Relief for Lifers Is an Imperfect Road to Freedom

by on March 20, 2023 · 2 comments

in Civil Rights, San Diego

By Terrie Best

The inhumane “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” philosophy is being reevaluated in the state of California and it sometimes has startling results. It’s the “throw away” part that has always been crushing to those who watched the harm of mass incarceration over the tough-on-crime decades. But lawmakers are offering hope and it’s working.

California plans to close a whole schedule of prison yards over the course of 3 years and there will be tears of joy and significant fear.  The effects are staggering to some. A lot of prison guards will be out of jobs. Clearly folks’ spirits are better off without a job warehousing others.

Prison cops who get laid off, if they even do, will land on their feet because the California Correctional and Peace Officers Association, a union that protects them, will do their job and the union is powerful. For decades CCPOA has been responsible for some heavy status quo monitoring to the detriment of prisoners and taxpayers.

But, it’s the inmates who are really on edge over the facility closures, not knowing where they will be moved, will they be relocated farther from family, will it be cold where they are going, will they survive another year. Then there are the lucky and growing number who unexpectedly get released.

California lawmakers are churning out legal avenues to freedom for lifers in a flurry of Assembly and Senate bills. Finally we have embraced reducing the state’s prison population. It took 28 years.

1995 was the year the federal courts told the California Department of Corrections they were cruel and unusual and needed to reduce the number of inmates housed. The CCPOA fought every step of the way to prevent this reduction and California maintained huge prison populations way past what was excusable. At one point prisons were operating at  200% of design capacity.

Finally the corrections department ran out of excuses and a federal receiver assumed responsibility for the population reduction. The feds literally took over our prisons and I don’t think that even helped the situation.

The way lifers are actually getting breaks now is through legislation. Some of the bills passed take a second look at youth offenders whose crimes took place between ages 18-25, and another relooks at those folks who were at the scene of a crime when the gun went off but had no knowledge it would happen. Much of the relief is also focused on the unconstitutional gang enhancements perpetrated on Black and brown folks since the enactment of STEP (Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention) Act, a racist state law passed in 1988.

Part of this come to Jesus moment lawmakers were experiencing was all occurring under the backdrop of the pandemic when prisoners were totally isolated. In 2020, Governor Newsom convened a commission to revise the penal code because of those racist gang enhancements. A study of Department of Corrections data shows gang enhancements were used on Black and brown folks 97% of the time and when caucasian offenders did get charged with gang enhancements, they had Latino sounding last names.

When visitation to prison stopped in 2020 due to COVID, an organization called Redemption Row, which advocates for lifers, asked for volunteers to write to the folks inside to help with the isolation. So I took a prison pen pal. His name is Kevin.

Kevin mentors men inside and he eventually asked me to assist a newly paroled friend. And that’s what this story is about.

Tywan is 36 and identifies as an ex-gang member. He was serving 20 years in prison and had already served 12. But one day in Sacramento, unknown to Tywan, his case was given a second look by a guy paid to do such things. The case got this attention due to the changes in Penal Code 1170 brought on by the governor’s commission. Tywan was just 22 when he was charged but now a complete stranger had looked past his crime at the man and threw him a rope.

Tywan knows exactly where he was sitting when this life line from Sacramento came. He told me he asked God if there was something for him other than 10 more years inside. He had already worked very hard to get off a level 3 prison yard, a spot with tighter lockdown and less programming. Now he was on level 2 and though he was glad to be able to move around a little, he was still destitute. As a lot of families do, his had broken up and his wife left him. The life of a prison spouse is a hard one. Some just can’t stay.

Shortly after Tywan sat praying for guidance a prison porter approached him and told him a counselor was asking to see him which is where he learned his case was being revisited. He cried in disbelief then got really scared. He had something to lose again.

Tywan had received what is described as an 1170 letter notifying him he’d been recommended for a resentencing hearing. Since he was one of the first in his prison to receive such a document nobody knew what it was. He went to work researching and waiting for news of a  resentencing hearing. The wait was excruciating. Tywan wrote to his judge, he asked prison legal experts and he waited some more. He waited nearly over a year. He felt like he would die. He made more inquiries but there appeared to be nobody home at the courts and nobody home at the public defender’s office due to COVID. Tywan could not get answers.

Finally, justice.

Then one day a public defender wrote and told Tywan his 1170 letter had never reached the courts to trigger the resentencing hearing. Once it did, that’s when things started moving at a faster and unfamiliar pace. His attorney asked for the resentencing hearing and a judge agreed.  Then Tywon learned the DA was arguing the 1170 letter was so old Tywan should not be granted a hearing at all.

That’s how evil the system can be. Somebody other than Tywan had failed to send a document to the courts during a pandemic and the DA thought: game over for this guy. They set about keeping a man in prison for 10 more years over a failure of bureaucracy. In the end, the DA’s grasping argument was unsuccessful and the judge, prosecutor and public defender settled on a 12 year sentence. Tywan had already served that.

He walked out of prison in February 2023.

While Tywan and I spoke on the phone about the waiting he did in prison, he was holding his urine because his parole officer had just called and was coming over to test him for drugs. More waiting on a cruel system.

As I agonized over how to really help, I reviewed what I already knew. Tywan is a kind, lively and thoughtful man. The first time I talked to him he was scared. He had just left a very dodgy halfway house and an aunt he didn’t know well had agreed to give him a room to live in. He was talking on his new phone which he didn’t know how to work as he waited for her.

Newly freed, he had needed to walk into T-mobile and spend what little money he had on a phone because there was no phone at the halfway house he was paroled to and no way to call his parole officer. A requirement of parole is that the department can reach you. I reflected that halfway houses without phones are nothing more than traps.

Since Tywan didn’t have an email address yet, I took screen captures of a list of employment agencies in his city and texted them to him. Then I left him alone for a couple days and worried.

The next time I spoke to Tywan he had a job and a bank account and was having coffee and donuts with his aunt. She takes him to his night shift and picks him up in the morning. A blessing and a visual that thoroughly charmed me because of the safety in it.

The bumpy road out of prison was scary for this man. As Kevin described it, first TTywan was focused on the excruciating time ahead in prison, then he began ruminating on the letter and making it out of prison at all, then he worried about getting out too soon and would he have had enough job training and preparation. He was scared. I would be too. I was scared for him. I told my mom about the recent phenomenon of surprise prison releases – put in a cage as a very young man and practically growing up inside a cell, then suddenly without much warning facing the prospect of succeeding in a very different world. She was frightened too but now both of us can stop worrying. Tywan is going to be alright.

He is just one gifted guy though. We need re-entry offerings for all parolees. There are some hella great people coming out of prisons. They are humble, helpful and desperate to create a life worth living and eager to be of service.

There are resources from the department of rehabilitation so we are told, but a multitude of choices can overwhelm the newly freed at times. Tywan struggled to understand what he even wanted to do. He still struggles.

We talk frequently and my heart has swelled with compassion for my friend. Our fellow humans who are getting released – because we agreed racism contributed to their incarceration – need help navigating questions like “what am I going to do for work?”, “is school worth the time and expense?” as well as “how do I give Zoom permission to use my phone’s microphone?” and “how do I change that yellow fist emoji to a Black one?”

Tywan and I agree to be friends for life. He actually said that. It was and is an honor.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joni Halpern March 21, 2023 at 10:58 am

Terrie, thank you for that wonderful article. It shows the humanity of a person whom the correctional officers’ union and the candidates who are looking for traction in their run for public office encourage the public to cast aside fatally flawed. Yes, there are people who need to be separated from the public because they cannot or will not control their conduct. But there are a great many others who were ushered into the prison system before they ever had another option. Every day, I see kids who suffer from the lack of housing, or who live with hunger or who never see one or both parents because of long hours at low-paid jobs, or family break-ups that occur because of financial stress, or because of incarceration. We tell these kids, “Mind your manners. Go to school every day. Do your homework. Never give up. And someday you can go to college and then your life will be great.” But we care nothing as a society about the suffering of these kids and their families along the way. Childhood under stress is a moment-by-moment struggle to survive. It is not sustained by the hope that if everything goes perfectly, 10 or more years later, there will be a pot at the end of the rainbow. These new laws to free some prisoners restart hope. They await destruction by grossly inadequate post-release opportunities, and by those who believe that if 1,000 lives are restarted by these efforts, even one failure among those released should cancel all further efforts.


Terrie Best March 23, 2023 at 6:14 am

Thank you for the wonderful comment! We should take the revenge out of prison and focus on public safety as the primary goal for the very reasons you mention. Peace upon all our heads!


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