Former Gang Leader Casey Diaz Shares His Testimony: ‘I Marked People for Death. Jesus Marked Me for Life.’

Image: Christopher Fragapane

Casey Diaz is the author of The Shot Caller: A Latino Gangbanger’s Miraculous Escape from a Life of Violence to a New Life in Christ (Thomas Nelson). He lives in Los Angeles, where he owns a sign-making business and serves as a part-time pastor.


In prison, I was a shot caller.

Shot callers have an elevated rank in the gang world. They are the power-brokers who determine who gets hurt (or killed) and who doesn’t. They command respect.

I started down this path as a teenager in South-Central Los Angeles, as a leader in the Rockwood Street Locos. I led the way when we invaded homes, broke into cars, ransacked convenience stores, and stabbed rival gang members. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the streets were bloody. Most of the time, it was kill or be killed.

Eventually, the LAPD caught up with me. I was sentenced to nearly 13 years for second-degree murder—along with 52 counts of armed robbery. I actually breathed a sigh of relief that those were the only charges the cops could pin on me.

Life Was Very Cheap

While awaiting transfer to New Folsom State Prison—a Level IV maximum security prison near Sacramento, California—I was housed with 120 murderers and violent criminals inside Pitchess Detention Center, north of Los Angeles.

At Pitchess, we segregated ourselves: blacks aligning with blacks, whites with whites, and Latinos with Latinos. Several dudes from two long-established gangs, 18th Street and Florencia 13, approached me about becoming a shot caller there.

One of my responsibilities was the control and distribution of shanks, the crude homemade knives used for stabbing another prisoner. I slept with all 13 of them under my mattress. When a riot went off, I made sure the right people got shanks. There were many violent upheavals at Pitchess, and inmates got stabbed and killed all the time. All it took was a wrong look at the wrong person, and you were done for. Life was very cheap.

After about six months, I was transferred to New Folsom State Prison. When the bus dropped us off at the main building, I saw guards pacing on catwalks, their arms cradling Mini-14s—small, lightweight semi-automatic rifles.

The warden, standing next to a phalanx of serious-looking guards in riot gear, cleared his throat. “I want you to look at the sign to your right,” he said. My eyes alighted on a white sign with red lettering that read, “No Warning Shots Fired.” “In case of a riot,” the warden continued, “we will not be aiming at your feet, we will not be aiming at your legs, and we will not be aiming at your torso. We will be aiming directly at your head to kill you.”

When the warden was gone, a guard approached me with a manila file in hand. “Diaz, follow me,” he ordered. I was led inside the prison to an interview room, where the guard introduced himself as a gang coordinator. “Listen closely, Diaz,” he said. “We know that you’re a banger and a shot caller, so we’re putting you in solitary.”

I would be cooped up in an eight-by-ten-foot windowless box, with all my meals slipped in through a slot in the steel door (or “gate”). Social interactions with other inmates (and guards) would be nearly nonexistent.

The only source of illumination in my cell was a heavy Plexiglas light that couldn’t be turned off, which made it difficult to get any sleep. And without a clock or wristwatch to consult, I had trouble distinguishing whether it was day or night. There was nothing to do—no TV, no radio, no books. Only the meals broke the monotony.

I had been told by prisoners in Pitchess that if you’re not strong-willed, then solitary confinement could absolutely break you. There were times when I wondered if I would keep my sanity.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today