This interview was originally published in Volume 11, Issue 1 of the Free Minds Connect.
Free Minds member Carlos served 25 years of a 35 years-to-life sentence. In 2020, he was resentenced under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA). Because he was not a US citizen though, rather than returning home to DC, he was deported to his native country—a place he hadn’t seen in 33 years! Kelli caught up with Carlos over Zoom to talk about his experience.
KELLI: Tell me about your country.
CARLOS: I was born in Honduras, a Central American country that’s about the size of Pennsylvania. Honduras is an extremely poor country, with more than 2/3 of the population living in poverty. My grandparents raised me and my sister because my parents were just so busy working. When I was 9 years old, my grandparents decided to bring us to the United States.
KELLI: What was that like?
CARLOS: As a kid, crossing into the United States was both nerve-wracking and exciting. It was hard to leave our parents and there were a lot of things that I just didn’t understand. We came to Washington, DC first, but settled in the Maryland suburbs. Despite my grandparents’ best efforts, I fell victim to peer pressure. I started getting into trouble and by the time I was 15, I dropped out of school. My grandfather told me, “You either go to school, or you leave this house.” Bold as I was, I left the house. My grandparents were crushed. I take responsibility for the choices I made then. I was so busy trying to please others, that I made poor decisions and eventually committed a crime that led to my being charged as an adult at the age of 17.
KELLI: You were locked up for 25 years—that’s a long time. When and why do you feel like your mindset changed?
CARLOS: It happened right away. It was the moment the judge sentenced me. I realized I’d messed my life up! There was no going back. So I decided I wouldn’t let these walls stop me from becoming a better person. Within one year, I got my GED. That was the beginning of my dedication to education. In the next 25 years, I took about 39 programs in an effort to become better. That mindset enabled me to weave and dodge a lot of the negativity in prison.
I also had the support of the woman who would become my wife. We’ve known each other since we were 14. She was my sister’s best friend! But what do you know when you’re 14, right? (laughs) She came to see me when I got locked up at DC Jail. We fell out of touch, but ten years later, I reached out to her and we’ve been together ever since. I don’t mind sounding mushy. My sun rises and sets with her! What else can I say other than, I am in love?
KELLI: What was it like to balance the excitement of being released with the apprehension of being sent to Honduras?
CARLOS: I knew I would almost certainly be deported to Honduras. In order to stay in the US, I would have to prove that I feared for my life if I were deported. It could take years, and since the chances of winning were slim, I decided to go back. I was released in the middle of COVID. And if you remember, in 2020, we were seeing all kinds of things in the news and really didn’t know very much about the disease, so it was scary. They’d closed down the main airport in Tegucigalpa (the capital of Honduras) because of the pandemic. So I had to land in a smaller town, five hours away. They had imposed curfews and you couldn’t travel anywhere without a special permit. I had to stay at a government refuge center for three days until a friend of my aunt’s, who drives an 18-wheeler, was going to be passing by the town. He scooped me up and drove me to Tegucigalpa.
Fear is the best word to describe how I felt. I can’t lie, I was spooked. First of all, my mind had completely adapted to being in prison. So just coming back to the free world was hard. And then, you have to understand, I’d been in the United States since I was 9 years old. I was fully Americanized—the music, the culture, everything! And now I’m being sent to a country that I know nothing about? Honduras is among the top five most violent countries in the world. It’s dominated by gangs. I look like I’m a member of a gang. I’ve got tattoos. I look like I’ve been in prison. My biggest fear was being confronted and asked, and then being killed over the answer I gave, whether it was the truth or a lie. Even now, sometimes I’ll go to a mall or something, and I see people who look at me hard. Because we’re in a secure environment, nothing has happened. But I’ve had to learn where I can and can’t go.
I stand out here because of my accent, my clothes, and how I talk. As soon I start talking, people ask where I’m from. I’ve had to pull out my ID to prove that I’m Honduran. It’s still like a culture shock every day. You go down the street one way and you got a highway, go the other way and you got chickens and horses! It’s like, Hold up! What happened? The only thing you can do though, is embrace it!
KELLI: How do you embrace it?
CARLOS: Despite how challenging it has been, reconnecting to my culture and my country has been a joy. I have family in Honduras, and even though I was basically a stranger to them, I feel so blessed for the chance to get to know them. And I’m trying to ask for help more. I’m learning that in order for me to be successful in reentry, I’ve gotta lean on others. The country is beautiful. I am surrounded by mountains, and the weather is always warm. The food is amazing–I’m constantly tasting new foods and new flavors. (I think I’ve gained 15 pounds!) These things just remind me that I am free.
KELLI: Are you working?
CARLOS: Unfortunately, COVID has made an already bad economy in Honduras even worse. I haven’t been able to get a job. My wife and I hope to move together to Panama where there are more opportunities and we both can work. For now, I’m just grateful for the support of my wife and family. I’m also lucky to have opportunities to work as a Poet Ambassador with Free Minds.
I truly embrace being a Poet Ambassador. Sharing my experience with the public (on Zoom) is my way of giving back to the community, educating them about people who are, or have been incarcerated. There’s a stigma. I tell them just because I did something wrong it doesn’t make me a bad person. And there are a lot of us out there. In prison, it’s easy to get trapped in a negative environment. Anytime you’re doing something positive, you’re going against the grain. So a person that sits down with a pen and expresses hopes, fears, and dreams, to the community to get some feedback? This is a person that is going against the grain in a good way! I know, because I did it!
KELLI: What are your dreams for the future?
CARLOS: I’m living my dream. To be free with my wife, when once upon a time, we only hoped and dreamed to have such moments. My dream is also to keep sharing my story to anyone who needs to hear it. To help even one person change, help them find a better way, help them understand that reading and writing are tools that help you through prison. Because I believe in change. I believe in becoming better. And by telling my story, maybe I can change someone else’s story.
KELLI: What else would you like to share about your experience with your Free Minds family?
CARLOS: Of course it’s challenging to have been deported. I’m far from the only one though. I’m sure there are other Free Minds members who are citizens of other countries inside the Bureau of Prisons right now, who will also be deported when their time is served. I want to use my own experience to help anyone who feels anxious. Trust me when I tell you, the more information you can get, the less fear you’ll feel. The best advice I can give is to educate yourself and ask questions. Ask for help! And once you arrive in your new home, keep educating yourself.
After every storm there is sunshine. Whenever I think back about the fears I had, I smile, because I realize that I am learning to live in the very country I feared coming back to. I’ve learned to move around the hurdles that, as real as they are, cannot take away from this blessing of freedom that I have been given. Getting to know a family that I left behind has been a joy. Seeing and experiencing things that I once could only imagine. Sometimes even the simple things like a sunset have helped those fears fade away. And I will not lie to you…the fears still arise at times, but that’s when I remind myself of the joy of being free and choose not to live in fear.