Released after 21 years
The only word that came close to describing my feeling after getting out was “surreal” as I stepped out of the van and onto the sidewalk outside the west gate of San Quentin on September 30th, 2019. The colors were more vivid –– greener, bluer –– than I’d remembered. I noticed every detail: the trees, the bay, cars coming and going, the busyness and vitality of life.
“Over here,” called Jacques, my friend and mentor from a program inside called Guiding Rage Into Power, who was video recording my release and would be taking me to my transitional housing. The Dream Center in Oakland would be the next step in my journey after serving twenty-one years of a thirty-six-year sentence. But first, I wanted food.
As we entered my first restaurant as a free person, video equipment and all, people greeted Jacques and I, they all looked curious as to what was happening. It was then that I realized- I was the only person of color. I was used to being around and living with people primarily of my own color from my years in prison. The waitress was very nice, and after my delicious French toast breakfast, she asked us what the camera was for. We told her that I was just released from San Quentin after serving 21 years in state prison. She and some other patrons welcomed me back home, I was overwhelmed with appreciation. I told her what we do as GRIP facilitators and she began to cry. I could feel her bitterness. She slowly revealed her personal story about her dad’s recent murder and shared that his killer is currently on death row. I felt the need to apologize to her, as she was a victim of a terrible crime. As a long-term offender, it was very important for me to acknowledge and take account for my wrongs although I was not connected in any way to her actual story. Owning up is how I continue to transform my life, and it was a poignantly moving experience for both of us. We later parted with a big hug and she asked if we could take a picture together. We left after she accepted our invitation to visit one of our classes sometime later. But because of COVID-19 this hasn’t happened yet.
For me, getting out was like a rebirth. I had a startling, vivid, and enjoyable day. Soon after, I spent a day at Lake Merritt, which was my first time in an open space with time to sit and relax. It was there when I first noticed how different the outside world had become –– so many people were moving around, enjoying life, and doing everyday things: I saw people running and biking, and there were families picnicking. The liveliness and industriousness of all the people made me realize that life was flying around me. This made my heart beat firmly with meaning. I felt that I could do anything, and become anything.
My first home was the Oakland Dream Center, where I spent eleven months, and I attribute part of my reentry success to them. During my time there I was fortunate enough to land two jobs, the first of which was at the same organization that helped me rehabilitate inside, Guiding Rage Into Power, they taught me a lot about emotional literacy and set me up for success. With GRIP, I am able to give back and counsel men like myself in Avenal State Prison. For many men inside, I facilitate the identification of emotions other than anger and lust, simple feelings I call ‘The Manbox.’ These are the two acceptable feelings given to us from society, we as males, are taught to show, which instill a false sense of respect. As men, we often portray ourselves as ladies’ men, which ultimately leads us unfulfilled to a state of sadness, grief and hurt. I ask those I work with, who live inside the walls, to stay hopeful. After they put in the hard work, opportunity will meet preparation and if they continue practicing patience and stay the course this is when blessings occur. When they are ready to get past their old narratives, they will need to grow out of past titles and see themselves differently. As better human beings, with better human characteristics, while learning to navigate emotions in the moment. Otherwise, as men we aren’t living whole.
I am also fortunate in my work to give back to my community while working for 5 Keys Schools and Programs. They are a large non-profit that serves the homeless and incarcerated communities. As an ambassador for 5 Keys, I ensure that guests at our homeless sites are treated with dignity and respect, and with proper guidance will be transitioned into permanent housing. This work feels very enriching on many levels.
There are so many of us that were formerly incarcerated flourishing and it gives me joy seeing them excel. Hard work on the inside pays off on the outside. It’s cumulative. We must create and reestablish values and use each other for support. You will often hear us say to one another, “You good?” We check in on each other and lean in, especially on the heavy life stressors. We are there for each other to break down what is on our mind to make it manageable. We use our learned emotional intelligence to support one another. Together we can go from incarceration to living our best life.
What’s next? I want to go back to school to study social work with an emphasis on mental health. I’m learning about the business world, the stock market, and investments.
I know there are many challenges ahead and I embrace it. My daily motivation is high, I know if I gave up my self-esteem would plummet, and I wouldn’t be able to move through this world with confidence and compassion. Inevitably, I fall short, and when I do, I’d get back up and try again, but I don’t –– and won’t –– fail. For me, to fail means that I have given up all possibility of changing something that I control, like how I deal with each circumstance and condition. To fall short means that although I haven’t reached my mark I’m going to keep striving until I do. I might make mistakes in the process, but I will learn from them and hopefully gain wisdom through time. One thing I have learned is that time heals and reveals.
Today, I live in my own apartment with a great lady. We recently got engaged and I truly feel as though I am home. Right now, I’m sitting in my La-Z-Boy chair with my dog on my lap appreciating the moment. It’s liberating to be able to pay my own rent, to have a roof over my head and to live in a place with things I’ve worked hard to aquire. The sense of responsibility is energizing, especially since I have several obligations and I am grateful for it.