“This has not been an easy decision to do this to Mr. Leal, but I think it’s justified.” Those were the words of San Diego Superior Court Justice The Honorable Runston G. Maino as he sentenced me to life in prison for being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm. You’d think that hearing a judge say those words would have alerted me to the fact that I had a serious problem, but at the time I was so busy trying to find a way out of jail that I didn’t realize why I was in jail to begin with.

I spent the next 10-12 years of my incarceration filing appeals, writing writs, and making a host of misguided claims about Judge Maine’s erroneous application of the Three Strikes Law. I failed every time. With each failure I grew more and more bitter because the way I saw it, the whole purpose of Three Strikes was to target violent career criminals, and since I’d only been to prison once in my entire life, I felt I didn’t deserve such a harsh sentence. As far as I was concerned I was a victim of the system. This whole idea of being a victim of the system was something I clung to and often found myself gathering information to not only support my position but also convince others that I was right. During one such episode, I was on the phone complaining to a friend about how screwed up the system was and how bad of a job I thought Judge Maino did on my case. My friend heard all of this before. He listened to me bitch and moan for a few minutes then cut me off and said, “Dude, you need to quit blaming everyone else and look at yourself…the judge didn’t put you in prison, you did!” I tried to argue him down and get him to commiserate with me but he was having none of it. Tempers flared and we ended the call with him telling me not to call him again until I got my shit together. THAT HURT!!! My initial reaction was to get defensive and blame him for not being a real friend but no matter how I tried to spin it I couldn’t escape the fact that he was right.

The truth of my friend’s words cut straight through all of my b.s. and forced me to look at the role I played in bringing myself to prison. I was the one who robbed the restaurant and went to prison in 1991. I was the one who left prison in 1994 and chose to hang out with the same people and do some of the same things that contributed to me going to prison in the first place. I was the one who had a firearm in the trunk of my car when I was pulled over on July 9,1994. Nobody else did that …I did that. Accepting all of that for the first time was a defining moment in my life. In that moment of clarity I realized I wasn’t just the problem, I was also the solution. In the days that followed I spent time both mourning the life I had so carelessly given up, and kicking myself for the stupidity I displayed for blaming others for the choices I made. That was a time of despair for me but when God wakes us up he always shows us a way forward, and this time was no different.

Since then, my life and time in prison have new meaning. Today I am no longer bound by denial, instead I am inspired by the truth. I realize I can’t take away the pain I caused in the lives of my victims, their families, and their community. However, what I can do is use that pain as a constant reminder of my responsibility to do everything in my power to be a better human being today. A big part of that responsibility revolves around being honest with myself at all times and recognizing that by sharing my experience with others, I can help them avoid making the same kinds of bad choices I made. Perhaps I can even curb the cycle of crime/violence in our communities.

This year, 2012, marks by 18th year in prison. I have no idea when I will be released, but despite all of the uncertainty, in my heart of hearts, I know am already free…free to learn, free to grow, and free to show the world who I am today through my actions, beliefs, and my integrity. I cannot change what I did in the past, but I do have control over how I treat people today and in the future.

Kenyatta Leal

Prison University Project 
Valedictorian Speech-Graduation 2011

PT. 1

pt. 2



06/18/2013 20:56

Kenyatta Leal im so proud of you, you've worked hard and its paid off. You've taken the step toward responsiblity, the responsiblity of being a human being, a man, a real man, one that your uncle is so proud of.
Keep the faith, I will see you soon.

Ooyah, Uncle Rey

06/19/2013 11:33

Such a wonderful speech! Education is always the ticket to a better life. You are so articulate and the words you've written are meaningful. I wish you the best of luck in the future as you pay it forward.


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