By Erik Galicia
As of 2016, the American system of mass incarceration was holding 2.3 million people behind bars.
Michael Saavedra, cofounder of Riverside City College’s Transitioning Minds Club, has survived that system. Saavedra was raised in the East Los Angeles area and experienced the full effect the Reagan Era had on communities of color.
“During that time, you had the war on drugs,” Saavedra said about the 1980s. “You had the influx of crack cocaine. You had the war on gangs. So it was on and popping.”
During his teen years, Saavedra became immersed in gang life. He found himself in and out of juvenile hall and was sent to prison at age 18. At 26 years old, he was released in 1996.
In 1999, Saavedra received a 21 year prison sentence. This time, his experiences sparked within him a desire for justice and knowledge.
“I was really upset with the criminal justice system,” he said. “My whole trial I felt like I was wronged.”
Saavedra began studying the law on his own and found the errors of the judges overseeing his case. By the early 2000s, he had received his GED and was elected by his peers to the Salinas Valley State Prison Men’s Advisory Council, a lawfully established group tasked with peacebuilding and protecting the rights of the incarcerated.
Yet, Saavedra was sent to the infamous Pelican Bay State Prison, where he spent around 15 years in solitary confinement. He began to notice that people of color were disproportionately held in the prison within the prison and that some had been there for over a decade.
“They would send you there for things like learning your own culture or history,” Saavedra said. “Like learning Nahuatl, which is our native Mexica language. Or using Aztec symbols and drawings.”
Saavedra also recounted seeing African-American inmates punished for having Black Panther tattoos and reading the works of George Jackson, who advocated for the rights of incarcerated people during the 1960s.
Frustrations rose and the inmates began planning a protest against the inhumane conditions in the California prison system. Saavedra and his peers studied the peaceful tactics of Mahatma Ghandi and Cesar Chavez and decided against the more extreme routes that inmates had taken in the past.
On July 1, 2011, the California prison hunger strikes began at Pelican Bay. Throughout the next few years, thousands of protesters throughout the state joined the effort. Saavedra was involved in a class action lawsuit that protesters filed against the state for constitutional violations.
The lawsuit was settled in 2015 and put an end to indeterminate solitary confinement. The ruling also opened the door for incarcerated people to receive an education.
“That’s what led me to where I am today,” Saavedra said about his academic journey. “I took some courses inside and immediately enrolled (at RCC) when I got out in 2017.”
Saavedra explained that his readjustment to society was difficult at first. He was not accustomed to technology and had to overcome the feeling of isolation that came with being around classmates that were half his age. Through RCC’s Community for Academic Progress Program, Saavedra met Cynthia Gonzales, a counselor who helped him get through his first math class.
“When you have to explain why you don’t know how to use a computer, people ask, ‘Why are you 20 years behind,” Saavedra said. “She was very understanding when I explained that gap.”
Saavedra co founded the Transitioning Minds Club in 2018 to offer “a welcoming space for formerly incarcerated students and those affected by mass incarceration.” Their mission is to help club members navigate their educational paths successfully.
“(The club) has given me a sense of accomplishment and leadership,” Saavedra said. “But more importantly it’s given me a sense of that stigma being removed. I’ve seen how successful we are. How we’ve become accepted by everybody.”
Saavedra is applying to UCLA and UC Berkeley as an American Indian Studies major. He plans on eventually applying to law school and working as a lawyer with a focus on social justice.
“The system tries to pigeonhole us,” Saavedra said. “We should always strive to be bigger and better because we can. Don’t ever let people make you feel like you don’t belong.”