Dieter Cantu is a passionate advocate for youth rights, dedicated to empowering incarcerated young individuals. His mission involves establishing libraries within juvenile detention centers, offering a diverse range of resources, including African American literature, Latino studies, self-help, and career readiness books. In juvenile detention centers, access to education and personal development resources is often limited. 

Recognizing this gap, Dieter founded Position of Power to provide these young people with the tools they need for personal growth and learning. Much like the millions of people who rely on the vitality of their communities, many young lives intersect with the justice system within these detention centers. Dieter believes that by nurturing their minds and spirits with knowledge, we can support their rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society, ultimately contributing to a brighter future for all. In the spirit of sharing his own words, he invites us to join him in this critical mission. Together, we can create positive change and provide these young individuals with the opportunities they deserve.

Read more from the In My Own Words series.

My name is Dieter Cantu, and I am an activist, community organizer, and social entrepreneur living in Houston, Texas. My journey into advocacy and youth rights stems from a deeply personal experience within the criminal justice system. As a young individual, I found myself directly impacted and subjected to a harsh sentence, primarily due to the absence of proper legal representation in court and a lack of awareness regarding my rights. 

Here is my story: I was with three other people, one of whom pulled a unloaded firearm on a pedestrian, and then stole that person’s cigarettes and cell phone. The people I was with were 17, 18, and 19 — legal adults in Texas. They were able to post bond and eventually avoid jail time after their proceedings dragged on for three years. Meanwhile, since I was 16, I was sent to juvenile detention, and, without good legal representation, I was persuaded by a court appointed attorney to take responsibility and serve 10 years. I was released after four years. Those four years represented an unjust burden for a child who bore accusations beyond their responsibility, and the duration would have been notably different had I been an adult.

During my time behind bars, I met a dedicated case worker who, through rigorous examination, found erroneous documentation within my case file. These inaccuracies were traced back to the courts in my hometown and county, which had cast a shadow over my legal proceedings. The State Central Office for Youth Corrections intervened to rectify this grave mistake, yet despite the correction, I was unable to get my sentence reclassified or reduced, due to the plea bargain I had reluctantly signed. This profoundly unjust experience ignited a fire within me, propelling me toward a lifelong commitment to advocating for youth rights and criminal justice reform.

During my time behind bars, I confronted a troubling reality characterized by racism and unjust treatment at the hands of correctional officers. The living conditions further intensified my situation, contributing to health issues that stemmed from the deplorable environment. To make matters even more challenging, I found myself subjected to solitary confinement, isolated from any form of support or connection. 

Amidst these obstacles I discovered solace, hope, and a path forward through the pages of books. Reading became my refuge, a means of escape from the harsh reality of incarceration.

Books like “The Art of Sign Language,” by Christopher Brown, “Live from Death Row” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, and “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver provided me with a lifeline, a way to envision a brighter future, and the opportunity to explore endless possibilities. Each day, the prospect of delving into a new book became a source of anticipation and tranquility, allowing me to momentarily tune out the chaos that surrounded me.

The profound impact of literature on my life during that time underscores the critical importance of providing incarcerated youth with access to books and educational resources. Many of these young people are serving time in facilities with minimal resources, limited vocational training, and a glaring absence of support systems. 

This dire situation often results in their transition to the adult criminal justice system or release without a clear plan, ultimately increasing the likelihood of reoffending. This unfortunate cycle can be attributed to various factors, including understaffed correctional facilities in Texas, a lack of compassion among some correctional officers who resort to punitive measures rather than rehabilitation, and insufficient funding allocated to youth correctional centers. It is imperative that we address these systemic issues and provide young incarcerated people with the tools and resources they need to break free from this cycle and build brighter futures.

Here’s why the cycle is so hard to break out of: Often, when young people don’t have constructive outlets and activities, they become restless, and can cause disturbances within detention facilities. Regrettably this can lead to the perception that they are not "working the program," or following the rules, and subsequently lead to further consequences during their detention. Eventually they may end up with extended sentences, or at the very least, loose the opportunity of early release.

This is precisely why I started Cantu’s Books to Incarcerated Youth Project, and why we seek partners to join us in providing comprehensive support to incarcerated youth. Our approach goes beyond solely disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline; instead, we focus on those presently within the system. We try to empower these young people with mentorship, pen-pal programs, regular visits, and personalized development plans that align with the literature they engage with. 

Our vision extends beyond bars and detention centers; we envision a future where advocates continue to support these youth post-release, connecting them with policymakers who can amplify their voices and champion their experiences to drive systemic change.

But what does all of this mean, in real life? Take the case of Joshua Morales. I met Joshua while incarcerated — he was a repeat offender before I met him but since he’s engaged in our program, he has not relapsed. Upon his release, we’ve written to each other, and I've guided him and helped redirect his aggression over the years. Since his release, he has helped with many of my community events and even speaks to the kids as well and helps distribute books. 

In a landscape where many concentrate their efforts on preventing entry into the criminal justice system, we take a distinct path by concentrating on those already within it. Our mission is to equip incarcerated youth with the tools, guidance, and opportunities they need to ensure they are on a path towards a brighter future and to provide them with a platform to influence systemic reforms actively.

We need to reimagine how we support our children who have made the wrong choices in life. It's time to transform our correctional systems, focusing on redemption and restoration for our youth. They need access to books, quality education, opportunities to explore their creativity, and structured ways to occupy their time while developing their skill sets and natural talents. I call on you to join us in this crucial endeavor, to advocate for change, and to stand with our youth as they work toward a better future. Together, we can create a system that uplifts, rehabilitates, and provides hope for our young individuals who deserve a second chance.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

Reading Helped Me Survive. Now I Take Action to Help Incarcerated Youth Access Justice and a Better Life.

By Dieter Cantu