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Behind Bars with Cricket TwelveHawks

Inside Prison with Cricket Twelvehawks Supplied Photo

Supplied Photo

P.G. Cuschieri - published on 05/30/14

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.   

Offering Kinship

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.  

 “All we can do is listen,” he said. “They just need to be reminded that they are thought of.” When I complimented him on that kind of stewardship to such kids, he was humbled but corrected me. “It’s not really a stewardship so much as it is a kinship.”  

My kinship lasted for less than a year, until the night I was sitting at a table when a fight broke out. The sound of fist into flesh was unsettling. And the mist of blood that washed over me was baptism of sentience. I was not cut out for this. It takes a certain kind of individual, someone who can be with the worst of a person – yet still see the best of them.  

A Plate in the Head  

Cricket TwelveHawks often gets headaches. Not from driving on a regular basis to courthouses from Norwalk to Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles or from writing character letters to judges, lawyers, and employers. Cricket TwelveHawks gets headaches because he has a metal plate fused into his forehead. It comes compliments of a pickup truck that ran a stop sign and T-boned him nearly five years ago while he was on his bike, in a collision that should have killed him. Instead, Cricket views the experience as one of the best things that ever happened. It gives him something to share with the boys: “You share a metal plate in the head with a kid, it doesn’t matter how it got there. You’re bonded for life.”      

Edwin Moran is one of the boys with whom Cricket is bonded for life.  He served four years and 11 months bouncing from East Lake to Norwalk to Y.T.S. in Chino. And Grillo was there every step of the way. Edwin is 5’9” and 185 pounds of whip-cord muscle and homemade ink. He lights up when I mention Cricket, his face bending into smile that could be in a toothpaste ad. “I met Cricket on day one,” he tells me.  “I laughed at first. Thought the dude looked like Tony Hawk. But he inspired me from the beginning and he never stopped."

As Edwin went on to recall some of the countless stories of how Cricket had affected his life, one stood out. Over a year into his sentence, he had been tossed in the Security Housing Unit for inciting a riot. This was a pivotal time for him. A lot of boys who go into the penal system as juveniles end up staying because of what they do in prison. Their behavior also counts at their fitness hearings.  

Edwin was at a crossroad. As he sat in the solitary confinement, he thought. As he thought, he wept. And as he wept, he prayed. Some time after that, an envelope was slipped under the door. There was no name on it. Edwin opened the envelope and removed a sheet of paper that was entirely blank save for one word in capital letters: “B-E-L-I-E-V-E.”  

He knew where it came from.  

Today, Edwin is a free man and works full-time. He plans on continuing his education and is a wonderful father to a daughter he calls “his world.”   

The Ministry of Presence

Cricket TwelveHawks was raised Catholic, but no longer practices. It was the church, however, that guided him to his ministry. He had been thinking of a friend who had been shot in the head and robbed for 40 dollars. He wondered what kind of person would do such a thing. The only way he would find out was if he met someone like that. In Beverly Hills at the time, he just happened to be driving past the Church of the Good Shepherd. He had no idea where to go but he figured they would. He stopped, ran in, and grabbed their weekly bulletin. He was right. Inside, he found an ad for the parish’s justice-outreach program.  That was the last time he was in a church. I teased him about this, telling him that he should go more often and that the church offers an incredible ministry. “I don’t believe in churches,” he says. “I believe in a ministry of presence.”  

Cricket witnesses his ministry of presence at the Pomona courthouse while one of his boys is tried for attempted murder as an adult. The judge reads the guilty verdict and issues the sentence 160L. That’s 160 years to life. The announcement prompts an outlet of visceral feelings in the courtoom. From the victims’ side, there is relief and vindication. At the same time, a stepfather bursts into tears. The boy at the center of it stands shell-shocked.
Eighteen years old and prison for life.  

As he tries to comprehend, the bailiff approaches to lead him away. And while he is being cuffed, he searches the room for a familiar face. He finds it sitting in the back.

Cricket TwelveHawks looks different today. He’s wearing a tie. The boy stares for a moment, waiting for some sign of approval. And when their eyes finally meet, Cricket offers it, raising the forearm where his tattoo is emblazoned. It says: No Estas Solo.  “You are not alone.”

For the briefest of moments, amid the chaos of emotion; the pain of a life taken; the vengeance of death given; the failure, the guilt, the emptiness and just the tragedy of it all–there is Grace.  

Cricket TwelveHawks was recently filmed for a documentary focusing on juvenile incarceration. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Cricket of Crown Valley.” He can be reached at cricketkovatch@gmail.com.

P.G. Cuschieri is a writer who lives and works in Los Angeles. He is a grateful brother, uncle, friend and a proud Roman Catholic. He can be found on twitter @pgcuschieri.

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