By Juan Esparza Loera
The Fresno Bee
(Updated Monday, May 24, 2004, 5:10 AM)
The best thing that ever happened in the life of 30-year-old Jesús Salazar was earning a ticket to Pelican Bay State Prison in 1998.
A member of the feared Fresno Bulldogs gang since he was 15, Salazar had already been convicted of two felonies. His life seemed headed in the same direction as an older brother’s — life imprisonment
Salazar spent his first six months at the Northern California prison locked up 22-1/2 hours a day in a cell with no windows and no contact with other inmates. He was allowed to shower every other day.
“I always heard that Pelican Bay was one of the most dangerous prisons not only in California but in the United States, and it scared me just hearing that name,” Salazar says. “I was a second-striker, and I was young. All it takes is one [more] strike, and I get a life sentence.”
Salazar decided it was time to change, more for his wife and his three children than for himself.
On Friday evening, Salazar beamed a giant smile as he stood before the 2004 graduating class of Fresno City College.
The former gang member with tattoos bursting from his chest, arms and head is the dean’s medallion winner from the division of applied technology. He has a 3.87 grade-point average and dreams of attending California State University, Fresno, to major in industrial technology and eventually to earn a master’s degree.
That is an amazing turnaround for a homeboy who relished his role as a menace to society. He once beat up a stranger at a school bus stop for not “showing me enough respect.” He got three days in juvenile hall and “a slap on the wrist.”
The worst was yet to come.
In December 1992, an effort to settle an argument with “one of my homeboys” through words escalated when Salazar shot the man.
“I felt like my life was endangered, and I reacted, but the system didn’t see it that way,” he says. The wound was not life-threatening, but Salazar was sentenced to six years in North Kern State Prison. Strike One.
A parole violation for being under the influence and associating with gangs sent Salazar back to prison. Two months before he was to be paroled, he was sent to Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, or as Salazar puts it, “enemy territory.”
“We’re enemies to the northerners,” says Salazar, referring to the rivalry between Sureño and Norteño Latino gangs. That rivalry led to an altercation between Salazar and a Norteño inmate, with the opponent losing some teeth and suffering a cut lip. Strike Two.
That lifestyle is in the past. Salazar has been gang-free for seven years and drug-free for 10 years. He also gained control of a life that was spinning out of control.
He credits his turnaround to support from Rosie, his wife of 15 years, and his mother, who has two other sons in prison, including one serving 16 years to life for multiple murders.
Salazar is still looked up to in the neighborhood where he grew up and still lives today. But, today it is for the right reason.