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Hernan Carvente

Hernan Carvente went from being a gang-banging, illiterate, angry Latino kid to a college graduate and successful advocate of criminal justice reform. He spent four years incarcerated in a maximum juvenile facility in New York State followed by two years on parole. Today, he works with youth throughout the country to close youth prisons.
Hernan's STORY

Hernan Carvente went from being a gang-banging, illiterate, angry Latino kid to a college graduate and successful advocate of criminal justice reform. He spent four years incarcerated in a maximum juvenile facility in New York State followed by two years on parole. Today, he works with youth throughout the country to close youth prisons.


At age 16, I was sentenced to serve six years at a secure juvenile detention facility in upstate New York for the crime of attempted murder. I committed the offense when I was 15 years and 363 days old. I ended up getting a 6 year sentence instead of an 18 year sentence because I committed my crime two days before I turned 16. My junior and senior years were spent in a juvenile prison.

I went into the justice system for shooting a rival gang member three times. I don’t say that to glorify it or be proud of it. I just say that, because it was the worst mistake I ever did and it cost me my freedom. It affected my then soon-to-be born daughter because I had put a risk on my ability to be a father. I’m only 26 by the way. My daughter is 9.


I always think about the story of my trajectory into the criminal justice system as not just my own story, but the story of many, because I represent only 1 of 50,000 young people that are incarcerated every year in this country.

I’m actually a Queens kid, literally: Astoria, Long Island City, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Corona. I’m Queens all around, but NYC as a whole is my home. Part of my story with the criminal justice system comes from the fact that I come from a community that was predominantly immigrant, Latino, and African American but also ultimately lacking in resources.

Here in New York we have something called the million dollar blocks. We call them million dollar blocks, not because rich people live there, but because prisons spend millions of dollars locking up people from those blocks. When you go to facilities in upstate New York, you will find young people who are predominantly from zip codes in Brooklyn, parts of Harlem, parts of Jamaica, Queens. You could mention a zip code in a prison, and a group of people would say that’s where they're from. You can go to other states and find those few zip codes to narrow down where most of the young incarcerated folk are coming from.

The faces that I saw while I was incarcerated, that come from these million dollar zip codes, they were young just like me. They went through similar things just like me. They experienced pain and emotions the same way that I did and just didn’t know how to express it in a healthy or positive way.


We don’t often think about the experiences that our young people go through before they actually come into contact with the criminal justice system. We just look at them for the worst thing they ever did.

We don't think about the environments that our young people come from, about the instability they’re facing. For many, hearing a gun being let off, or hearing people fighting on the corner of your block, or going to school and feeling like you’re walking into prison because there's a metal detector, that's the reality. All of that affects their mental health, affects their decision making, affects their ability to think and articulate the things they are feeling.

I went into the criminal justice system because I didn’t know how to talk about my feelings. I commited a lot of acts of violence, because I didn’t know how to communicate the pain and struggle going on in my mind. I used to be a gang member, I used to do drugs, I used to do cocaine, I used to do weed, and I used to drink heavily.

I started experiencing depression and anxiety at the age of 6 or 7 years old. My father was an alcoholic and so you can imagine why I started drinking at such a young age. I started drinking at 8 years old. I started drinking at 8 because I thought if I could drink that bottle faster than my dad, then he wouldn’t get drunk, and then he wouldn’t beat on my mother everytime we went home. I can remember being at home and having to process so many emotions after seeing my mother being beat by my own father. At 6 or 7 years old, I saw my grandfather beat my mother and my father beat my mother in the same day.

No one spoke to me about mental health in high school, or in junior high school, or even middle school, or any of the schools I went to.

And an everyday thing in prison was hiding our emotions, because showing your emotions in prison meant weakness. It meant that correctional officers would come at you for that, or even your own peers, because emotions were a sign of weakness.

Now I’m 26. I have a daughter and I always think about how it's harder for me to show emotion. It’s why I’m in therapy and talking about mental health more often.


In many ways, the things that made me different were my environment, my neighborhood and the decisions that I made. But at the end of the day, I was also a young person, 16, sitting in a juvenile facility, away from my family, away from my community, being treated like I was less than human and ultimately made to to believe I would amount to nothing.

Mind you, everyone who said I would amount to nothing, I’ve proved wrong. I proved wrong every single statistic about those zip codes that said I wasn't ever going to have a bright future.

I got my GED and started college while I was incarcerated. I got 57 college credits before I came out. I went through a fatherhood program. I went to work in the kitchen so I learned to make food. I did custodial maintenance. I worked the library. The only thing that stopped me from doing more was the fact that there wasn't more that was offered in the facility.


When I came out, I was told that I was gonna die before I turned 21. I was told I wasn't going to be able to graduate college. I was told that by facility staff, and even my own peers. The reason why staff said that was because most of the youth return to the neighborhoods and communities where they originally did the crime, where they experienced the issues that led the into the system. For me that wasn't the case. They told me I was gonna die but I graduated from John Jay College with a bachelors in Criminal Justice.

When I got out, I started working for an organization called the Vera Institute of Justice where I did research and policy work and visited youth prisons all over the country. In Kentucky, Virginia, LA, Ohio, etc., and I used to see kids in similar shoes that I was in. I was in different states seeing the same injustice all over again, seeing the same dramatic experience happen to other people. I got tired of it.

So in October of last year, I chose to leave. I met this woman, who did work to close youth prisons. So now I’m in an entirely different position. I am doing work around the country, with other young people who have been through prison, to close youth prisons. Why? Because they don't work.

When I entered the system, I was a completely different person. I was angry, impulsive, uneducated, and gang-affiliated. Things changed for me when people in the system and in the community stopped looking at me as a lost cause, started viewing me as a college student and pushed me to think differently about the possibilities. The problem is: not every young person who goes through the system has a similar positive experience.

So I am pushing for reforms that will give young people meaningful second chances, or even several chances if needed. I went from being a gang-ganging, illiterate, angry Latino kid to a successful advocate of change.