Transition from streets to school

Rhys Alvarado

The number one rule in prison is to never show signs of weakness.

But for Martin Leyva, recognizing his weakness allowed him to find his strength.

The penitentiary was once a way of life for Leyva. He intermittently served a total of eight years behind bars, from 1988 to 2007. Through work and determination, he was able to get out of the streets and into school. Here he noticed that he wasn’t the only ex-convict or parolee that was trying to get back on track.

“They’re here, it’s just a matter of what they’re doing with their lives now,” Leyva said. “These people don’t judge me. They feel what I feel.”

Recognizing that this population needed support, he came up with the idea for Transitions, a City College support group that caters to parolees and ex-convicts who are now in school.

Born into a broken home, Leyva has lived in locations all around downtown Santa Barbara. Raised by his mother and multiple male figures, Leyva was fathered by the streets. By the time he was 16, he was counting proofs on bottles of liquor, and stealing mopeds.

“It started petty, and got worse from there,” he said.

At 16 he entered juvenile hall. That was just the beginning. Throughout his prison career, Leyva has been housed up and down the coast in a combination of county, state and federal penitentiaries. With two-strikes on his record, Leyva feels like he’s walking on egg shells. He said one more strike could get him a sentence between 25 years to life in prison.

The three strikes law makes it mandatory for state courts to give persons an extended period of incarceration if they have been convicted of three or more serious criminal offenses.

But Leyva wasn’t always running from the cops. From 1995 to 1999 he hit a patch of short successes. At the time he was sober and married to his first wife, who gave birth to his first child. He opened up Energy Tattoo parlor in Old Town Goleta, where his love for tattooing grew. By day he would manage his tattoo shop, and at night he came home to his family.

Although Leyva was sober, he still had friends that weren’t. When they needed help, he sometimes found himself dealing drugs and helping them commit minor crimes.

In 2001, he lost everything as quickly as he had gained it. Within the blink of an eye he lost his wife and child, he lost his home, and was headed back to prison.

“Every time I pass by there, I think, ‘This is where I had a life, and where I lost it all,'” Leyva said about the tattoo shop. The tattoo parlor is now a laundromat.

This was the last time he would make the same mistakes. Before his release in January, Leyva surrounded himself with reformed inmates. They motivated him to change.

“In prison I’ve met some of the smartest, most humbled men, who just made some bad decisions,” Leyva said.

Within the first seven months after being released, Leyva worked three different jobs. He knew that the day they conducted background checks would be his last day on the job.

But Leyva’s luck would change once he applied for a job in the English as a Second Language department at City College.

Leyva’s transition from the prison cell to the classroom desk made learning more difficult than ever. As he started college, he noticed that he was still programmed to the self-reliant prison lifestyle, and didn’t know how to ask for help.

He also noticed that he wasn’t the only one. Leyva decided to take action by getting a small group of similar students together.

Within two weeks of talking to Marsha Wright, director of Extended Opportunity Programs and Services on campus, 27 members showed up to their meeting. They were all eager for support.

“The idea made sense,” Wright said. “If we listen to what their needs are, we can better provide for them.”

Noel Gomez, a student program advisor to EOPS, has worked side by side with Leyva and the group’s efforts.

“When he came in, he had the motivation and he saw the lack of support,” Gomez, said. “He’s a prime example to anyone who can relate and wishes to succeed.”

During the summer, the group was taught how to succeed in school – not the streets. During the six-week program they learned how to fill out resumes, worked on trust building skills at the UCSB ropes course, and sat-in on personal development classes.

Darryl Walden, a 58-year-old film production major, was a peer advisor in this summer’s Transitions program.

Walden is a former member of the Black Panthers, and was sent to federal prison for more than 20 years. He said that helping out with the Transitions program has reaffirmed his mission to return to college after almost 30 years.

“By helping them acclimate to an academic environment, it helps give them a sense of hope,” Walden said.

Leyva is currently on parole, and is still adjusting to life outside of prison. He said that he still has a hard time trusting people, and still tends to watch his back. But he’s working on it.

He is maintaining a 2.9 GPA, and plans on staying in Santa Barbara. He wants to transfer to Antioch University to earn a master’s degree in social services.

“Nowadays I can look into the mirror and tell myself I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” Leyva said.