By Michael Walsh
After years behind bars at Kern Valley State Prison and the state lockup in Chino, Calif., Martin Leyva had grown accustomed to the brutal violence and volatility of prison life. Showing up for his first day of college following his release, on the other hand, was truly frightening.
Leyva got off the bus in 2007 at Santa Barbara City College, looked up at the buildings, but couldn’t bring himself to step onto the campus. Shaking, he turned around and returned to his sister’s house in the nearby town of Goleta.
“I was terrified. I never felt so out of place in my life,” Leyva, now 45, told Yahoo News. “When I got home, my niece asked me how it went. I told her I got too scared. Here’s a person who’s lived in prisons and jails for so long that that life became normal.”
During his childhood, Leyva’s family regularly moved between poor neighborhoods in the otherwise affluent city of Santa Barbara. Leyva lived in projects on the Lower West Side of town and is still known locally as “Martin from the West Side.” With no male role model in the home, he turned to the streets for affirmation, but a life of crime and multiple drug and robbery arrests soon found him cycling through juvenile hall, county jail and prison. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade but got his GED by doing work packets from inside Santa Barbara County Jail.
In some ways it took going to prison for him to realize that he didn’t belong there.