Ismael with puppy
Big brother lost
to prison

Sometimes it feels like Ismael doesn’t have a big brother any more. His brother Omar was arrested and sentenced to life in prison at the age of 14. Now they only see each other a few times a year. 

Ismael, 11, doesn’t know why Omar is in prison. “My parents don’t want to tell me yet. They think I’m too little to understand, but I think I’m old enough. It stresses me out. Sometimes I feel like an adult in a child’s body. I wish I had a big brother at home, someone who could help me with homework, play games and be there on my birthday. He will miss my graduation, and when I get married one day. It’s sad.” 

“It’s like we grew up and he got left behind,” says his big sister Yenci, 18. “It really hurts. No one can understand unless they’ve gone through it.” 

Ismael really misses having a big brother around. © Joseph Rodriguez/WCPF

Always worried

It all started when Omar made friends with some kids from a violent gang. He started staying out late and he changed – became sad and angry. One evening the police brought him home. They told him to lift his shirt and show his new gang tattoo to his shocked mother.

Eventually the family moved to another neighborhood to try to save Omar from the gang. So he packed a bag and disappeared. His mother and father often drove around looking for him, but they never found him. Not long after, he was arrested.

Since Omar was moved to a maximum security prison Ismael cannot see him as often. © Joseph Rodriguez/WCPF

Moved far away

In the beginning Omar was imprisoned close to his family and they saw each other often. But when he was moved to California’s infamous supermax prison, Pelican Bay, the visits decreased because of the 15-hour drive to get there.

“Sometimes we sit on opposite sides of a glass pane, and talk on a phone, one at a time,” says Ismael. “But my mom wants the phone all the time! It’s better in the visiting room, where we can give him a hug and talk together.”

Ismael and his sister get lots of letters from prison. This letter was one of the first that Omar wrote to his sister. © Joseph Rodriguez/WCPF

Constant worry

“Don’t worry about me,” Omar always writes in his letters, but his family are always worried.
   “It’s bad in there, they fight. Omar got his nose and fingers broken,” says Ismael. “But he’s changed, he’s gotten smarter and started going to school. My dream is that he will be free one day.” 

Text: Carmilla Floyd
Photos: Joseph Rodriguez


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