UTAH STATE PRISON — In 1999, as 3rd District Judge Robert Hilder sentenced Michael Anthony Figueroa to up to life in prison, he remained optimistic.
"I do want to send a message there is hope," Hilder told Figueroa. "I do think you have potential."
Figueroa was 17 when he shot and killed a rival gang member at a bus stop near 900 S. State in Salt Lake City on Aug. 9, 1997. He was sentenced to six years to life at the Utah State Prison for the death of David Castillo, 27, and injuring two others.
Since then, it appears Figueroa has done his best to live up to his potential under the circumstances.
On Jan. 23, he went before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole. He is already scheduled to be paroled in 2022. But the board may consider releasing him earlier because of his progress.
Board member Denise Porter, who conducted Figueroa's hearing, was very complimentary of the work he has done since being sent to prison, calling him an example to others.
"You could have easily made some different choices," she said in a recording of the hearing.
Figueroa, now 37, has not had a write-up since 2010. He lives in the honors dorm at the prison and works in the graphic arts department, learning skills that he hopes will benefit him once he's released. He is also no longer involved in gangs.
But he said what has really helped him is a mental health treatment class that he participates in once a week with a "lifers" group, about 15 inmates who have all been in prison 20 years or more, including some who won't be paroled.
"We all have that in common. We've been down a long time," Figueroa said. "I think it's benefited me because it’s allowed me to review myself.
"I know that I wanted to get out of prison and do good. But this class has actually allowed me to get deep inside myself to learn what my motivations are, what I can do to stay away from the stuff that got me into prison before,” he said.
Figueroa said one of the most important lessons he has learned is to not get caught up in what others are thinking, especially those who aren't important to him. Before, Figueroa said, he was influenced too much by the older gang members that were around him. Since being in prison, he said he no longer hangs around that element.
"I know what’s important, and it’s not being that person,” he said.
When he is released, Figueroa also said he has learned that he can ask others for help, whereas when he was a teenager, his pride told him he had to do things on his own.
Figueroa said he has had a lot of time in prison to think about who he is and his former gang lifestyle.
"I want to get out there and not only prove to myself, but prove to the people who have been behind me since day one that I’m not this person, I’m not the person who committed the crime,” he said. "I know it’s not going to be easy. Like you said, I’ve been here 20 years. A lot has changed."