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These days, 33-year-old Monte Cullors mentors young gang members, but 15 years ago, he was one.
“I started a crew, a graffiti crew, back in ’93, ’94. From there, due to problems with rival enemies, it turned into a gang through the violence. “I wasn’t in to shooting guns; I was mainly into fist fights,” Cullors says.
Cullors had several run-ins with the law as a teenager, but his life changed forever in 1999, a year shy of his twentieth birthday. After leading police on a high-speed car chase, he crashed into a ditch. Cullors was arrested for fleeing the scene and later sentenced to serve 32 months in jail.
Soon after, Cullors got into a fight—not with another prisoner, but with a deputy during a lineup.
“So he told me get in line, get in line, and I said, ‘I am in line’… He looked at me and he thought I was being obstinate, trying to … puff my chest out at him, so he pushed me.”
Cullors admits he then made a bad decision.
“I should have realized that was the wrong thing to do. It was immature, but … I hit him,” he says.
Afterward, Cullors says he was besieged by deputies who beat him over the head with billy clubs, shocked him with tasers and eventually choked him unconscious.
“When I woke up there was just a pool of blood and I guess they busted that blood vessel and I bled out from my ears and nose. I just remember there was just blood and my head just was ringing,” he says.
Violence against inmates in county jails has been under the spotlight in recent months. A commission appointed by the board of supervisors blamed Sheriff Lee Baca for the high rate of excessive force used by deputies in the jails.
Baca has taken responsibility and vowed to make structural changes in the department while also allowing greater civilian oversight of jail conditions.
But nothing like that existed while Cullors was in custody. After the incident, he says doctors monitored his behavior for several weeks.
Cullors was later diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder by county doctors. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms for schizoaffective disorder include hallucinations, delusions, and mood disorders such as mania or depression.
Cullors describes it like this.
“You just see things that you don’t normally see … people that are cops, but their faces will change into people. You’ll just be totally confused,” he said.
But that’s not all.
“You feel like you’re literally in a videogame, and you get really hyper,” Cullors said.
Mark-Anthony Johnson is a health researcher who’s interviewed many inmates in L.A. County. He says their symptoms should be described as post-traumatic stress.
“Part of the criteria that people talk about for post-traumatic stress is the sense of powerlessness and incarceration is all about being powerless,” he says. “If you read the testimonies in the reports, [in which inmates describe] literally being handcuffed and beaten while they’re in restraints … those are traumatic moments.”
Cullors says he faced further trauma in jail after being arrested again in 2004 for making criminal threats against another driver – a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Cullors resisted arrest – which he says was triggered by going off his medication.
“You know I thought that I was cured,” he says. “And that was the biggest mistake of my life because I was actually going upwards in 2004, 2005. And I went off my meds, and I flipped my script.”
Today, the Cullors family says they’ve been able to heal. Monte’s sister Patrisse helped create a group called the “Coalition to end Sheriff violence in L.A. jails.” She says the group’s larger struggle has been a mechanism for change in their own lives.
“My entire family has felt extremely courageous in this process. They have been able to find a sense of voice that I had not seen in the past,” she says.
And Monte, who now works as a sign-language teacher and youth mentor in South Central, says he has no regrets.
“Who knows what could have happened?” he says. “I could have been on the street and got killed. I’m still alive. I’m here; I’m a better person; so you always make a horrible situation into a better one.”
And that’s what he and his sister say they’ll keep doing as part of the coalition.