Angel Soler (left) and Stephan Russo shopping for clothes the day Soler was released from prison. Photo: Susan Souder
I first met Angelo “Angel” Soler in the summer of 1976, when I worked the streets of the West Side, trying to reach kids hanging out in the neighborhood. I was part of what was then called a “delinquency prevention” program operated by Goddard Riverside Community Center. Today, you would never get away with such an anachronistic way of describing young people who need help.
Back then, Angel, who grew up in the housing projects along Columbus Avenue, hung out on Columbus and 93rd Street with a group of ruffians who called themselves “La Familia” — an incipient gang that donned black jackets with their symbol (of a Latin American Indian chief) on the back and red bandanas. Angel was a tall, lanky 14-year old who was in perpetual motion. He and his “pandilla” were convinced that I, along with my outreach partner, worked for the police department and were trying to bust them for loitering on the corner.
In one of my first interactions with him, Angel explained to me that he lost a lung when a gun he was holding accidentally misfired. Angel’s mother was caring and concerned, but she had her own struggles with drug use. His father was known in the community for his domino playing and a penchant for “el trago” (drinking).
One of my missions with Angel, early on, was to help him get a new set of dentures since he was without his front teeth from the age of eight, when he was playing in an abandoned building and got hit in the mouth with a shovel. For months, I would go to his house, drag him from under his bed and take him, arm in arm, to the local dental health clinic. It took over a year but, Angel had a new set of teeth that have lasted to this day.
That summer of 1976 began a relationship that has endured over 40 years. Today, Angel is 6’4” and a teddy-bear-like 300 pounds. He is one of those forgotten individuals who have experienced the trauma of prison life.
“I went to school up to the eighth grade,” Angel reminisced when we got together recently. “The teacher was terrified because I was in a street gang. They passed me from class to class, but never taught me how to read or write, which is a problem for me to this day. Neither my mother nor sister ever learned how to read or write. My mother was too busy getting high to make sure I went to school.”
Despite problems with his anger, Angel has an engaging personality and a compelling streak of kindness and sensitivity. The community center has always been his anchor. I spent those 40 years working at the center and kept in regular touch with Angel. He lived in one of the agency’s residences and supported himself with the occasional part-time job — as a kitchen worker at Goddard Riverside’s residential camp or security guard at one of the neighborhood’s run-down SROs.
One day nearly two decades ago, I was sitting in my office (I had recently become Goddard Riverside’s executive director) when two detectives from the 20th Precinct appeared. They wanted to talk to me about Angel. I knew that Angel had struggled with his drug use. The local news reported on a series of “shakedowns” of food deliverers that had become a neighborhood concern. Angel had been arrested. I said it couldn’t be him. But they had the evidence and, for Angel, there was no escaping. He could not overcome the difficulties of his early years.
Angel spent the next 13 years in prison. “Life in jail was a daily struggle,” Angel told me. “Only the strong survive. One of the hardest things to do on Christmas day was to wait for someone to open your cell so you could go to the mess hall where they would only give you two pieces of turkey, a soda, and ice cream. When you went back to your cell, there was a candy bar waiting for you as a special Christmas treat. It was one of the saddest days of the year.”
When Angel was imprisoned, his natural family all but abandoned him. He lost contact with his two daughters and had no one on the outside to turn to. Almost by default, our family had become his surrogate family. My wife and I made regular trips to the Green Haven, Eastern and Wallkill correctional facilities where he was serving his “bid,” as the people in prison call their time locked up. I wrote weekly letters and periodically mailed him money orders so he could purchase basic necessities at the commissary. Angel would have his cellmate Jaime read my letters to him and write his responses. We also regularly sent packages filled with sealed processed meats, cakes, cookies, candies and toiletries — no more than 35 pounds or any trace of alcohol in the food content, per strict prison rules. Any time we’d consider not sending him so many unhealthy sweets, our perceptive daughter would say, “Angel is in prison and has no freedom. Get him anything he wants!”
Angel celebrated his 56th birthday in December and is completing his fourth year of probation. He is one of the lucky ones. When he was released, we were able to find him housing at the Goddard Riverside residence where he used to live. The building had just undergone a major renovation and Angel had his own bathroom. He initially kept his door open at night so he could experience what it was like to walk out whenever wanted. He was tired of being locked in.
Angel spends his days attending his treatment program and volunteering at a local food pantry. He came to our house for Thanksgiving and spent time with us over Christmas. He occasionally sees his daughters, but the pain of their disappearance during his time away has not dissipated.
Angel continues to fight the demons of his previous drug abuse, loneliness and isolation, along with the trauma of prison life. (He once spent nearly 300 days in solitary confinement.) Yet Angel has persevered. He will be off probation next year and truly free. He continues to resist the daily temptations of the street life. His strength and determination have carried him forward. “I am thankful this Christmas that I am able to walk outside and go wherever I want,” Angel said before the holidays. “I hope my story will help other people who have spent time in jail know that it is possible to come back to the community. If I can do it, with all the defects I have had in my life, others can too.”
In a recent op-ed, “Fighting the Spiritual Void,” New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested that our failure to address how one recovers from trauma stems from the lack of a “communitywide rite of passage for people coming out of prison, for forgiveness for a personal wrong, for people who felt they had come out the other side of trauma and abuse.” Angel’s experience shows how it is possible to create a culture to help alleviate the pain of trauma. Still, how many more Angels are out there, and do we have the moral courage, as Brooks implores, to help those re-entering to become whole again and participate as full citizens of our community?
This holiday season, I couldn’t help but think of Brooks’s call for a moral and community response to those who experience the trauma of a long period of incarceration, people like my friend Angel Soler. The national statistics are staggering. There are over 2.2 million incarcerated adults in U.S. federal and state prisons — more than 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Every year, 650,000 Americans are released from incarceration — a number larger than the entire population of Wyoming and Vermont. But there are positive signs as well, like the passage of the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, signed by President Trump a few days before Christmas; the successful Florida referendum that will allow ex-felons to vote; and the push to eliminate the “criminal record” box on school and job applications. Together, they shine a much-needed spotlight a critical issue we face today — how to help those who have paid their debt to society and now live amongst us.