In 1999, I made the terrible decision to participate in crimes that devastated several families and struck fear in an entire community. By the time I was 20 years old, I’d joined with two crime partners in a series of robberies, the last of which tragically resulted in a man’s death.
As I was ushered into a squad car and watched my parents cry tears of heartbreak, I had the sobering realization that my choices not only harmed my victim’s family but brought a parallel form of despair to my own. When a California judge sentenced me to 26-years-to life, I made the decision to stop hurting people and start doing something positive with my time.
The challenge I faced was accomplishing this while incarcerated. Riddled with gangs, violence and race-based warfare, prison was a warehouse of hopelessness. From the governor’s office to the banter on the yard, the prevailing thought was that if someone had the words “to-life” anywhere in their sentence, they would die behind bars. With a lack of rehabilitative programs and even less hope for freedom, there was a pervasive atmosphere of anguish, hatred and despair. In spite of this toxic environment, I made the conscious choice to avoid gang involvement and other trouble after witnessing the pain I caused my family.
In 2010, I found myself at a prison with a group of men who shared my commitment to do something productive with their time. They had recognized the state’s shift toward rehabilitation and were willing to do the hard work required for freedom. This environment of possibility showed me the power of teamwork as we formed an island of transformation and service amid the antisocial waters of prison politics. This new climate invigorated me to pursue formal education, earning a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees. Meanwhile, our team created programs that certified incarcerated men as Alcohol and Other Drug Counselors, hosted leadership workshops for college students, published a book, and established a scholarship that helped a young man receive a remarkable education.
While the purpose of our work was to do something good with our lives and add value to the community, it also contributed to Gov. Gavin Newsom deciding that I would be released from prison. I’d applied for relief along with many other people who dared to hope, but when the coronavirus crippled the world, I was unsure if my plea for mercy would ever be answered.
Then, on March 27, 2020, the warden who commended my work at the prison informed me that Gov. Newsom ordered my homecoming within six days! This news was remarkable considering that gubernatorial commutations typically only allow people to be considered for parole, a six-month process in itself.
While I will be the first to admit that this was a dream come true, I also felt a deep fear of returning to a society from which I was 20 years removed. How had things changed? Where would I live? What would I do for work? Those were just a few of the questions that swirled through my mind as I laid awake on the bunk during the nights leading up to my parole.
Thankfully, my anxieties were eased by the love and support I received from my wife and children. Initially, they were nervous too, as questions ranged from the reality of my imminent release to how drastically the routine at home might change with a 41-year-old man living under its roof. In the end, our fears melted away during that initial embrace on the day of my parole. As we taxied up to the drive-thru for my first-ever taste of Starbucks, I couldn’t help but marvel over how bright the colors of a free world appeared to my eyes.
Sadly, the support and resources I enjoyed — money, housing and employment opportunities thanks to my family and network — are not reaching most men and women coming home from prison today. In fact, the vast majority of returning citizens have minimal access to reentry counseling services, possess virtually no understanding of the ever-changing technological landscape, and have limited vocational training. According to a 2018 Brookings Institution study, more than 620,000 people are released from prisons annually in the US, and nearly half of those returning citizens don’t have any earned income to report for the first full year of their release. Those who are able to find employment earn a median income of about $10,000 a year, less than minimum wage at a full-time job.
Formerly incarcerated people are also nearly 10 times more likely to experience homelessness or unstable living conditions compared to the general public. And according to the Prison Policy Initiative, even with a high school diploma or GED a former prisoner’s odds of getting a college degree, which would help with employment prospects, are less than 1 in 20. After serving decades inside of a box largely designed to punish and isolate, people are basically pushed back into the community from the Department of Corrections and expected to fly with undeveloped wings.
This spring, as I silently gave thanks for my blessings as I was paroled, I couldn’t help but reflect on the thousands of men and women who had recently been released only to encounter formidable difficulties with finding employment and healthy living situations. What I realized as I considered these issues was that the work I began while incarcerated could not and would not end now that I was free.
I began working for the nonprofit CROP Organization and recommitted to the effort of helping restore lives and heal communities. Alongside the very same men I collaborated with while in prison, team CROP engages the important work of paving a way for others to find success upon reentry. Through personal leadership and soft-skill development, hard-skill training, pathways to livable wages, and sustainable housing, we strive to equip our fellow “brothers and sisters in blue” to not only survive reentry, but to thrive in the community.
It’s been said that a society is best judged by how it treats its criminals. I was surprised to learn that some nations don’t even have words for criminal or prisoner in their native language. They only see people who made poor choices and need rehabilitation before they are reintegrated back into the community. What might our country look like if we viewed our incarcerated citizens this way? The truth is it’s going to take all of us to end mass incarceration and solve the issues with reentry, but our work today will build the future tomorrow. And a society as great as ours is worth the investment of restoration.