In this episode of the Amplified Voices Podcast, Amber & Jason speak with special guest, Iran Nazario, about his turbulent childhood, experience in the foster care system,
periods of homelessness and his subsequent immersion in the violent street culture of gang membership. He discusses his involvement in the criminal legal system from the age of fifteen through his twenties. Iran also shares the inspirational story of how a chance encounter set him on a journey to repurpose himself to be a force for change, helping youth to avoid his childhood path. In 2016, he founded the Peace Center of Connecticut where he serves as President/CEO. More information about the Peace Center can be found at http://www.peacecenterofct.org
[00:00:00] Intro: Everyone has a voice. A story to tell. Some are marginalized and muted. What if there was a way to amplify those stories to have conversations with real people in real communities. A way to help them step into the power of their lived experience? Welcome, to Amplified Voices, a podcast lifting the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system. Together we can create positive change for everyone.
[00:00:34] Jason: Hello. Welcome, to an episode of Amplified Voices with me, your host Jason and my co-host Amber. Good morning, Amber.
[00:00:43] Amber: Good morning, Jason.
[00:00:44] Jason: And today we have Iran from Hartford. Good morning, Iran.
Iran: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Jason: Thank you for coming on. So as you know, the Amplified Voices podcast talks to people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. We are very thankful that you agreed to come on. I know you personally through our interactions over the past year, and I would like you to start by telling a little bit about yourself, your story and how you got involved with the criminal justice system.
Iran: Sure. So first, thank you for having me again. My name is Iran Nazario. I was born to a drug addicted mom due to domestic violence and abuse that she sustained at the hands of my father. She was originally in New York with my father. After the abuse, she suffered some pretty serious injuries and was transported to Hartford. She was pregnant with me at the time, and her injuries forced her to have a Cesarian section in emergency childbirth. And due to that experience, she had fractured ribs, a fractured eye socket and a broken jaw due to the beating that she took from my father. And upon being released from my father, she ended up succumbing to the opioids and the drugs that they give her at the hospital for the Cesarian section, but also for the other injuries she sustained, I would say maybe it within a year's time, she was a full grown addict, and that kind of spiraled her life out of control. Even more than that, it was due to the abuse.
Jason: Were you, her first child.
Iran: I was for a second, and she tried to do what she could, and we ended up moving into the north end of Hartford. Sands is the name of the complex we lived in, and we were one of the only Latino families in Sands of mostly African American community at the time. And my mom again fought through this battle with addiction and eventually realized that we were more valuable due to the checks that she was receiving from the state than we were as children, and by that, I mean, is that she started using us as income and getting high and doing all the things that she needed to do. So by the age of six, my mom had again a full blown addiction. She started prostituting and selling herself in the north end of Hartford, so I would see as a young man, John's coming in and out of the house to have sex with my mom. We shared a one bedroom apartment, and we pretty much were witnesses to a number of those acts that my mom performed. So as a young person being so young, my brother and I, we were really believing that this was a normalized state of existing because again we were children, and that was our lesson. That was our school. So My mom ends up becoming pregnant from two individuals she was working with and what she was doing. And so I ended up having two additional siblings that were born from that lifestyle, so we eventually were reported to the Department of Children and Families and were removed from my mother's care and placed in foster care.
Jason: How old were you at that point?
Iran: I believe I was six or seven years old. I had a number of injuries that I had sustained from my mom. She began to abuse me physically, and part of the reason why is because I looked like my dad and she would get hot and punish me for it. So I grew up believing that pain was love. And that's what I, just bear with me for a second, because I remember now knowing more that there were certain things I would do to people in certain instances where I got into violent encounters that had a direct connection to my mother being abused, my mom abusing me etc. So we were removed and my oldest brother and I were sent to a foster care home in New Jersey. My youngest brother was sent to Puerto Rico to live with grandmother, and my youngest sister was sent to a family who adopted her and took her away. That separation of my family was brutal and it was punishing, that's what I knew. So this is a strange world for me.
Jason You're with one of your siblings
Iran: Yeah, my oldest brother In New Jersey. So we eventually were claimed by my dad through the courts, and he was granted custody of us and we moved into his house in Brooklyn, New York, And while we were there, we realized pretty quickly that the abuse mentality that my dad had hadn't stopped. So he began to abuse us as well. And a few years later, we were removed from his care for child abuse and placed back into the foster care system and then given back to my mom, who was still battling addiction. And we moved on to a street called Willard Street Harford, which is on the west end of Hartford and we were there. I was a little older, so I was able to see things a little bit differently and my mom was now selling drugs with a younger boyfriend that she had was also an addict and, you know, our life was in turmoil. Somehow we went to school every day. Somehow we just happened to manage. I don't know how people weren't catching it, but it is what happened then and eventually around the age of 11 or 12, my mom was arrested for selling drugs in the apartment. And I remember that being my first experience with the criminal justice system and by the criminal justice system, I mean police, law enforcement in that capacity. I have been involved with DCF in the DCF worker, but I don't remember police being involved in that. This is when I first have a recollection and they kicked the door down. Officer ran into my room, guns drawn and grabbed me by my hair. I had long curly hair at the time and brought me to the hallway and put me on my knees and threatened to throw me down the stairs if I didn’t tell him where my mom had the drugs.;
[00:06:07] Amber: And this is at 11 years old,
[00:06:10] Iran. 11 years, 11 or 12 years old. And when that all happened,
Jason: Yeah that's totally normal.
Iran. Yeah, yeah, yeah.. I'll never forget the guy's name, what they called him. His nickname was Russian, and I remember I remember the officers saying hey Rush, Rush, we got it over here, whatever. And And that's what one of those things that just gets etched into your brain that you'll never forget. So that was my first interactions. My mom is arrested and they're calling for my neighbor
Jason: And they’re treating you like a co conspirator.
Iran: Absolutely. My brother was at my neighbor's house at the time, so he didn't get to witness it My neighbor stepped in and said that she was family, so they left me with her waiting for the Department of Children to come back. So by the time they got there, I ran away. So my brother stayed with the family, they ended up moving with him to Ohio. and I remain here by myself. So now I'm homeless, about 12 or 13 years old, that I'm sleeping in my friend Jose's father's van, who he's sneaking me into his father's van so I”m sleeping there at night and then of a gentleman by the name of Steve Warner, who managed the property in the building where we lived. He would also open the basement door for me and let me sleep in the basement of the complex. So that's how I survived for a few months.
Jason: So you’re going to school?
Iran: I'm out of school now, and I remember I went back. I'll go into a story and I'll tell you how I got back. But I was homeless for some time. And then I meet this woman who was a little bit older than me. She had two kids, but by the time I met her,I was growing a facial hair, and I appear to be a lot older than I was and when you’re homeless s and you are walking, the streets with homeless individuals and people, you grow up real fast, and I was growing up super fast, but I had didn't have that child kind of experience, understand, an adult experience. I will pretty fast, and I believe in that and thought like an adult, even though I was not ready to be one. So I got into this relationship with her, and that's when I was able to start going back to school. So I went back to school. And then I dropped out when I was 15 or so because I stabbed her a number of times. One of the things that I saw in her, I didn't see a partner, I saw Mom. And because I was so young, I didn't. My mom had done so much to me and to hurt me that I felt that this woman trying to break up with me, I took it as a very hurtful situation. And being as young as I was, I didn't know how to respond. And I have seen every action of my life being dictated by violence. So I thought that if I was violent towards her, I could control her. And so I did. And I went and I went above and beyond what any person is supposed to go as far as trying to injure someone. And I stabbed her about three times and I was arrested and I was arrested for that. I got a 3.5 year sentence for the assault, so I ended up going on Morgan Street, which was
Jason: so how old were you at that point?
Iran: I'm 15 going on 16
Jason: were you treated as a 15 year old? Or do you feel that you were treated as somebody who's an adult who's been in the system a long time? And also, I'd like you to comment. Do you think your race was brought in in terms of how you were treated?
Iran: You know what? It's hard to tell back then, as far as the race part. But I know that every officer that responded was male white mostly. And I believe that in my interactions when my mom's door was kicked down and I was pulled by my hair. I think that has something to do with race being Latino and and all of that. I'm not sure so much with the assault. But the system, definitely. I was treated, I believe, by race because And I was placed in Morgan Street, which was an adult facility, primarily, and I was a kid and it put me in the bullpen in the Morgan Street, which was a dilapidated, broken down, pretty much facility, and it was my first time being around adult males in that capacity, and I don't know, you know, for those people that haven't been incarcerated. They strip you down between a shower , make sure that you don't have any lice or whatever the case might be in. As a young man, I was, like, my first time ever having to be completely exposed and naked in front of grown men who are corrections officers doing that - to spread your butt cheeks. And they, you know, all this stuff that they asked you to do as a child. Really? I have to do this, I got sent over to ah Manson Youth Institute, and that was kind of like the start of my journey with the criminal justice system from the inside. But before that, I'd like to mention that I only saw my public defender once or twice during my whole time, and I only saw a court investigator I believe one time and I never saw a counselor for youth advocate or anybody else that could say this young person has been abused since he was a child, has been in our custody or in Foster care, has been abused by his father, has been involved with the mom who was a drug addict. Let's consider those things before we say this person is a evil young man. And that's where I think the system treated me very unfairly. And listen, I look back and I'm very apologetic and sad about what I did to her, she and I are friends now. I was tall, but I was a child, and I had an ugly way of coping with my anger and things that I was feeling, I didn't have any healing. So I ended up going to prison. And now I'm exposed to a whole new level.
Jason: I'm sorry the stabbing happened when you were 15? And when did you actually go to this youth facility?
Iran: About 16.
Jason: So So now you're 16 years old, you're walking in there, treating you just like your this person who's evil, and you're in a facility with folks who are, some of them have backgrounds probably similar to yours, and some probably don't, right?
[00:11:56] Amber: And so I want to unpack a little bit, because I really I'm hearing what you're saying around this idea of trauma and the different touch points that could have possibly happened. Yeah, for you to intervene as a child with so much trauma, you know, whether it was DCF, whether it was a teacher, whether it was someone who could have intervened in your life to show you another way, because all you knew it sounds like was violence and violence was a normal thing in your life and a mechanism for you to interact with people. Am I hearing that right?
[00:12:36] Iran: It was and you are hearing it right. I remember a teacher by the name of Ms. Piskor. She was the only teacher that ever came to my complex looking for m while I was in school and I remember my mom telling her get away, it’s none of your business or whatever the case might be. And I remember vividly when I was going to quit middle school, fighting in the basement. Fighting was my mechanism, so someone invited me to fight someone addressed me in a certain way I was easily irritated, and I would respond. What I felt was accordingly, obviously, you know better now. So you know that's not the proper way. But you're right. I think that's one of those touch points that they missed. You know, it's unquestioning kind of addiction that I had to violence. So now I'm in Cheshire and it was interesting because before I went to Chester, you know, I hung out with everyone in Hartfordt and it’s a lot of violence between Hartford and Springfield. Town on town violence. People didn't get along with each other and all that. So when I went there, it was now, like the whole city versus another city, Waterbury, Waterbury Kids would fight Hartford kids and so on and so forth. And then if New York was there, the all three factions of Hartford, Waterbury would get together and fight New York. It was just like this chaos of loyalties and partnerships and conflict that were a part of growing up incarcerated and then one of the things that was clear for me that I learned from that system was made for power and control. And the more powerful you were, the stronger you are, the more pushups you did the better. You were more power. Who had the focus? Very little on the psychology of a person the academic success of a person. It really was be a strong as you can, because you have to fight through all of this. So I didn't really heal from that. If anything, I got bigger. I went in weighing about 130 lbs and came out with about 230. I mean, I was a huge I got huge and 3.5 years and it was a lot of dips, a lot of push ups, a lot of carbs. You know how they feed you in prison and inside, pretty much went through puberty, you know, I came out in 19 I was 20 I think at the time I came home and now I'm back out. And now I'm this what I call a tank of aggression that's easily irritated by having more power, more weight behind that surround dangerous. But I'm also an asset to the gang life and the gang members that existed because they're like he's coming out. We need him to do this and that and what I was looking for was looking for family. I was looking for that kind of. I was the easy pickin.
Jason: so if you go back to Amber's point earlier about trauma leading up to even going into this incarcerated situation while you were there, there were missed opportunities for programs that could have given you an education that could have helped you in terms of emotionally. But instead you were left to do all these things you describe, become bigger, Tougher. Basically, it was a self fulfilling prophecy. They labeled you as this thing, right, that you evolved into gaining 100 lbs, gaining muscle. And so now you walk out and you’re telling us that the gangs just said this guy's got to be one of us. We need him. We need him on our team.
Iran: Yeah, in Cheshire. That would send you to the school unit. But it wasn't mandatory if you wanted to pursuing. Pursue it again. I don't remember ever seeing a counselor. I could be wrong. Maybe I saw it once or twice. I remember a visitor I got, a priest that came to see me from Hartford. He made it his business to visit kids that he knew from here. I think I got that one visit in all the time I was incarcerated there, so yeah, you come out and you're lost. He wouldn't realize that never been incarcerated from realizing When you come home, everything has changed so drastically that none of the connections that you have, family members that you have are the same. People have dispersed or moved or whatever. So you come out to nothing. I can.
Jason: You didn't have the most stable home to come back to in the first place. So it wasn't like somebody's there with a plate of cookies saying, Come on home, You know, we're gonna take care of you. It was Where do you go?
Iran: Right. So I got sent to a halfway house then I was released, but the halfway house couldn't reach anyone. So when I was released from the halfway house, I had to pretty much, you know, figure it out. So I ended up back on the streets and getting back out and not having a real path; that started my in and out with prison. Because we're one thing that's true with all the policing of communities in the way they are and things of that nature, the more you're unstable, the more free time you have to hang on the block, the more interactions are gonna happen with police and the more arrests are going to happen because you're out there. And it could be any minimal crime that they want to use to just get you off the block. Loitering breach of peace, breach of peace and loitering are probably one of the easiest ways for any officer to do anything they wanted to you. Literally. You could be walking down the block and pull you over just to see where you are, harass you and say we're going to take you for breaching peace. And now again, you spiral out of control. You start developing and anger and resentment towards officers in the system. So you’re back in the system and they're checking you again and going into your private areas.
Jason: Where are you living at this point? Are you in Hartford? Are you homeless? You said halfway house. So I mean, are you out of a halfway house
Iran: I’m out of the halfway house and I'm staying in different places. I'm staying with friends, girlfriends, you know, girls I met just the other day. You know, that say let's hang out for a couple of weeks and whatever. And then I bounced to another place. I literally have lived in every corner of the city because literally, I was transient, like I was all over.
Jason: So do the police know you?
Iran: No, they don't know me yet trying to figure out who I am because one of the things that I've always been and anyone that you will meet will tell you, this has always been my demeanor. Unless you flip that switch once that switch will fip, I go into another person. So officers wouldn't see me regularly because I wasn't walking around being loud and boisterous and being obnoxious or punching somebody for no reason for me.
Jason: It was a spring.
Iran: Yeah, I was just kind of navigate through the community and I went back to prison a number of times. But when I went back one of the last times before my federal indictment, I'll talk a little bit about that. I went back for an assault that I had on a girl I mets brother who didn't want me with her. And we got until fight and I assaulted him and all that. So I was arrested and I went back to prison and I came out and the gangs were here. Solidos, The Latin Kings, 20 Loves all these gangs started to form and get bigger and bigger and bigger in the city. So when I came out of doing a 90 day sentence for assault third, here in Hartford at the Meadows, I came home against to nothing. And now everyone's in a gang. They're yellow and black bees red and boobies, green and white bees blue and white beats everywhere. What is going on? What is this? So people were trying to actively recruit me for all the gangs because I knew people at all the gangs. So and I finally ended up joining the Solidos, the solid ones, because my brother was in Los Solidos, I went with my brother once, but I had cousins on the other side, and it was a weird feeling because you have to go from loving them to want to kill them and vice versa. Which is it happens so quickly, and you have to develop that kind of heart to do that. But thankfully, I never had to kill any of my cousins are or anything like that. But yeah, you get thrust back in there. And that's kind of where we started. A member of other criminal justice involved incidents where I was being arrested simply for wearing the color of the game. And this is where they started to notice.
[00:20:15] Amber: So can I just go back again to something that really struck me? That you said? As you're talking here, you talk about Well, I was just transient. I was trying to just have somewhere to be. And then when you came out, it was this whole new world. So in my mind, I'm thinking, First of all, it seems like you were looking for acceptance. You're looking for a safe spot to lay your head, if you will. And then what I hear you saying is when you came out, it was this whole new world and you had to kind of choose. And it was more of a survival to choose what gang to be a part of because that was the new world that you were thrust into after incarceration. So when you talk about, why would somebody get involved with a gang? You know, it just doesn't sound like something that is a positive thing to do, but unpacking why that would happen to someone.
[00:21:08] Iran: Yeah. I mean, you hit it on the head because I think that when you're going through everything that I was going through, options are limited in your reasoning is limited and you don't necessarily see the consequences of joining the gang as something different than you experienced by not being in the gang because by not being in the gang was I was still going to jail. I was still fighting on the streets. I was still being targeted by systems that weren't helping me. So joining the gang was just a way of finding a level of support that I didn’t have all my life and to be associated with a team of people that I felt loved me and cared about me. It's simple. The simple things that we want is to be loved and appreciated and accepted and cared for, right? So if we find that in that system and that's the only exposure that you have, you don't know the other options. You don't know about college, you don't know about being able to work for this. And you really don't know any of that. So you go where you feel your most safe, most protected. If that makes sense, you learn later on that it's not the best thing for you. But at the moment, you're like, this is it. This is what I have and you make that choice. So yeah, you're right. I think that there is a lot that goes into that. But I think your life experience will limit your choices. And many times it's not of your choosing of your own kind of design. It was just placed there for you. And those are the opportunities that present themselves. And that's one of the things that many people don't realize about that kind of lifestyle. And many times you're caught up in that cycle and very see anything else.
[00:22:39] Amber: Yeah, I'm sorry. I just thought that was a really important point in terms of the story and helping the viewers understand. So tell us a little bit about what happens next.
[00:22:49] Iran: Yes. So now I'm out there. And with this gang and I remember walking down the street on Park Street in Hartford and the gang task force have been created to kind of smother or arrest or target gangs or suppress the gangs, you know, whatever term you want to use. So I remember walking down Park Street, have my beads on. It was mandatory for you to wear your colors everywhere you went.
Jason: So, what year is this?
Iran: This is 91 92.
Iran”: so I'm wearing my beads and walking and gang task force drives up. And they started saying, Come here, let me talk to you. I haven’t done anything wrong. I was just walking down the street with my beads on. When I do something wrong I take responsibility. I was walking down the street, minding my business, wearing my colors heading somewhere, and they parked their car in front of me. Say, hey, coming to talk to you. And back then you saw that as normal, you know, whatever. I'm a gang member. They're cops. So they have a right to stop me, right? So they did. And they used to take Polaroid cameras, and it would take a picture of you so they could keep it in a car. And know who you were. And then write your name on the Poloroid picture, and the guy says, I don't know you. Who are you? And I said, I'm so and so, so Okay, you have a nickname? Yeah I have a nickname, Smurf, he goes okay. I've never seen you before, so we're gonna keep an eye on you. And then before he left, he said it really loud. He goes. Thanks for that information, buddy. And he jumped in the car and left. And if you know the streets and you know that you hear a detective say thanks for the information like that, you know, that puts you at risk. Luckily, we have become familiar with the tactic. So people knew that that was just a way for them to try to get me messed up or whatever. So that's kind of like where my life started going. And then we went to war with four of the major gangs in the city over different disputes and that's where the body started to drop all over the place. And they call in the state police and the FBI, and then that may make us even more of a target for harassment and humiliation and threats and beatings and all the things that come with, ah, suppression tactic. Right? So we started being chased all the time and hunted all the time. I remember a scenario where the officers were producing police cars and take us to the cemetery and beat us up for information or trying to get information. Remember other incidents where they would get you in the car, mace inside the car, lock all the windows and doors to try to, you know, punish you before they took you to the holding blocks at Morgan Street and Meadows. So I mean, that's kind of like where my life went and eventually I got an opportunity and I won't share that story, its a long story, but I just wanted to say this. I got an opportunity by someone to get my first real glimpse of what outside of Hartford looked like. This is a gentleman who was a professor at the University of Connecticut School of social work. And he was doing a research project in 1994, I believe, for what they called disproportionate minority hiring in construction companies and others. And I remember the story vividly because just bear with me, this is hilarious, but beautiful at the same time. He pulled up in a convertible or yellow convertible Mercedes Benz, okay, in my hood, middle of the day, top down, dressed in a suit. So I'm on the corner with four brothers, and we're just hanging out and whatever. We had a building that was dedicated to our gang and was called Central Office, which is interesting because Central Office and that's where all the major like leaders will have meetings and stuff , So we have that building and we were right outside the building. He gets out, and he starts walking towards us. So, picture this for a minute, go there with me for a minute. Here you are in this gang, right? We have 1800 members strong , we’re at war with other gangs. Here comes this guy walking in the suit, getting out of a convertible Mercedes and he's walking toward us. We're thinking three things. One, this got to be an FBI agent , we have to run. Two, this guy must have a lot of money and wants drugs. Three, he has a convertible Mercedes Benz in a suit. He has money we could rob him, right. Those are the three things. So he gets close to us and he pulls out a form and says Hi, my name is Dr Michael Barreiro, and I'm doing a study on disproportionate minority hiring. And I want to talk to you. In my job, I'm illiterate. I dropped out of school. I really don't know what disproportionate minority hiring means. The brothers are like, What the hell did he say, when I don't know what he said. Well, you're gonna get up. And so now we get into our more like this guy's not a risk because he's not an FBI agent. He's not here to buy drugs. He says something really funny and crazy that we don’t understand. So that's what I'm have it. So we start, you know, whatever. And I think I got to give it to him. He had a heart of steel. He was not afraid. He said, OK, brothers, you know, I mean no disrespect guys. He started walking back to his car. We started coming after him. A couple of us had guns and he's running like we're getting irritated and he say, I love him for this, He said, Here's my card. He drops it and he takes off and before he takes off, he goes, I'll pay you guys $15 an hour This is real man and that hit me like, Wow, $15 an hour was a lot of money. You know, you don't have anything like Wow, $15 an hour. So I acted tough when I was talking, but I picked up his business card and I put it in my pocket and I went back to the brothers. I'm like, Yeah, I told him. I told him, you know, acting. But in my head I’m thinking $15 an hour. So I didn't calling for a while because I went back to jail for another assault and then back again because of another assault. So I was kind of spiraling out of control, so I had hit rock bottom. I got out for another 90 day sentence for just a fight that I had with someone
Jason: Mid twenties now?
Iran: Yeah, mid- twenties now, So I get out , and I have no direction, man, like literally nowhere to go. I think I'm feeling beat down at this point, I haven't got any resource. They didn’t send me to any programs? Still, the system wasn't doing anything to help me. So I'm back out on the street and I'm hopelesss man I'm just, like, completely sunken. I've lost pretty much all my contacts. People got tired of me being arrested and back and forth and stuff, So I'm kind of going back to being homeless. A guy named Texado or gave me an opportunity to stay with him for a few months, and you can only stay here for a few months, but you gotta go back. And I got other stuff I got to do. So luckily for me, I reached into the pocket of these old pants. And guess who's card I found? Michael Barreiro.
Iran: Fate was ready for me. I guess so. I called him from a pay phone, Remember payphones? I got a few quarters and I called him. When I did, he shockingly surprised me when I said to him, Hey, I want to talk to Michael and he answers the phone and says Who is this? And I used my nickname Smurf, and I said, This is Smurf. And he goes Smurf. Oh, I remember you. He remembered me because when the brothers said Smurf, he heard it. He remembered it and said I remember you from last year or something like that. You were on Park Street and I wanted to offer you a job and I said, Yeah, that's me. What's up? And he goes, Oh, man, I missed you. When I heard that, I hung up the phone because no one had ever told me that mu entire life I missed you so to me, in my heart, I thought that he was trying to come on to me and be romantic, so I felt disrespected. I just want you to know that that's how traumatized and hurt I was and vulnerable was.
Jason: So even when someone tries to do something nice for you, you're looking at it through the lens of what you grew up with, which is a lot of skepticism right. He's got to be trying to hurt me in some way.
Iran : Exactly. So I hang up and I don't call them for a few months. I'm struggling. I'm all over the place. I'm not seeing much light. And so I called him back, and he answers the phone again. And I say can I speak with Michael, this is Michael. I said, this is Smurf. Before you say anything, what do you mean by you miss me? I want to make sure it was clear. He said, No man. I meant to say that I missed the opportunity to connect with you because I think that you could really help me in the project that I'm doing. And I said, cool, so you're still paying $15 an hour? He said yeah, I'm still doing that. That's still the amount. I said, I want the job because I need the money. Well, if you want money, you have to come to West Hartford School of Social Work. I said, oh hell no. I'm not going to West Hartford, if I go to West Hartford, I'm going to jail. I'm Puerto Rican. Puerto Ricans don't go to West Hartford, but that's what we thought, You know, we thought that we didn't belong there – I’m in Hartford, which is, I'm not living, but I'm kind of roaming around Asylum Avenue, which is literally five minutes 10 minute drive in to West Hartford. So I'm not far away, but it's a world of apart for me So he says if you want the job, that’s what you gotta do bro. Uh oh, man, I gotta got to West Hartford. I'm gonna go to jail is exactly what I thought. So I get on a city bus and I'm shaking and I'm as terrified as I've ever been because I'm going into a place that I don't belong. And I'm on the bus and I'm not being disrespectful.
Jason: You know, we're gonna have listeners all over the country, and, you know, people might not be familiar. So Harford is a city. West Hartford is very affluent suburb that as Iran is explaining, even though it's very close, it could be on another planet.
Iran: Absolutely so I’m on the bus and the further we go into West Hartford, out of Hartford, the more white people get on the bus and the less people of color on the bus and that's just my reality. That's what I saw. And this is my first time ever being around white people without being incarcerated , or in DCF custody. So I didn't have many good, positive experiences with white people. That's just my reality. And so I get to the campus and it really is its own village because to me again, I'm from a different place and I see all these chairs hustling and bustling with backpacks and bookbags and where are they going, what's like, What's going on? Why is everyone in such a hurry Like and I see them playing sports I've never seen in my life, you know, like you know, that little ball, We didn't play that out in my neighborhood, and they’re playing all these things, and I'm like what? Like like, what is? This is a whole new planet for me. So I go to the third floor and people are looking at me weird. I have my gang colors on, by the way, just so you know. So I'm at the University of School of social, and I got all my gang paraphernalia on and all that and I'm walking through the hallways asking people where Mike is. So I'm sure there are, like, Well, you What are you here to do? We know. So I finally get to Mike and he's just a very unique individual. He comes up to me, goes, Hey, Smurf, he goes to hug me, you know? And I'm like bro back up, man. Like, because again, I didn't grow up around that affection with people, especially adult men coming at me that my dad wasn't treating me like that the brothers that I had, it was a different thing. He says no disrespect…So we sat down. I didn't know how to fill out an application. I didn't have any of that ability, so he helped me fill out an application. I never filed taxes and all that stuff that was going to get a job and I was on a contract. It was more like a temporary thing until I proved myself. But it was the first time I had learned about accountability because he was teaching you that. But then he said, one of the things that you have to do in order to get this job. You have to speak in front of one of my social work classes. So this is Ah, undergrad class for up and coming social workers. So he asked me to tell my story in front of this class. So talk about being scared, man.
[00:34:34] Amber: Oh, that's daunting.
[00:34:36] Iran: So you kidding me? So I go in front of this calls and he goes, Hey, but the way said it and he will tell you this story because he knows it's truth. He said, Hey, guys, I have a real special treat for you today. All of you that are getting into social work. You have to know what the lives of people that are struggling are like. So I have a real authentic gang member. I know the word authentic now. So, like now I understand it. But back then again, I don't know what authentic was. Yes, I spoke for about 30 seconds. I promise you, with about 30 seconds, I said, Hi. My name is Smurf, and I'm in a gang, I’m in Los Solidos and we're in Hartford. And I thought I really knew what to say because I wasn't ready to dig deep like I'm doing. And I didn’t know what to do. So they got up and clapped for me, which is weird, because I didn’t say much. But, you know, I never the first time that I remember ever feeling ok about saying something, right. And I think that that was the transition part of my evolution. Because I remember. I mean,
Jason: at that point, you're starting to work with school. But you're still an active gang member.
Iran: Absolutely. 100% real. 100% involved. We're still at war.
Jason: The way you're telling the story, it sounds to me that this is the start of something. This was a seed that was planted in you. It started your movement away from the gangs. That's gonna happen at some point, right?
Iran: Yeah. You also mentioned that you had a federal charge. And I know that from talking with you in the past, Has that already happened? Or is that yet to happen?
Iran: That’s yet to happen. So now I'm working with Mike, but it's funny because I know what that had an impact on me because I was told to stop talking about it. because I went back to the neighborhood and we didn't disappear for that long unless you were in jail, right? So? So I went back to the community and they were questioning where you've been. You know, we've been looking for you all day, bro. Like you haven’t been out here. What's going on? I told him I went to that University of Connecticut School of Social Work. So you lying, bro? You stupid you lying. Telling lies. No, I’m some serious, here is the paperwork. And they were like, You're lying. You didn't go over there. We don't go over there. And I was like Bro I was there, man. And this is what happened. So about three months and people were, like, tired of me talking about this story that I go Shut up, man. We heard you, like, 100 times already, but I finally had something that changed the narrative in my discussions with people, cause all we talked about was Blood, what’s up man? Home, my dude. We got this going on. We got that beef we got it was always we're talking about things in our bubble. We never had anything new to introduce to it
Jason: in the big scheme of things. It wasn't that huge thing, but for you it was tremendous.
Iran: Yeah, because you know how your brainm, and we talked about it earlier. When you're addicted to anything, I don't care what it is. You develop a pathway in your brain that is pretty healthy. Right for that. So what this did is it opened up a new path in my brain that was yet to be formed. But it had something right? So it was a different way of thinking and a different way of seeing world, and now we're no longer afraid to go to West Hartford. Just think about I was no longer afraid to get on that bus and no longer afraid that seeing a white person meant I was going to be taken to jail or taken away from my family or whatever it was, right. So that's a huge because it gives me confidence that I belong there. And that's what I was talking to the brothers about. You know, I'm going about it, but I'm still in the gang, so we're still at war, I’m still being shot at. I'm still involved in fights. I'm so there's so many stories that I have, too many to tell. But I'm still involved in all of that. So the FBI is called in because people are dying left and right. I think we have 60 plus murders that year in Hartford. So, you know, the shootings and everything that was happening were so overwhelming to the Hartford police and state Police that they called in the FBI to start wiretapping us. And the FBI would come to the university to interview me, trying to ask me questions, and I wouldn't. And Michael said, What's going on? Why is the FBI coming here? And obviously that was scaring the professors and students because we had these FBI just coming with their jackets and FBI on it to the school to talk to some guy. So as time went by they signed a RICO act on the gang for all the crimes that we have committed not only in the state but outside of the state and that led to a federal indictment. In the federal indictment, I was listed as one of the defendants because of my involvement and my leadership role. I had a leadership role in the gang as well, and because I had a leadership role, they wiped out pretty much all the leadership president, secretary, treasurer, warlords, chief executive chief, warlords, all the different heads of the gangs started to be indicted. So I was one of them. So I was about 27 or so. 28 have been working at the Institute for a while. I was indicted for racketeering, conspiracy to commit murder after the fact and a number of other charges. But I faced for things I did and things I didn't because when they invite you the all the charges, So they put you in with the people that sold drugs and I never sold a drug, didn't want to. My mom was a drug addicts That wasn't my source of income. I didn't want to do that. You know, I didn't want to sell drugs to people who I knew were going through what my mom went through. Wasn’t my thing? But if you talk about violence and fighting and yeah, that was my thing. So essentially, I got indicted for a number of crimes, you know, went to trial three times, hung jury twice, and eventually I agreed to plead guilty to misprison of a felony, which is lying to the FBI in the commission of a felony. And I was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to serve 18 month sentence for misprison of a felony in New Jersey. And I was put into the segregation unit at the Meadows because of my high position in the gang. And I was kept there for quite some time in isolation because they were afraid I would hand down orders in the jail and whatever life situation means.
Jason: You were completely alone? I’ve heard in isolation sometimes other people are with you.
Iran: I was alone. Oh, you only had two hours a day to get out. Phone call, shower, call lawyer. So I was held there for some time until I was bailed out. Then I would held on home confinement. And then eventually I pleaded guilty and I went to Fort Dix. I wa sin segregation Fort Dix because again they have communicated that I had a high rolling gang and eventually I was let into the general population. After two weeks, I think it was. so now Federal prison in New Jersey. But by that time, I have been exposed to Mike, a different way of thinking. So In actually started pursuing what I could in the federal prison. So if they had a school program or anything that I could learn, I was pursuing.
Jason: were you part of a gang while you were in prison?
Iran: Oh yeah. Yeah. Same gang. Okay, so I was in four different gangs growing up. This was when I was in like, long term. Just was like what I call the all out big gang. There was a huge gang. So I was in there for the 18 months, came home went to a halfway house again. And then was rehired by UConn to continue my work. Because I started a letter writing program in prison for teens that communicated to teens the impact that prison has on us, Rather than trying to glorify prison, I was talking about the loneliness and the fear and the uncertainty of prison. A loud noise in prison, long nights in prison, all the things that the brutality of prison that it could be.
Jason: This is in the mid-nineties.
Iran: The late nineties now. 98 99. And then I was released right before 2000 from there into the halfway house and then left the halfway house in 2000 and you know, kind of returned back to doing the work that I did and then my involvement with the criminal justice system didn’t end because now I had the scope on my back where I had come home and local law enforcement is still battling the games. I was doing something different. I had wanted to do something different, but they weren't ready to let me move on. They still consider me a threat so I would get pulled over. I got pulled over one time by the gang task for us because they said that the air in my tires wasn't adequate for my car and we were going in opposite directions. Okay? Opposite directions at 35 miles an hour. Just saying, How can you see that my tires are not properly inflated? It was made up to pull me over. They gave me a warning, but they just wanted look in my car and see if they saw any weapons. You know, just that whole thing. So that went on for about another 7 to 8 years where you know I was working and doing my best to try and move into a different direction. Stand for something different. But today I understand it. Don't get me wrong. I don't sit here pretending that some of it wasn't justified because of the things that I had done. It was hard to trust you, but I also know that part of what I was happened because the system failed me on so many different levels growing up.
Jason: How did you break away from the gang? And it sounds like Was it a slow process an incident?
Iran: No. It was a slow process for what happened after I started working for Compass. When I was at peace builders program, I started helping brothers and sisters who had kids that were now in the same situation that we were. They have their kids were in gangs, their kids were dropping out of school, their kids were fighting and I started mediating conflicts and I became an expert mediator and conflict resolution expert. All that training about that and I started helping alleviate and reduce conflicts in the city and helping brother’s kids out that I was giving what they call walking papers. OG status, which means that you are forever regarded as someone who's respected, but you no longer have to associate or affiliate yourself with their actions and what they do. So I was given approval to kind of remove myself and do what I do for this. So it was one of the highlights of my life because it allows me to remain effective and working with people in gangs. But it also allows me the freedom to be who I need to be right now. So that's how it kind of happened. And now I'm doing what I do. It took me a long time to get the trust of law enforcement in the criminal justice system. For me, this is a passion of mine to help people because I know how on point it would have been for me to have those touchpoints, as was mentioned earlier, that could have helped. So if I can do that now, that's what I
Jason: So when did you form the Peace Center?
Iran: Peace Center - it has been three years now. It's 2016. When I started the concept, founded it in 2017 and so we've been on for about three years.
[00:44:57] Amber: If you would. Could you just kind of go over exactly what you do at the Peace Center?
[00:45:02] Iran: Sure. So the presidency, we have what I call four pillars of service. One is a youth development academy. This summer, when we trained up to 15 young people out of having more peaceful existence, a peaceful involvement in your community. The second is what we call peace. Conversations, we’re hired to go out into different communities and facilitate conversations between groups who are in conflict. We have, ah, professional development and training from school systems, social services, organizations that are working with young people in risk. And then we have finally research that we do around what can we do to improve communities around the state of Connecticut to become more peaceful. So those are like our four part of the service, But within that umbrella, we have a number of other projects that we do. And I'm gonna be launching what we call Windows To Peace, which is a social services kind of focused program project using the arts to help people communicate and have discussions that will be in August, social distance-style, obviously, But then we also do again working with other systems, and we support current violence prevention at first as well as the peace center. So we are hired and contracted by the city of Hartford and other cities to help during times of crises. I'm actually going to be working with the town of Wethersfield, Connecticut, on helping them improve relationships between officers, the community and young people. So those are some of the efforts that were also involved with.
Jason: If anybody wants to support your efforts, what can they do?
Iran: So if they want to support, they can visit our website https://peacecenterofct.org/. There’s a beautiful red donate button on there if you wanna donate to help us continue our work, or if you really just want to give us advice or read through what we offer and have a community that needs that and you feel like we’re the right candidate for that, give us a call. Also, if folks have a specific skill that they want to offer as far as board membership and interested in supporting that way they could do that, or if you're an intern or school community and you have interns that really want to get a great experience in working and community, we have that too.
Jason: Thank you. So, yeah, I encourage people to look that up and support you.
[00:47:03] Amber: It really sounds like you're doing a lot of work that would have benefited you in your family. It's astounding and amazing to have really walked through the fire that you've walked through. And this idea of saints and sinner, good and bad really doesn't speak to the true humanity of people. And that's one of the things that we're really trying to amplify with this particular podcast, especially in that period where you were trying to move forward with your life. You still had involvement with gangs or whatnot, and there was this system that just was standing in the way of you getting there.
[00:47:46] Iran: Yeah, If you understand the psychology behind that system, you understand why they behave that way and your training a system to punish you. It's hard for them to forgive you and see a different side of you and to see your aspirations and your potential because it's designed to correct you by punishment, not by drawing the best out of you, but by smothering you and teaching that they're in control. So when you start to change and just like I was trained to be violent, they're trained to oppress in a way by smothering your potential and by always seeing you as a suspect been working for us. Bear with me for a second. I had a conversation with officer Jimmy Barry from the Hartford Police Department on our parking lot. He come by. They asked me to help a young man that needs help. So we were talking and I didn't know his story. I talked to him for a while, and after I was done, I realized that he's in a police officer's uniform. I'm in my piece center stuff, and he served three combat tours in the military. He was a corrections officer for nine years, and had been with the Police Department for almost 19. But he developed the first unit in the Hartford Police Department that specifically targeting and helping support the homeless. So he has a huge van that he just got dedicated where he carries underwear, socks, gloves and all he does itsgoes around the street all day long, picking up homeless, making sure they're okay and all that stuff. What I got out of our connection was that he had wind of so many people dying next to him in combat, friends, allies, neighbors. And when he came back from combat, his community have been changed, and everything about him have been changed. The traumas that he experienced and all of that stuff. And I saw it as not very different in that extent than my experience. And the facts are that he was trained to kill. But his spirit is retraining himself to love and get back. And that's what happened in the I was trained to hurt, and my spirit is doing the same thing. So I think for me, I think there are a number of people walking through fire. But unfortunately they hit a wall. When they walk through the fire, a wall’s put up to make them have to climb while it’s burning and we have to figure out a way to remove those barriers and reform that system to think about what they're doing to increase the likelihood that people are going to come back
Jason: well, it's remarkable, is where you started from, and where you are today and the person that you are today, who's respectable, who is doing so many positive things for the community and I'm proud to know you. And I'm proud to call you a friend. It's so incredible and you are so strong. And what it took for you was a person seeing something in you and then having that just take some time to percolate, right? Whereas if you had had more resources along the way. If you had had programs like the one you're building, life would have been so much different for you and for so many others. And so I wanted to pivot a little bit and ask you a couple quick things. We may want to have you back on because your story is so compelling and there's so many things. But I wanted to talk for a minute. You know, we've got pardons in the news again, and I know that you had applied for a federal parted. Can you talk a little bit about that process what it was like for you And are you still hopeful to get one, one of these days?
Iran: To answer the last question Yes. one of these days. The process was daunting. I did it on my own, I didn't have any legal support. So, going through all of that and being able to secure all the documentation that they want you to secure and have recollection of every crime you committed it is pretty challenging process by yourself. Took me a while to get everything, all the documents, any and all the proof because we have to get your probation records, your incarceration records. I had to write to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to get my records from federal prison. So that took a lot of time to get all that stuff together. But I managed to do it. And then I submitted the application. They reviewed it. They send it back to me with additional questions, and I had to amend my application because they had some questions about timelines and things like that. They really care about making sure that you fill out everything. And then they sent out an FBI agent to do follow-ups with every single person that knew me. And the only reason I knew that was because people were calling me and saying the FBI came to my job or the FBI came to my school. The FBI came to my house, but the FBI called me and it's about you. What's this about? Not just the references. I'm talking about people they studied or reviewed or learned about, even my enemy that I had the interview, which I was shocked. One of my former enemies called me. What's going on? Like the FBI hit me up and they asked me, we get along now because they knew that we have conflict in the past. So it was very eye opening process, and then I met with the FBI agent for about 2.5 hours. He did advise me that of even one sentence that I told him was wrong, they would toss the application back to me and deny me my pardon. So it will leave you with a level of uncertainty. He was a nice guy, but he was following whatever training he had and whatever the law said. So finally he ah took back the review of the amended version of it. I haven't heard back, so I don't know what the standing is. I think, if I remember correctly the percentages for a federal pardon are less than about 7%. Something like that for people like me. So we'll see. Where it’s at. I think it would allow me in my conversation with brothers and sisters that don't have hope that they could ever receive one. For me to be able to be in my position to say, yes, you can. This is what can happen. But it doesn't relinquish anything that I've done or doesn't steer me away from the fire that I have to help people. But I know that it would be another tool in my tool kit that I could use to fire other people to go for it. So, hoping to get us Um, sure.
Jason: Thank you for sharing that. The other question I have for you is you have your older brother and then two other siblings you talked about. How are they doing?
Iran: Um, my oldest brother was murdered 12 years ago.
Iran: My sister. She succumbed to drug addiction and prostitution for many, many years after she left her foster family. She's doing better now. she actually just completed six years of sobriety, recently took reiki classes where she's now a reiki master and does reiki stuff like that. My youngest brother because of the drug addition, my mom used a lot of drugs when she was pregnant. He has mental health issues due to that, and he's battled a little bit of the drug addiction, but recently I saw a photo. He's driving trucks now, so it seems like he's stabilizing some. But all four of us, unfortunately, went through a series of problems and addictions based on how the system-- we all went to prison, which is incredible that, you know, all four of us went to prison, But it's not surprising, but I think everyone so far has come through this with the exception of my brother, who was murdered and weighs heavy on me because I know his potential. I knew his heart. And he was murdered for stopping a fight.
Amber: So, so sorry.
Iran: Yeah, that's hard part. Like he broke up a fight and one of the guys in the fight shot him in his back. So, yeah, I mean, it's a difficult thing. He and I suffered, he and I went through everything together. You know, it was like to lose him like that. But, you know, I'll fight on for his spirit and keep doing what I'm doing.
[00:55:18] Amber: That's awesome. I know that everything that you do every day touches so many lives.
[00:55:24] Iran: Yeah, I love the feeling I have every day when I wake up, because it's another opportunity for me to heal what's wrong. To help somebody, or to in some way, shape or form make the world better. Somehow and I never know how. I just do. I'm gonna do this, Do that, do this, do that really never know your impact. Sometimes you hear people tell you, Hey, you impacting me like this, you save my life here and there. But you don't do it for that. You just do it because it's what our heart tells you to do. And hopefully, by the time I'm called to where I'm going, I'll have me as many changes as possible as many last. It’s that one thing that I needed that I want to be for someone else.
[00:56:05] Amber: just like a guy who dropped a card and remembered that you were called Smurf.
[00:56:08] Iran:That's right. absolutely right, Oh, my gosh, this is hilarious. But I'll never forget the term, though. disproportionate minority hiring.
Jason: All right, great. So before we close out, do you have any other things you really want to say? Press? make sure that we get across or not?
Iran: Me? I said a lot, and I just wanted to thank you for launching this platform. I agree with you on your opening comments that this is about being able to give folks the space to share from a real open standpoint what is like to be incarcerated, what the system is like and how reform needs to be real reform, how we are valuable assets and that we have ability, talents and gifts that are sometimes smothered. And this is a platform that hopefully help people understand that a little bit better. So thank you.
[00:57:01] Jason: Thank you so much. Iran. I learned a lot today.
Amber: I really did to thank you so much
Jason: Until next time, Amber,
Amber: We'll see you not time.
Exit: You've been listening to Amplified Voices. A podcast littering the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system. For more information, episodes and podcast notes, visit amplifiedvoices.show.