Broken systems lead to broken lives


A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

They see Josh as a criminal, but I see him as my little brother. They see him as inmate #10092014, but I see him as a victim of broken systems.

The cards were stacked against him since birth, born into a poor family in a poor community on the West Side of Chicago. Our mother, an uneducated first-generation Mexican American, is one of 10 siblings. His father, my step-father, is an immigrant from Mexico. Things were rough for us in the ’hood.

We oftentimes went without food. We would go without heat and electricity. My mom had nine of us, and Josh is sixth in line. With an alcoholic mother and father, we had to learn at a very young age about survival.

I remember calling my tias (aunts) and asking if they could bring us milk and diapers for the kids because our parents weren’t home and they were hungry. We were hungry too, but at least we could eat at school. Josh and the others didn’t have that option yet.

I was a little girl, but I remember those struggles. I remember my tias and tios coming to the house and doing interventions with my mom. We would all get separated for a while with the hope that our parents would get it together, and this was the cycle of our childhood in Chicago. It was our world, our normal.

This was the beginning of dealing with broken systems that do not work for us Brown folks in this country. In 1994, our parents moved us to Minneapolis, a city that didn’t have a lot of migra (immigration), and you could get a job sin papeles (without papers).

My parents worked their butts off and things got better. The drinking stopped completely for my mom, and Dad still had some beers here and there. Both of our parents worked 80 hours a week every single week for years just to make ends meet. Myself and my older siblings were left to care for Josh and the rest of the crew while Mom and Dad worked their lives away to provide for us.

Eventually they saved enough money to pay an attorney several thousands of dollars for my dad to become a legal citizen. That attorney gladly took their hard-earned money, but my dad never became a citizen. He had been bamboozled.

Not having the means to attempt the process again and feeling hopeless, my dad decided to sell drugs. He could make more money in less time and spend a lot more time with his family. He was tired of working 80 hours a week.

He eventually went to prison, and we faced so many other barriers. Josh was left without a father, left without direction, and left to learn how to be a man on his own in this world of systems that do not benefit us Brown folks. Now my brother sits in the same county jail that our dad sat in. For similar charges.

They see him as a criminal, but I see him as a victim of many broken systems.

Stephanie Gasca is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to To learn more about the organization’s work, visit