By Ricky Ortega
Sentenced to life without parole, I entered the Folsom State Penitentiary in December 1983 at the age of 21—too naive to understand the danger that awaited me, yet my fear was unmistakable. It was the maximum-security prison where stories are told about the secrets of the dead; where bloodshed measured the heart of a man and where the ropes of the gallows once swayed in the winds of execution. As I carried my bedroll to cell #29, the tiers were dark and deserted, the bars on the cells looked chipped and bloodstained in the horrors of my mind. When the cell door closed behind me, I found myself standing on the edge of life, waiting for the storm. If only I could close my eyes and wish away the rain. Like falling stars that paint the sky, if only I could fly.
As the ocean waters of a great tsunami wash away all traces of life, violent offenders are left to face the aftermath of their crimes: life in prison. It’s the beginning of the end, where boys have died for their pride in a race to become men. It’s survival of the fittest, where fear is disguised as honor and respect and where the image we portray often trumps our true identity in a deadly game of masquerade.
This series of articles will take a closer look inside the minds of violent offenders—where many are peering into the mirror of self-reflection and living a lifestyle that represents the principles of a non-violent peacemaker, all while standing on the edge of life.
Caesar Lopez was living the dream—a loving husband and father who often reminisces about sharing life with his kids. “I can remember patting each one of them on the head as I sent them off to school, it made me feel so blessed,” recalled Lopez. As a maintenance supervisor for a large packing facility, he was able to provide a good life for himself and his family. “But I wanted more,” admitted Lopez. “I hid behind a double life, saturated in drugs, alcohol, women and money.” However, like a runaway train, he finally crashed at the footsteps of the Calipatria State Prison, doing 60 years to life. “It felt like my life was over. I lost my wife after 20 years of marriage, my career, my community support and the most painful of all, not seeing my kids grow up.” Instead of the blissful life he worked so hard to achieve, he ended up in what he referred to as a “war zone.”
While processing his life behind bars, he dealt with the racial violence that erupted on a daily basis. Refusing to participate, he was assaulted on the yard during a prayer session with his spiritual brothers and was stabbed multiple times. “I reached the point of no return as I lay there in the hospital,” recalled Lopez. “I can remember wondering what was going to happen to me and whether or not I would live through this ordeal. I felt like my life was over and that there was no hope for me. But when I reached that point, I began to feel myself drawing closer to my Higher Power and realizing what was most important to me. And this is what led me down the road to rehabilitation and many self-help programs offered here at Mule Creek; GRIP, AVP, Awareness Through Reflection, NA, & AA. Since then, my life has been one positive experience after another, like a positive affirmation that continues to flourish today.”
Life in prison, standing on the edge of darkness—where human spirit weeps softly behind the walls of doubt. However, just as the flame of a candle is most effective in the darkness, the human spirit shines most brightly in times of distress. Violent offenders are finding freedom in the wake of their destruction through the pages of self-awareness and in their connection to their Higher Power. It’s this freedom that prepares us for the perils of this world—when our flame begins to flicker, when we find ourselves standing on the edge of life.
Ricky Ortega is incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison.