He joined a writing workshop called The Beat Within, which encourages young people in prison to share their ideas and life experiences with writing instructors. The program changed him. From his cell in a California prison Cabral wrote this letter, which The Beat Within has shared with us:
Where do I begin? I was recently told a little bit about you by a mutual friend who is very concerned for you. She suggested that I write to you, that it might be beneficial, and I agree… for I have been exactly where you are today. I know what you are going through.
My name is Michael Cabral. I have been incarcerated for nearly seven years now for a crime I committed when I was 17 years old. The first ten months of my incarceration was spent there in juvenile hall, which was the scariest, most stressful, most uncertain time in my entire life, as I’m sure it is for you. I remember that time as one long journey through the expansive and very cruel worlds of “What if…” and “Why me?” Many times I even drove myself to tears stressing out about how terrible I knew prison was going to be, and how terrible my life in general was going to be. I thought about all my people in the calles who needed me, who depended on me, and I convinced myself that I’d failed them, that they wouldn’t make it out there without me. I filled myself nearly to the point of exploding with anxiety and depression. Do you go through that?
I hope not. Because believe me, little Brother, the road ahead of you is going to be difficult, but manageable nonetheless. You are going to experience loneliness like you wouldn’t believe, fear and anger and terrible anxiety, and more than once, you’ll likely feel like giving up. That’s okay. What’s important is that you don’t give up. because with patience, Carnalito, and faith in everything right in your life, you really will be okay. Pay attention and ask questions, and things eventually will get easier.
In the meantime, as difficult as it may be, you have to accept that your life is the only life you have any control over. You’re going to miss your family and worry about them. But struggle is a part of every single life, and was going to come to them with or without you. So, the best you can do for them (and for yourself) is have faith in your family’s strength and perseverance. Support them with your own words of encouragement and prayer, of course. But ultimately, you have got to trust them to manage and make it through their own lives. Be proud of them for that. Celebrate their successes.
Celebrate your own successes, as well, both big and small. Like if you make it through an entire day knowing you lived right that day, congratulate yourself. And when you slip up and make a mistake, embrace that, too. Study your mistakes — how you made them, why you made them — and ask yourself how you can avoid making that same mistake in the future. (Just don’t forget to put your responses into action.) I promise you, little Brother, you will be stronger for your courage to change and grow, which I believe is the key to rising above this prison madness. People who refuse to grow in here, stay in here. So never hesitate to learn! It’s exactly what got me through Juvenile Hall, County, Wasco. It got me through Pelican Bay (both the mainline and two and a half years of being in the hole). It’s what gets me through my every day here at Salinas Valley. Because no matter what else is going on around me, I know that I’m finally becoming the man my family deserves to have in their lives, a good man, and it’s an awesome feeling. You feel me?
But that’s for living. You also need survival. Don’t worry, though, that’s the easy part. Stay away from all vices! Drugs, drinking, gambling, sexual activity are all easy ways to find yourself in a wreck. And if you can, don’t take anything from people, especially people you don’t know. Nothing is free in here. Also, there are no such things as secrets in prison, so keep your personal life personal, and don’t talk about people. Don’t speak up on things you aren’t sure about. Nobody in here will ever be convinced that you are anything other than a youngster, so it’s okay just to sit back, listen and observe. That’s what you’re supposed to do. And don’t raise your hand to do anything. There are plenty of idiots around for that. You’re better than them.
Other than that, little Brother, just keep your head up. Never deny how awful this place is (complacency is like a disease here), but find reasons to laugh. Whoever said that laughter is the best medicine was absolutely right! Indulge in reading, writing and music. Those things can be like gifts from some divine place. I swear!
Well, I hope this letter was at least a little helpful. You’re not alone, and you’re certainly not beaten. Faith in yourself will be your greatest asset, but know that the people who love you have faith in you, too. Take care, Carnalito.
Thanks to The Beat Within for allowing us to use their content. The Beat Within offers weekly worshops in juvenile facilities in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida and Washington DC. The organization’s mission is to provide incarcerated youth the chance to share their experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy, self-expression, critical thinking skills and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community.