Clay Rojas grew up in a duplex in the Mission District of San Francisco in the 80’s. There were an average of 22 other people in the house with him at any given time, but instead of dwelling on the hardships of poverty, he focuses on how it brought him and his family together.
He always had a feeling he would really enjoy being a police officer; he has a gift for protecting and helping people. After graduating high school, Rojas went to junior college in San Jose, and got offers in LAPD or the department in the city of Salinas. In a very real way, his childhood had molded him perfectly for this role: he was empathetic with the struggles
Resigned later to go on active duty in the Marine Corp, going on three deployments from 2001 to came 2005. He came back with a serious drinking problem and PTSD—not an uncommon diagnosis, but nobody, including the vets that came home, wanted to talk about it. Rojas explains, “We all knew if you talk to the shrink on the way out and they put that on your record, you’re never gonna get hired anywhere.” He adds, “Definitely not a police department.” So Rojas pushed all of his trauma aside and joined the police force again right away. Despite this, he was still good at his job.
His incarceration was the result of one of many sentences in our legal system based not on justice, but on the need to send a message. While on the police force, Rojas had a friend for several years who later became a Hell’s Angel. Rojas gave unclassified information (belonging to the public domain) so that the friend could help someone else who was fighting a custody battle in court. But because Rojas accessed the information on a government computer (the police department computer), and the friend was a Hell’s Angel, the whole thing blew up when Rojas’s friend was arrested in 2010 for something unrelated. At the time, the police didn’t need a warrant to search anyone’s phone, and they found Rojas’s information.
In retrospect, Rojas says that he does understand the pressure exerted on judges at the time, because of the escalation of violence in the Bay Area due to gang activity. “The truth does not play as big of a role in a trial as people might think.” He was roped into a case which became a huge trial centered around Hell’s Angel activities and the politics, despite the fact that, as Rojas states, “Nothing was done for the club.” He was just trying to help his friend get another person’s kid back. Rojas was given an ultimatum but refused to testify against his friend, and he went to prison for 36 months—a brutal sentence compared to the slap on the wrist usually levied for similar cases (when they didn’t unintentionally involve members of Hell’s Angels).
Because they associated with him with the gangs, he was sent to a medium-security level prison—higher than what he should’ve been. He was there with other men who were serving the last 20 years of 33-year sentences. He saw other men get beaten by fellow inmates when people found out that they were cops. In the beginning of his sentence, he was called into the office of the captain of the prison, who said, “We know that you betrayed the badge.” Rojas was assured that because of this, should his fellow inmates find out he was a cop and decide to beat him to death, nobody was going to help him. The captain gave him the option three years in solitary or in the yard with everyone else.
The captain left, giving him three minutes to decide. Rojas couldn’t stand three years in solitary. (I don’t know how anyone does.) So he decided to roll the dice and prayed, promising God that if he survived, “I’ll spend the rest of my life giving back to the community so that I can prevent as many young people coming here as I possibly can.” Rojas says, “I thought I was gonna die for the next 36 months….But He kept his word, and I kept mine.”
It should be noted, however, that it was a bad three years. The prison staff would mess with his things, ignore any pleas from Rojas. “I never felt such hatred….They dehumanize us…And the problem is that that mentality translate out into the free world.” Rojas relates this to the names soldiers called Vietnamese in the Vietnam War, or the terms used when he was in Iraq. He says it is hard to kill a person, but much easier to kill a thing. The same thing applies to words like “felon” and “criminal” in the outside world. “It gets used to rob us of our humanity,” Rojas says.
He also reflects on his own attitude when he was an officer himself, and the way arrests and cases were treated. “It was a game,” he says. “Guys would compare stats.” Officers were proud to put people behind bars, the longer the better—it was like scoring points. Rojas is ashamed of that attitude now, but he thinks it’s important for people to know some of the prevalent attitudes that contribute to a systemic problem.
Rojas had a degree and work experience, but when he got out all he could get was a dishwashing job, despite almost 100 job applications. He says this is why prisons are all too often a revolving door: when you can’t get a job and your kids are hungry, it’s not surprising that people turn back to the hustle. But Rojas, who also had a family to provide for, wasn’t about to give up. He resolved to remake himself and to start his own business. The company, named Exist to Intervene, was in debt for the first four years of its existence. But Rojas doesn’t complain: he says that as far as previously incarcerated individuals go, he was lucky. He had an education and a supportive family, but many people don’t have that when they get back into the civilian world. If Rojas was given a slim chance, these people are given next to none.
Rojas gives all credit to God for his survival in prison, the success of his business, and the love he has experienced in sharing his story these last several years. Despite being dealt a bad hand at every turn, Rojas is overflowing with gratitude and hope. All of his anger at the system, he realized was anger at himself; he had to forgive himself. He felt like he had failed himself, his wife, and his daughters. “When I forgave myself, that was Liberation!” he told us enthusiastically.
Exist to Intervene provides counselling services for children whose parents are currently incarcerated, and provide services to schools, detention centers, group homes, and other places where kids are at particularly high risk. They don’t have advertising or a website, but the company is booming. They can, however, be found at secondchanceexperiment.com, and Rojas invites anyone who wants to learn more contact him there.
He encourages people to get involved with nonprofits in their area to help previously incarcerated individuals and help boost their chances from slim to none, to something real, something that can grant people a hope and a future. “You’ll start to see hearts,” Rojas says. “You’ll start to see people that look just like you.”
Clay Rojas collaborated with us on a shirt design, portraying his story through art. You can view and purchase that shirt here.
This piece was written by Forgive Everyone Staff Writer, Emma Suiter.