving. The faces were vacuous, hopeless. But as I moved closer, something struck me. They were just boys. I couldn’t help but stare, not even noticing the kid sporting a T-shirt with the logo of an obscure band and Adidas who had appeared next to me. It was Cricket. He was there to teach as part of InsideOUT Writers, a county-funded program for incarcerated teens. We introduced ourselves and chatted for a moment. Finally, I asked him for some advice on how to interact with the boys.