San Francisco Chronicle
by: Meredith May
A group of incarcerated teenage boys at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton slouch in plastic orange chairs, arms crossed, scowling at their tie-clad visitor, whose lecture will eat into their TV time.
Francis “Frankie” Guzman, a 32-year-old lawyer and recipient of a prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship to advocate for juvenile justice, gets right to the point.
“How many of you read ‘Lord of the Flies’? It’s like that in here, right? But which one of you is leading? Do you really want to follow that guy?”
Guzman speaks like he knows what he’s talking about, and the boys, ages 14 to 17, take notice. There’s a perceptible shift as they sit up a little straighter.
Guzman knows exactly what it’s like to wear khaki pants every day and sleep in a cell. When he was 15, he and a friend stole a car and robbed a liquor store at gunpoint in Southern California, resulting in six years behind bars inside the California Youth Authority.
It was the culmination of a childhood defined by tragedy in East Oxnard, an enclave of farmworkers and day laborers where gangs, family and community had blended together over the generations, blurring the lines between loyalty to the street and to the self.
“Kids don’t make smart decisions,” Guzman said. “But ultimately, you are not the worst thing you have done. The weakest thing I did made me the strongest person I am today.”
Soros Justice Fellowship
Guzman, given the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s “Outstanding Achievement Award” in 2007, is now in high demand to speak in low-performing schools, youth lockups and juvenile justice panels around the country. After putting himself through the UCLA School of Law with financial aid and funds from the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship For New Americans, in 2012 he won a coveted Soros Justice Fellowship, a two-year grant that will fund his work at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland to study alternatives to placing youths who are first-time offenders of serious crimes in adult prisons.
He tells his audience that he’s fighting on behalf of them.
“Even though tomorrow is going to be the same, if you take the attitude that you are going to treat yourself seriously, you will feel a little better. Like pennies in a jar, over time it will build,” Guzman said. “You must treat yourself with kindness, even when no one else is.”
After giving him a round of applause, boys line up to ask Guzman whether he can bring them college applications and books on architecture, construction and auto mechanics.
“All I think about while I’m here is when I’ll get out, but he motivated me to think beyond that, to work now on what I want to be in the future,” said one 19-year-old ward from Bakersfield.
‘A man? What is that?’
By any measure, Guzman was not supposed to succeed. When he was 3, his parents divorced and his father abandoned the family. Two years later, his older brother Freddie shot and killed a rival who had beaten him up at a party. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 17 years to life.
“I wanted to go to prison to be with him,” Guzman said. “I used to alter my school ID and put his CDC number underneath my photo.”
When he was in middle school, Guzman heard that his father was caught at the Mexican border with a lot of money and no explanation. The elder Guzman was sent to federal prison on a trafficking charge, Guzman said.
His mother, who worked long hours cleaning homes in upscale Malibu about 30 miles away, routinely reminded her son to do right and “act like a man.”
A crack cocaine epidemic was in full swing in his “La Colonia” neighborhood, and the older men who should have been role models were instead victimizing younger men, robbing them to fuel their addictions. Guzman and his friends began acting tough to ward off attack.
“I’d say to my mother, ‘A man? What is that? Point to one!’ ”
In high school, Guzman became increasingly distracted from his studies, until his GPA dwindled to 0.8. Shortly after, he was expelled, in connection with a fight in the boys’ restroom he says he didn’t join.
Armed robbery at age 15
Two weeks later, Guzman and a friend took two ski masks from a Kmart, stole a car from the parking lot, drove to a liquor store with guns they bought on the street, and then pointed them at the clerk. They made off with $300. Guzman was 15.
Their getaway lasted just 30 minutes. By then, a squad car had caught up to them and pulled them over.
“Our crime was in broad daylight. I already had $350 in my pocket from installing septic systems with my uncle. It was so, so stupid,” Guzman said.
He was operating on co-dependency kid logic, he said, and it was his undoing.
When the friend first proposed the crime, Guzman initially protested. “But when he said he was going to do it without me, I thought, man, if something happens to him … I had better go and watch his back.”
The judge sentenced Guzman to 15 years in the California Youth Authority facility in Whittier. Guzman earned his high school diploma as an inmate – twice. Once he passed the equivalency exam in his first year, he continued to go to classes so he could learn more. While he was on the inside, his favorite uncle died at 38 after a long addiction to alcohol and heroin. In the same year, his best friend died after rival gang members stabbed him 15 times in the neck.
Guzman was released after three years for good behavior, but once back in his old neighborhood, he went to parties where he drank alcohol and socialized with gang members – both of which are violations of parole – and he was sent him back to the Youth Authority for another year.
At 19, Guzman was released again and found work assembling mini-blinds in a factory and fetching shopping carts at Sam’s Club. They were dead-end jobs, and Guzman didn’t want to “fade into wallpaper.” He kept hearing his uncle’s words: “Work with your brain, not your body, because your brain will never give out on you.”
Guzman quit and enrolled at Oxnard College, the local community college. He walked on campus and saw a sight he’d never seen before: A Latino man in a suit. It was the dean. Guzman stared, transfixed. He told himself right then that he would wear a suit one day, too.
Guzman threw himself into sociology and English classes. He joined student government and was sent to leadership conferences to places he’d never been: Portland, Ore., Florida, Chicago. He got a job in PACE, the Program for Accelerated Education, mentoring adults returning to school at night.
Then his old neighborhood came back to haunt him. When a friend of Guzman’s was arrested for robbing a store, Guzman was implicated and jailed. Although he was released two months later after parole officials determined Guzman was innocent, by then Guzman had lost his job and his student government position and fallen too far behind in his classes to salvage the semester.
Guzman was ashamed. He became depressed and gave up on himself, with predictable consequences. Soon after, he was pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. He was sent back to the California Youth Authority for two more years. He had just turned 23.
Back in a cell, Guzman this time had a better understanding of what he had sacrificed. He enrolled in drug counseling classes, took a job in the package warehouse and was elected by his fellow inmates to serve as their grievance counselor.
Frees ward from solitary
Guzman discovered he enjoyed being an advocate. When a fellow ward was beaten by guards and quietly placed in solitary confinement, Guzman said, the boy was able to scream through the pipes to the cell above that he was in pain. Guzman insisted on having access to “the hole,” and threatened to report obstructionist guards to administrators. Guzman was overjoyed when the boy was removed from solitary and given medical treatment.
When Guzman was released again at 24, he decided that six years total behind bars was enough. He was done with Oxnard.
“The place was killing me,” he said.
So Guzman did the unthinkable. He applied for admission to UC Berkeley. “I thought, aim ridiculously high, because what’s the point in setting the bar low and then failing?”
He got into the four UC schools he applied to, but chose Berkeley based on its reputation. At the time, he couldn’t have pointed to it on a map.
But he got there, maintained a 3.2 grade-point average, and found a public policy internship at the Greenlining Institute, leading a petition drive to freeze state tuition increases. The job entailed high-power meetings with education officials. He bought his first suit.
After graduation, he found work in Oakland, assisting John O’Toole, the director of the National Center for Youth Law.
Law school support
“I have supervised about 500 law students, many of them are talented and come from privileged backgrounds,” O’Toole wrote in a reference letter for Guzman. “Frankie is among the top 10 in terms of a combination of intellectual capacity, leadership potential and strength of character.”
It took Guzman two more years to work up the nerve to apply to law school. UCLA said yes. Once there, he served as president of the La Raza Law Students Association, and Pacific regional director of the National Latino Law Students Association. With each new title, he acquired more pride, and more suits.
“It’s fair to say few law students have to deal with things Frankie has to on a daily basis,” said UCLA law Professor Sharon Dolovich, who helped Guzman set up a student legal team to counsel his older brother, now 43 and still in prison, through the parole process. “It’s a credit to his grit and determination and the admissions offices at various institutions of higher learning who recognized his potential.”
Nearly 50 people showed up for his 2012 law school graduation, including some of his old friends from back home. His mother, who is disabled now from years of cleaning, and two sisters – one who works at Subway and the other who is raising three children – were in the front row. Guzman hosted a catered party on the quad for the La Raza students, with mariachis, paid for with $6,000 collected through La Raza fundraisers.
“It was the best day of my life,” he said.
‘Moral character’ test
Until Wednesday, Jan. 30. That’s when Guzman found out, after a 14-month delay, that he’d finally passed the final, “moral character” portion of the California State Bar. In fall 2012, he passed the written exam, but when he checked a box on his application indicating he had prior convictions, he triggered an intense moral character review of his application to practice law. Guzman submitted 19 letters of recommendation in a process that for most applicants is a straightforward background check. As he waited for the outcome, he worried every day that he wouldn’t be considered good enough.
“When I got the news, it felt a little strange,” Guzman said. “I’m conditioned to being in the hustle, the grind and always jumping over the next big obstacle. Now there are no more hurdles.”
That same day, Guzman won his first case – an administrative hearing for a girl expelled for fighting in a San Francisco public school. He argued that the girl had not been receiving the special education services to which she was entitled.
“I can’t believe it’s really happening,” Guzman said. “I didn’t run toward a goal, I ran from danger. Success was an afterthought. All I knew was what I didn’t want.”