How a Los Angeles kid got sucked into street gangs but transformed his life in prison.


Will Fields grew up on the rough streets in South Central Los Angeles, but went to grade school in the plush suburbs of Brentwood. Every afternoon, he would return home on the bus, back from serenity to chaos. The disconnect between what he saw and what he lived wore on him, and his dreams of becoming a scientist eventually gave way to the pressure to fit in, and by the time he was 13 he was an aspiring thug with a local street gang. In prison on an attempted murder conviction, Will got off to a rough start when he tried to bring his gang loyalties inside. He eventually saw through the absurdity of it all and came out of prison determined never to return. Will now is a committed father and hard working electrical lineman.

Will's story

WILL FIELDS WANTED TO be a scientist as a young boy. He had a chemistry set, a telescope, and a microscope with slides, and for Christmas he once asked for math flash cards. He went to school at Brentwood Science Magnet School, near Beverly Hills. Every afternoon he went home to his neighborhood of run down streets, crack addicts on the corners, homes without fathers, communities without jobs — and gang warfare everywhere. “You start to realize your place in life,” Fields says. “You see that you’re at the bottom of the barrel. This your lot. This is going to be you life. As a child it’s frightening to see that reality.”

THE DISCONNECT BETWEEN his tony school and his squalid streets and home life wore him down. Mocked by friends for using big words, he got no encouragement for his academic hopes. He rarely saw his father. His mother struggled to raise two boys, who as they grew became too much for her to handle.

IN THE END Will found validation on the streets. He started his own gang activity at 12, and by 13 he was smoking weed, drinking, breaking into cars, beating people up, and packing “little pistols” in his waistband. He began running with the Hoover Criminals, a major offshoot of the Crips that dominated his neighborhood. Arrested when he was 19, he pled guilty to three counts of attempted murder. He spent the next six years in prison, a detour turned his life around and may well have saved it.

FIELDS IS NOT a scientist today, but he does have a rewarding union job as an electrical lineman. He works hard hours for good pay, and already owns some rental properties. In the interval he’s been married, and though his wife and he are now separated, Will is an attentive father to a precocious six-year old son.

HE IS ALSO A committed Christian. “I always believed in God, even when I was young,” he says. But as a teenager he told himself that he was fighting thugs and acting in self defense. “It’s no secret that you can convince yourself that anything you are doing is correct,” he notes.

WHEN WILL GOT TO PRISON, he initially came out fighting, looking to represent his gang on the inside. He got in trouble brawling and spent time in solitary confinement, while others turned the switch off and on at will. This dumbfounded him. Fields today is an intense character, with measured words and a serious face. Being a gangster was not a game for him.

BEFORE LONG OTHERS took him aside. “It’s not like that here,” they said. The biggest impact came from a older inmate, an “enemy” in the gang world, who took him aside and gave him books to read. One book in particular, Black Men, Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?: The Afrikan American Family in Transition, hit him hard. “Everything I read in there was me,” Will says. “I was being a parasite on my own community.”

WILL CAME OUT determined to do something different. “I was not going back,” Will said, “even if that meant I had to sweep floors.” He plunched into school, earning an AA and an electrical certificate at a community college. He worked selling mattresses for awhile, and then got his break to become an apprentice electrical lineman. He got that break in 2012, and now works long hours for good pay. He’s been saving his money, and already owns a couple of rental units. After three years, in January he’ll earn the coveted “journeyman” rank.

TWO WEEKS AFTER he left prison in 2007, Fields had sat down with Renford Reese, a political science professor at Cal Poly Pomona. At the end of the interview, Reese asked, “What would you tell you son if you had one today?”

“I would say, be serious about life,” Fields said. “Don’t lose your humanness. It’s OK to have pride in your race, but don’t forget that we are all human. Listen to the inner voice inside yourself that tells you right from wrong. You know when someone is telling you something that’s not right. You know when someone is telling you something good, even though you may not want to hear it.”

Avoid fantasies you get from movies and entertainment, he continued, speaking to his future son. Steer clear of the stereotypes people try to fit you into. “Sometimes cut the music off. Chill in silence. Reflect on where your life is going. Be serious about life.”

Fields son, now 6, is old enough to begin to understand his dad’s words, and build a future that avoids his dad’s mistakes.

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