This week's bonus episode of incarceration stories features one of the most traumatic childhood narratives we've heard to date. Charles Carpenter grew up in the early era of gang violence in Los Angeles. He shared his story of becoming a gang member, going to juvenile hall, the California Youth Authority and a life sentence in prison to his transformation and becoming the author of four books. Please listen to Charles' raw and painful story.
Charles was born in Los Angeles in 1969, he was raised in both L.A. and Pomona, California. Charles was arrested at 32 years old for first degree murder and was sentenced to 37 years to life. Charles’ earliest release date is in 2029 under the Elderly Parole Program. He has written several books including his autobiography, titled, “Handcuffed,” telling his story about how he got to where he is today.
Charles’ early years were filled with trauma and abuse. He remembers his dad hitting his mom when he was just a small child. Him and his mom tried getting away from his father when he was young, they moved from city to city, and eventually ended up in Pomona. It was there he would get involved with the Crips. This was during an especially violent time in gang culture.
Charles was 9 years old when he first started hanging out with the older gang members. He looked up to them as role models, because he was missing a male presence in his life. The gang world is a backwards world, they treated anyone who did well in school as chumps, and squares. He learned from his father to have a negative view of authority figures.
When Charles was 12 years old, just entering the 7th grade, he and his brother were walking home from school and were getting tired of walking. Charles had a box cutter in his pocket and while another kid was riding by on his bike, they robbed him and took his bike. It turned out the person he robbed was a classmate of his and he got arrested when he went to school.
He went to juvenile hall, where murderers and gang members were held with him, this was his first taste of being in the system. In the gang culture, going to juvenile hall was basically your way of working up the ranks. It was your way of getting respect from the people that you look up to. While getting moved around to different juvenile facilities, he was placed in a community program. At one of these community programs, his counselor was not going to allow him to go home for the weekend, so Charles grabbed a broomstick from the closet, and hit him in the eye with it.
He got arrested on the spot, adding assault to his charges. They ordered he spend 36 weeks at a long term camp. On June 3, 1983, at age 13, Charles got transferred to Camp Scott. “Military Operation” is used to describe Camp Scott. It's a tough place that is designed to teach you discipline and the value of an education. One of the counselors had a big impact on Charles as a kid, Mr. Washington was a tough, former gang member that wanted the kids to succeed. He inspired Charles to learn something new everyday.
John H. Johnson, the founder of Ebony Magazine's success story inspired Charles to learn more about him and the importance of an education. Mr. Hill was another counselor that had an impact on Charles during his time at Camp Scott. He would often give the kids speeches after lunch. In one of his speeches, he brought up some statistics about how many would go home, versus how many would end up in prison or dead. That resonated with Charles, and everything Mr. Hill said that day came true.
Charles then went to the California Youth Authority (CYA), if someone underage gets charged with a horrible crime they get sentenced to the California Youth Authority until they turn 25. Charles was housed at Fred C. Nelles, in Wittier, California. In Charles' words, this place was ‘gladiator school’. If you went through Fred C. Nelles, you learned how to fight. It was a daily requirement there. This only helped to further Charles’ violence mindset.
In 1997, Charles and Queenya got married, Charles still had an abusive mindset from growing up in the environments he did. He got arrested for domestic violence in 1997, and in 2000. There was a warrant out for his arrest during the second domestic violence charge which landed him in prison. While he was in prison during this time, his wife cheated on him with another member of his gang, and gave birth while Charles was in prison. He held onto this resentment and wouldn’t let it go.
In 2002, Charles was released from prison. His wife was there to pick him up from prison, by the time they got back home she had asked Charles to go with her to pick up some cocaine. While they were selling cocaine together, Charles’ rage, his violent mindset and his resentment culminated in an act of violence. In 2002, Charles murdered Queenya.
In 2003, he went to the hole for fighting and received a Rules Violation Report (RVR) in 2015 for having a cellphone, but has largely stayed out of trouble since being in prison. He started his journey to change suddenly one night when he decided to get rid of that part of his life and change. He started studying the Bible and learning about empathy and how to have an empathetic life. He began to refuse to be called by his gang nickname ‘Dillinger’, and was soon picked on and tested about his loyalty to the gang. Charles took a stand for his new changes and didn’t participate.
He started realizing how much pain he caused the parents and the family of his wife, as well as the pain he caused his mom, family members and community. Charles joined several groups that helped spread the Word and ideas of the bible. Charles tried writing letters to the victim’s family but they told the prison to stop sending the letters. He recently wrote a letter of remorse and sent it to the governor for approval.
Charles has written 5 books since being in prison: his autobiography, “Handcuffed” telling his entire story, a book about the hostile and divided prison environment - “Colors of Oppression”, a book about the steps he took to get away from the gang culture - “Contradictions: The Unveiling of the Mask”, a book about going through turmoil and coming out of the other side better for it - “The Making of a Diamond”, and a book about how people in powerful positions help to separate the class system - “The Anatomy of Urban Genocide”.
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