If you saw the toughest guy in the prison yard, you probably wouldn’t believe he was convicted for selling a bag of pure sugar to an undercover federal agent. However, this is exactly how Danny Trejo found himself serving a five-year drug sentence in 1969.
“He asked me if the stuff was good,” Trejo said. “I told him it was pure, and I wasn’t lying.”
Attendees gathered in the University Student Union Ballrooms for the event, From Death to Life, which intended to start a discussion about former prison inmates and how they are portrayed in society. The panel was hosted by Rising Scholars, Associated Students Inc., School of Criminology, Project Rebound and Metropolitan and Policy Studies Network.
Trejo talked about his movie career, narcotics anonymous groups and how he has managed to stay positive despite his struggles with drug abuse and marital problems. He stressed the importance of attaining a degree and gave students high praise for continuing their education.
“You’re the people I’m going to vote for in a couple years,” Trejo said.
Gary Tyler, 59, is an African-American man who was released from prison in 2016 after serving 41 years for a wrongful conviction.
Tyler was given the death penalty at the age of 17 after his school bus was attacked by a white mob over the integration of schools in Louisiana. This incident was in response to Brown v. Board of Education, a United States Supreme Court case which ruled that all public schools had to be desegregated. During the attack, someone shot and killed a 13-year-old boy. Tyler was one of the students on the bus and was wrongfully convicted for the boy’s death.
He was later convicted of first-degree-murder by an all-white jury and became the youngest person to be on death row at Louisiana State Prison.
Tyler asked the audience to picture his first night in prison — he described the jingle of the guard’s keys, the clink of the cell doors and the long corridor to death row.
“Can you imagine?” he asked. “That’s what I experienced.”
The last speaker was Scott Budnick, a producer who worked on movies such as the first two films in “The Hangover” franchise. Budnick is also the founder and president of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which works to help former inmates transition into civilian life.
In his speech Budnick recalled how he started the coalition after he taught a creative writing class at a penitentiary and met a 16-year-old boy who was serving a life sentence. This motivated Budnick to become an activist and launch ARC, the organization that has helped former inmates find jobs and shelter.
Budnick wrapped up his speech by announcing that he was stepping down as president of ARC to develop a movie studio that will focus on positive movies and roles telling the stories of prisoners and former inmates.
“You don’t see the people [who were] at the bottom of the world and are now at the top,” Budnick said.
To close the event, the audience was invited to ask the panel any questions they might have. Speakers were joined by members of Rising Scholars, President Joe Louis, Vice-President Irene Sotolo and treasurer Adrian Vasquez.
Ellis Sanchez, junior consumer affairs major, said he initially came to see Trejo, but was most impressed by Tyler’s speech. He admitted that the stories from the event helped change his view of criminals.
“I took away a new mindset toward the criminal justice system,” Sanchez said. “I thought everyone there must be bad, but not everyone there is bad. Some people were incarcerated for something small [and they] shouldn’t be there for life. It made me understand people there and it makes me want to help them now.”