Recipient of AFJ/ Andrew Glover Youth Program’s Second Chance Award, 2014 (Watch the video here)
“I was getting on the bus to go to Riker’s Island but they brought me back because the program intervened,” Miguel explained, recalling his experience after being referred to and accepted by Avenues for Justice. In 2008, at just 16, Miguel was charged with a first-degree felony and faced up to 7 years in prison as well as a crippling criminal record. His most promising opportunity for a second chance, his lawyer explained, was to plead guilty and join AFJ.
When Miguel walked into the office at 100 Centre Street, he was confronted by the harsh reality he now faced. He met with Angel for a brutally honest intake interview and recalls that he “thought Angel was intimidating… he tells it how it is.” Angel was blunt in his assessment of the consequences the young man faced and made clear the major lifestyle changes that would be required of him as an AFJ participant.
The conversation with Angel forced Miguel to reflect on the path he had taken and the destructive choices he had made. Despite spending much of middle school involved in organized sports, Miguel eventually found himself attracted to young neighborhood drug dealers, especially those whose lavish lifestyle and expensive clothing drew the envy and respect of his peers. In retrospect, Miguel recognizes the dangerous allure of such role models: “Growing up as a kid you’re looking at the environment around you. I was looking at older people, my friends’ brothers, thinking it was a positive perspective, when in reality it was the wrong route.” Growing up in an area with few opportunities for economic mobility, especially for young men of color, Miguel found himself enamored by the glamor that he associated with these older youth: “Looking at older kids on the street and in school, clothing has a lot to do with it. Everyone is competitive. You want more than others; name brands, money…looking at them you think it’s the right thing to do and want to follow.”
Miguel got caught up with the wrong crowd and soon found himself in what he describes as “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Walking through the neighborhood one afternoon, he ran into a friend who was in the midst of robbing a petrified young man. His friend called him over, and Miguel helped pocket the young man’s belongings as he fearfully handed them over. When the two boys fled the scene, they turned a corner to find a police squad car waiting. Before the fear could fully set in, the cops had jumped out of the car and arrested both boys. Miguel remembers the shame he felt when he saw his mom for the first time after his arrest, “My mother saw me and she was crying. She was always there for me. She was my only support system. Even when she didn’t have any money she always found a way.”
After his conditional release to AFJ, Miguel found inspiration from his caseworkers, Nelson and Carmen. Their different approaches and personalities resonated with Miguel. He found Nelson to be stern yet, “chill and laid back,” someone who “understands where you’re coming from.” Carmen came off as “very open,” and a confidant who genuinely “wanted to get to know you and listen to your stories.” Carmen and Nelson supported Miguel and encouraged him to make choices with long-term benefits, particularly in terms of his education, as he explains, “Carmen would pop in to make sure I was in school. It’s like at the program everybody is one, like family.”
Speaking of his experience at AFJ as a whole Miguel says that it “changes the way you think about life.” So close to serving a lengthy prison sentence and having a life-altering criminal record, Miguel has turned his life around.
Miguel was with AFJ for nearly four years when he left the program to attend college, where he is close to receiving his bachelor’s degree in criminal investigation. The oldest of five siblings, Miguel is now a role model that his younger siblings can look up to, and so his success is important not only for himself, but his family as a whole. As an AFJ graduate, Miguel has had a tremendous and inspiring journey and has put that bus to Riker’s far in his rearview.