SANTA CRUZ -- Barrios Unidos has created a model of a maximum-security prison cell to spark discussion about crime and punishment.
A kind of mobile warning system, it was built on an 18-foot trailer and includes a manned guard tower, realistic sound track from a prison in Tracy, barbed wire and more.
Barrios hopes to finish it by January, but they need support to finish the inside and create a realistic cell, visiting room and receiving area, said Daniel "Nane" Alejandrez, founder of the nonprofit violence prevention organization.
Alejandrez said they will take the completed model to schools, courthouses and other spots to illustrate the bare truth about life in a cell and to educate people about the actual and other costs of incarceration.
It is modeled after a security housing unit at Pelican Bay. One of the many inmates Alejandrez works with drew a finely detailed diagram to help make it realistic, he said.
The primary builder of the model, Juan Molina, was in prison for years before working with Barrios Unidos, Alejandrez said.
Molina said he took on the project because he wanted to do something about the flow of youth he saw coming into prison.
"I've seen a lot of young kids in there who shouldn't be in there, who don't know anything about what it's like," Molina said. "I want to try to help kids understand what they're getting themselves into.
"Maybe we'll put them into the cell for one or two hours with nothing to do and ask them to imagine years of that."
Alejandrez said the prison trailer is an expansion of a successful model cell they used to house an inmate art exhibit years ago.
Alejandrez, 63, started Barrios Unidos in 1977 with his wife, Jenny, in Beach Flats. The son of migrant farmworkers, his early life was marked by hard labor and violence, service in the Vietnam War and heroin addiction. More than 15 of his relatives have been killed or imprisoned, he said.
Barrios Unidos seeks to prevent gang and other violence in the community and in jail facilities and now has 14 chapters.
Alejandrez's work in the agency's Prison Project has taken him not only to prisons around the country, but to meeting and working with people such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, actor Danny Glover, singer Harry Belafonte and journalist Walter Cronkite.
Alejandrez has photo albums full of his work, some documenting prison yard celebrations of Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth and other holidays, showing inmates of different gangs holding hands. His inmate mentors become "Peace Warriors" in those prisons.
One of the many letters stacked on his desk is from a former "shot caller" who writes that he now "helps young brothers who are gonna get out to study and do positive things." He asks Alejandrez to pray for him.
Many writers are seeking information, including one who is pushing to get prison officials to recognize the Aztec religion.
"Our work is slow," Alejandrez said. "It's letter by letter, educating people. You see the court system, how some police officers talk. If we don't stop this flow into prisons, it will continue to affect generation after generation."
There is hope, Alejandrez says, showing a September statement in which security housing unit prisoners at Pelican Bay "announce a push to end all hostilities between racial groups within California's prisons and jails." He mentions a truce between MS-13 and 18th Street gangs in prisons in El Salvador.
Alejandrez said he has always believed there has to be peace inside the walls of prisons to have peace on the streets.
"And we're starting to see that," he said. "We're starting to see that people do want peace."
He said he's not advocating "letting everyone out," but doesn't think post traumatic stress disorder should accompany release.
"It's how we hold people responsible," he said. "A lot of these guys are coming out and we want them to be better human beings."
Reach Barrios Unidos at 457-8208.
Follow Sentinel reporter Cathy Kelly on Twitter at Twitter.com/cathykelly9
Barrios Unidos, Institute for Peace and Community Development
MISSION: Barrios Unidos seeks to stop youth violence by building positive self-esteem and cultural pride through meaningful activities, education and job training. Programs include community outreach, economic development, leadership training, counseling and The Prison Project.
DONATIONS: Visit www.barriosunidos.net, mail to 1817 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, CA 95062, or call 457-8208.