Most Salinas families expect their children to go to college or learn a valuable trade. Other families expect their children to trade their lives for no value and go to prison. True.

As a volunteer at our local prisons, I’ve seen what happens inside, and outside, of some of the people we send away. Maybe these observations will help some in our neighborhoods weigh their career options.

On TV we see fear, defiance and denial in the faces of people being arraigned. The young ones may act tough and aloof. After all, youth can handle anything. The middle-aged are in shock. The older ones are crushed as lifetimes are washed away.

The last we hear is that they’ve been sent to prison. Their families wail about injustice from the depths of sudden devastation. Victims’ families are satisfied that justice has been served. We figure they’re getting what they deserve, and turn to the sports page.

The new convict is chained to a seat and driven with other malefactors from County Jail usually to San Quentin, for “reception.” The ride up offers the last view they may ever have of the world. The shock of arrival is described as a descent into a terrifying, Dante-esque inferno. Surviving that, they are assigned more permanent accommodations in one of California’s 33 prisons.

Now locked with a blind date in a cell the size of your bathroom, they learn the mindless routines of incarceration. These include eating, sleeping, exercise, and avoiding eye contact. Many learn to cry silently.

At first, family members may visit and write regularly. But after a time, letters are rare and visits stop. “Hell,” lamented one individual, “is never seeing your family again.”  Nobody remembers you. Nobody cares. Your wife may abandon you and your children will be embarrassed about you. On the other hand, sometimes they’ll follow your example.

All you find is the sad, gray, violent world of walls, routines, loudspeakers, handcuffs and razor wire. You’re surrounded by hundreds of predators, enemies and madmen.

Your ethnicity, Black, White, Hispanic or “Other,” becomes your identity. You run with your own kind. Mexicans are divided into Northerners, Southerners and Nationals. If you politely decline affiliation, you are drafted. Inevitably, you’ll be invited to some intramural activity against another team with a simple qualifier: “You in?” The healthiest answer is, “Yeah.” Welcome to the yard.

Then there’s this silly “respect” business. Since nearly everyone there has taken a serious, if not fatal, blow to any shred of self-respect, demanding respect from others ironically becomes the first line of defense. This is not the kind of respect for personal character and accomplishments that we freely exchange on the street. Prison respect is a convoluted form of self-loathing, reversed into demands that others fear and accommodate you.

A man holding a mop claims disrespect because someone wants him to use it. Another with a radio incites violence because he was “disrespected” by someone asking him to turn it down.

The same mentality corrupts Salinas’ own street gangs as they matriculate through Prison Prep. Having little or no self respect, they demand, in your face or at the point of a gun, that we nevertheless respect them — for nothing.  In a dark version of the old plaint, “Just love me for who I am,” respect is redefined as fear and we’re supposed to go along.

Believe it or not, some families nurture this behavior and are as proud of their lifers as others are of their college grads.

Coming:  Part 2, Life in the joint; Part 3, Redemption.