Before her 28th birthday, Jacqueline Velez served two stints at the infamous Rikers Island. A single mother of three, 45-year-old Velez now works as a prison reform advocate, a writer whose work was recently published in O, The Oprah Magazine, and until recently, served as regional organizing director for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s re-election campaign.
Velez gives off a warmth that makes a person feel at ease in her company. She speaks of her life, describing details from over 20 years ago as if they happened an hour ago.
This month, she left the Markey campaign to focus on other projects. She told MassLive that she still believes wholeheartedly in his politics but wanted to take some time out to evaluate her future opportunities.
When the protests that have erupted in towns and cities across the U.S. in reaction to police brutality Velez, a passionate civil-rights advocate, couldn’t attend.
“I don’t have a spleen. When I was 20, I accidentally ran into a knife three times,” Velez said, half-joking about her injuries. A natural storyteller, Velez leaves that statement in the wind as a prelude and will return to explain what she meant later.
Velez grew up on Starr Street in Brooklyn and refers to herself as a Nuyorican – a term for Puerto Rican people from New York. In the early ’90s shortly after breaking up with her first boyfriend, 17-year-old Velez started skipping school and falling into the wrong crowd.
“I started drinking liquor, beer, smoking cigarettes and smoking weed. At one point, I was hanging out with this group of guys and a group of girls and we kind of were a gang,” said Velez. “I didn’t look at it that way back then but that’s what we were.”
During this time, she would sometimes sell drugs. She admits, however, she wasn’t a very good at it but could always tell if a police officer was nearby because they stuck out in her neighborhood.
“The only white people you saw were teachers, firefighters, cops and the people that came to [buy] heroin or crack. You did not see white people,” said Velez. “It was odd to see a white person walking about.”
Although Velez said that she never sought out violence, she and her friends were involved in fighting other groups of youths from other city blocks who would come looking to cause trouble.
“We end up starting to get into a fight with this group of girls. Now, after the fight we find out that this group of girls are the baddest girls in the whole hood,” said Velez. “So, we had to expect retaliation, but the thing was that we didn’t start that fight.”
Over the next couple of months, Velez and her friends are constantly in a state of readiness. Waiting to get jumped by this excessively aggressive group that had issues with Velez’s gang.
“I was getting pounded out on a regular basis,” said Velez. “One day my friend [Natasha] calls me and says, ‘they just jumped me!’ She was crying saying that a bunch of girls jumped her at her school and we were like, ‘Oh, we’re going over there to your house and then we going to go where they’re at.’ You know, to go fight over there.”
Velez picked her friend up from her home with another friend. The three young women headed to the neighborhood of the aggressors.
“[Natasha] ended up fighting; once, twice, three times. We like, all right, enough is enough. You got your s— off, let’s go,” said Velez. “[Natasha] was like, ‘I’m not done!’ [as three more] girls were approaching. So, then all three of us had to fight three of them.”
The pursuit of these girls seemed crazy to Velez because she was in the block of “the baddest girls in the whole hood.” The longer they stayed, the more likely they would be overpowered by the numbers that could mobilize against them from the buildings.
“I had a mustard yellow hoodie,” recalled Velez. “My whole body was covered in blood because the girl that hit me busted my nose.”
“But, I didn’t lose the fight,” Velez added with a small sense of pride as she remembered the girl’s name she fought. Her name was Tyson, like Mike Tyson, the boxer.
Finally, Velez, with friends in tow, left the neighborhood and headed back to their block. As they left, her friend, who Velez looked up to at the time because of her fearless nature, started to call out to the beaten and bleeding girls on the curb.
“[Natasha] was like, ‘Oh come to Starr Street with that s—!’ We go and they follow,” said Velez. “When they come to follow, we end up having a fight.”
Velez, now in her neighborhood, is tired from the various scraps and wants it to end it but the girl now grabbing at her hair and pounding on her is much bigger and isn’t going to give up. At one point during the foray, someone passed Velez a razor blade to use if she needed it.
“She could have flung me if she wanted to. But I gave her a fight, I was so tired of fighting and they were about to jump me again,” said Velez remembering the moment that she would live to regret.
“So, I cut her. I cut her in the face.”
The girl was taken to the hospital and received 197 stitches on both cheeks and neck. Velez told MassLive that she cut a J into the left cheek of the girl.
That act of extreme violence would haunt her in later years. Velez eluded to believing in karma, the sum of a person’s actions in this state of existence. Three weeks later Velez found herself in Rikers Island Jail. Still young and without the ability fully understanding her actions, the Karma that would change her life is still to take place.
Now, more than 150 miles from her old life and able to take a step back to see the woman she was and who she is now, that 17-year-old could be another person. Actions she took as a child seem so foreign to most. Most, however, didn’t live on those streets in Brooklyn.
At no time does Velez try to excuse her actions. She owns the responsibility of those actions and each day works hard to push herself further and further away from the person she used to be.
“‘Mom, I’m going to jail.’ She was so naive about it. I’m like, ‘Mom, I’m going to jail. I cut this girl. I’m going to jail’.”
Velez talks of trying to explain the consequences to her mother at the time. Her mother, in shock, couldn’t grasp what was happening. Velez was taken to Rikers Island Jail as a 17-year-old juvenile after being identified by the girl with the stitches.
Being in her cell without other women calmed her slightly. During her time Velez kept to herself and avoided talking. Her time in jail was cut short after what Velez described as her legal aid lawyer was able to get the case dismissed.
At 17, and now with jail time at the infamous Rikers Island, Velez gained notoriety in her neighborhood and Brooklyn. She was now someone not to be trifled with, even more than before.
It made Velez see herself as ‘the baddest girl in the hood’ and she wanted to nurture that image with her peers. Image was everything at that time.
A year passed and Velez was seen in her neighborhood as the personification of the Brooklyn toughness and wore her time at the jail like a badge of honor. She had the respect and camaraderie of people in her community.
Within the next year, she became pregnant with her boyfriend at the time.
“As soon as he knew I was pregnant, he bought me a ring and a pair of big earrings, which was a thing,” Velez said, laughing at the fashion of the time.
Things got worse for the young couple, however, and eventually they ended up homeless. Velez’s mother begrudgingly took them in. She was always happy to have her daughter but she didn’t like her boyfriend.
“I figure out that I can go to a shelter and get an apartment before my baby’s born if I go now,” said Velez. “So, I told him, ‘Listen, I’m going to open a welfare case and through that, I can tell them I’m homeless and go to a shelter.’ He tells me, ‘I’m not going with you because I’m not going to another jail’.”
After serving prison time, her boyfriend had made a promise to himself he would never go back and saw shelters as another form of confinement.
“I’m not going to stay here and have a baby when the rats are bigger than my infant,” said Velez. “The rats were huge in New York.”
On Dec. 9th, 1994, she was accepted into a shelter on 22nd Street and 8th Avenue. Eventually, her boyfriend was talked into joining her. The apartment had cockroaches, people in the corridors high on crack and heroin. Tuberculosis and HIV were common in the mid-90s. Velez was sure many in the building suffered from these afflictions. Her boyfriend was still dealing drugs at this time and Velez constantly worried and hoped that their child might change his ways.
“I felt that [their daughter] was going to save his life. Like, that was my hope. That was my first instinct. This baby’s gonna save his life, she is going to get him off the street,” Velez said.
Her boyfriend started to work two jobs seeking to support their growing family without risking jail time.
At full term, 20-year-old Velez’s water broke and she was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital on 14th and 7th Avenue at 4 a.m. on Saturday, May 13. The labor was long and painful but finally Velez’s first child was born on Mother’s Day, May 14, 1995.
After almost 10 months of not being able to drink or party, Velez was eager to see her friends and hangout.
On June 16, just over a month after giving birth, Velez went for a night out with her friends. Velez said it was a celebration for her daughter’s birth and people were happy to supply her free drinks all night.
At one point in the evening, she saw the boyfriend of one of the girls who had jumped her in a park years before. She approached him, told him to leave and an argument ensued.
After arguing awhile, his tone changed, calm all of a sudden, he extended his hand as a show understanding and mutual respect.
“He pulls me to him and stabs me three times,” Velez recounts.
On the third thrust, the knife pierced through her spleen and got stuck in her side.
“He tried to stab me here straight [in the belly], but couldn’t because I just gave birth and my stomach was jelly. So, when he wasn’t able to do that, he stabbed me on the side,” said Velez showing the scar. “When I look down, I see the whole knife was inside of me.”
Shocked at the suddenness of the attack she began to walk away across the street to her friends, all the while clutching the knife. In the struggle, Velez had grabbed the gold chain hanging around his neck and when they broke apart, she still had it wrapped around her arm.
“He was coming at me and I’m like what the f— does he want?” said Velez, not realizing that she had his chain on her arm. She thinks he wants his knife back. “So, I take out the knife and I throw it at him.”
She continued to make her way across the dark street toward her friends with him in pursuit. The pain, Velez said, had gotten much worse and blood was now flowing down her side after she wrenched the knife out.
“When I get to [my friends] I’m almost falling into their arms and I went to speak, but nothing came out,” Velez said.
Velez was taken straight to the hospital in the back seat of a stranger’s car that her friends stopped in the street. During the drive, she feared she may never make it home to her newborn again.
When her boyfriend heard what had happened, he took to the streets to try and track the individual that had stabbed the mother of his child.
In weeks following, he was shot six times — once in the neck and five times in the torso on the streets of Brooklyn. Tears fill Velez’s eyes when she talks about her daughter’s father.
While recovering from the rupture of her spleen followed by the death of her daughter’s father, she started to think of the violent cutting of her initial on the left cheek of the girl in her neighborhood as a 17-year-old.
“That girl got a hundred ninety-seven stitches. I [was] just feeling a lot of bad,” said Velez who now feels a deep remorse and regret at the act of violence and permanent scar her actions left. The scars from the stabbing can be covered, the scars Velez gave can’t and that still plays on her mind.
The years go by and Velez worked low-paying jobs to make ends met.
In 2003, Velez lost her job. This was the turning point.
“I lost my job and I get on employment and my daughter sees me crying and says, ‘Why are you crying?’ and I said, ‘Mommy lost her job and I can’t pay for your ballet classes,” said Velez. “We can’t go have fun for a little while until Mommy gets another job.”
Velez told MassLive how heartbroken she felt telling her daughter this news and said how amazed she was by her 8-year-old daughter’s wisdom when she turned and said, “Why you don’t go back to school?”
“So, I said, you know what?” said Velez. “I’m going back to school and I’ll figure [money issues] out later.”
Money was always going to be an issue and Velez searched for months to find work but to no avail.
At 28, Velez was sent back to Rikers Island for holding packages of drugs in her apartment. Although she had made a promise to herself and her daughter, money, or the lack of it, had pulled her back into the world of crime. She was caught holding a stash of drugs in her apartment for a local dealer.
While in the back of a police cruiser in handcuffs, Velez could only think of how she had let her daughter down.
“I was devastated I was dying inside,” said Velez. “Right there in that moment when I knew I was going to jail.”
During her second time at Rikers Island Jail, she was put into solitary confinement for 20 days for fighting.
Wanting to move away from the negative influences Velez felt were in New York City she traveled to Springfield. In 2004, she arrived in Massachusetts.
She has had a passion for writing since she was 12 years old when a teacher would give her books to read to inspire and develop her. According to Velez, the teacher was breaking school policy in doing this. It was secret between her and a person in her life she respected, which made her feel special and like she had something to offer.
Velez enrolled in the Bard Microcollege in Holyoke where she came across the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He wrote about solitude and that struck a chord with Velez.
“I fell in love with it,” Velez said and she always keeps a copy on her bedside table.
“It was clear that like most humans of heart, [Velez] has a lot of depth and a lot of human comprehension and was very interested in questions about being a human and what does this mean?” said Anne Teschner, executive director of the Care Center where the Bard Microcollege is housed. “She brought to the story a very deep gate of curiosity. We can’t claim credit for that.”
Velez said that she has been inspired to look at the world through a different lens and also look at her own life for inspiration.
“The teacher asked, or she said something that made me think about the 20 days I spent in solitary confinement,” said Velez. “She’s like, ‘Oh my God, you should write about that’.”
Her writing on her experience was published in Oprah Magazine on May 5, ‘I Survived 20 Days in Solitary Confinement—Here’s How I Got Through.’
Bard Microcollege is the first college in the nation set up to serve young mothers and low-income women. Housed in the Care Center in Holyoke, small groups of women living in Chicopee, Holyoke and Springfield with a high school diploma or GED can work to earn an associate degree from Bard College.
Built to support their students, school grants cover not only the cost of tuition and books for the students but also offer transportation, child care and meals for students and their children.
“I feel like crying thinking about it,” said Velez. “I almost don’t want to leave the program because there is no other place like it, but they have given me the tools I need to get to the next level.”
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