Skip to main content

Diane: Thanks for giving me your time. Tell us about your release.

Eric: I was released on February 27 in an executive clemency by Governor Captain Huckle after serving 14 of a 16-to-life sentence. I had many notable people, you included, involved in getting me released. Changing the narrative, my journey, my story, and what happened exactly. They talked about my traumas, my childhood, and everything that led to my addiction.

The crime of burglary was fueled by my addiction, but it’s more than just that; it’s why I used it in the first place. A lot of people who have addictions use them to master pain. And, I didn’t want to proactively address that to anyone, to speak openly to people. I was ashamed. I wanted to feel like I had it all together, or maybe I feared people judging me.

I didn’t have an outlet, but I learned I did, and people were very supportive. During my incarceration, in many of the group settings available to Sing Sing, especially in college, and in the courses we took in psychology and sociology, many people got to personalize their papers and speak openly in class. I was surprised and amazed that a lot of people’s stories were not so different from mine, and that just comforted me, so I was able to chime in little by little, slowly, and be able to identify and share stories of what worked for them, and use some of that narrative to practice, like, how do they cope?

I just wanted to move forward, especially since the most challenging time was when my mother passed in February 2017. At that time, I was in the Hudson Link pre-college program. I was just about to graduate, and it was devastating. It hit me like a ton of bricks. What was interesting during that time was the individuals that I had previous incarcerations with, who were still into their drug addiction, who knew me back then when I was drug addicted, offered me the only way they could offer me condolence was to provide me with drugs. “Hey, I heard your mom passed. You know, listen here, this will take a little chip off.” And at that time I was like, “What are you kidding me? No!” I was so far removed because that got me in this position. Right there, I knew I was ready because I was far removed and repulsed by it, and I only wanted to do better. Besides, this is what my mother wanted anyway, right? It was the last thing I wanted to do.

Diane: How did you cope with your mother’s loss? 

Eric: The only bad thing that came out of that day is that I now have insomnia. I sleep four or five hours, but that’s also due to the habit of studying late at night and busting out papers. I’m about seven courses shy right now from graduating with a Bachelors in Behavioral Science. From here, I have two options available to me. I can attend NYU or the Justice and Education Scholars program at Columbia University to do my MSW.

It’s empowering. A lot of people have offered their help and opened doors for me. They see you doing good, and they’re willing to help you. It’s not like before, when I was combative, and doors were closing on me. NYU has a program for the formerly incarcerated, the Scholar’s Program. Chauncey Ramos is at NYU. He’s giving me some pointers, like who to speak with, and I’ve spoken to several people from that organization.

Diane: Tell me how you felt when you learned you got Clemency.

Eric: Oh my god, I thought it was a joke. The counselors called me down. 

“Do you realize why you’re here?” I was like, “No, what did I do?”  

You were granted executive pardon, a commutation of sentence. You’re going to the board in a couple of weeks. I was like, are you kidding me? I didn’t even know where to start. When I returned to my block, I tried to keep it quiet because the block I was living in was in the Honor Block. It’s a tiny community.

Diane: Explain to the people who are listening what Honor Block means.

Eric: Honor Block, you have to be disciplinary-free for about four years before being accepted. Then, it takes another four years until a bed opens because there are a lot of people on the waiting list. But once you’re in there, you’re in a small community of maybe 80 individuals. You’re afforded amenities that the general population does not have. For example, the cells are open from 6:30am in the morning to 10:30pm at night. There are three tiers, and you can go everywhere in the block, including the basement, which has industrial-sized refrigerators and stoves. There’s a workout area, state-of-the-art. And there’s also a bathhouse there. You don’t have to go where the general population goes. You could go to the general population yard, but why? That’s where all the drama and gang activity and many of us stay away from it. We have the same goals. Most individuals are either in college or graduated, facilitating programs; we’re all about rehabilitation.

The aim and focus is not to go out the same way you came in. Admittedly, when I came in, I was a mess. I addressed many of my deficiencies, but I’m still a work in progress. I haven’t been this happy in such a long time; where I’m not stressed, and I just know that I’m going to be okay.

Diane: I can tell. I can feel your happiness. 

Eric: Right now, I’m just building my social network and getting involved in programs. I’ve been invited to many forums to meet many people, and hopefully, in a couple of weeks, I’ll have a radio interview. 

Diane: That’s exciting. There are so many possibilities. Take me back to the night before you were released, and explain how you’re feeling. 

Eric: Before my release, I couldn’t sleep, and there are always special people around us. “Okay, who do I leave my radio with?” “Who do I give my TV to?” Oh man, there are so many good people here. I don’t want to make one feel jealous of the other. So, I went through that and the hugs, and I had a very good, strong network of people who will definitely miss me, and I will miss them as well.

Hopefully, I’ll still maintain contact. It’s bittersweet because some really good people have had the clemency packets for many years, and their lawyers have been fighting with their families. They are extensive. They’ve done a lot to better themselves, a lot more than what I’ve done, and they’ve been my inspiration and helped me along the way. I’d say, ‘Man, I want to be like that guy; he doesn’t stop.’ Such as Michael Shane Hale… Oh my God, his accomplishments and achievements are extraordinary. He was always the go-to guy for me while I was there. He was living on the tier below me, and I would say, “Hey, listen, I’m having this issue. Do you know anybody?” And he was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” He had a file cabinet and directed me in the right direction.

Diane: Walk us out of prison that morning. How was it once you left the cell?

Eric: I was in shambles and tears before walking out and giving hugs.

I’m being escorted by an officer, and they’re far removed. You know, it’s a process they’re used to doing daily. I’m like, “Hey, I made executive clemency.” They say, “Yeah, that’s good, let’s go guys, move on.” I got the clothes that my brother sent me. Coming out, I was met by Chloe Serinsky, the Clemency Project Director, who did my packet, and Brian Russ, formerly incarcerated, who also made Clemency a very good friend of mine. Jolene, Brian’s wife. Oh my God, a beautiful group of people, including Robert Ehrenberg.

Then we went to the Hudson Link office. They gave me a brand new wardrobe of clothes, it was amazing. All the Hudson Link staff, some of whom are formerly incarcerated people I knew, were also released years prior. Education coordinators who are in other prisons, including Sing Sing. What was ironic, right? They said, “Oh yeah, by the way, we got you a laptop.” I said, “You got me a laptop?” They said, “Yeah, you’re still in school, right?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m still in school. Are you kidding me? You’re giving me a laptop?” So I said, “You know I was in prison for doing a burglary and stealing a laptop? Now, I’m coming out and getting a laptop. This is awesome.” It’s all blessed. Then, there were a lot of reentry programs that also helped you along the way to get my phone. The only anxiety that I have after being incarcerated for so long is tech and setting up email. Every app I open, they want the email, they want the phone number, password, codes… Oh my God.

I know a lot more now than I did, and I love it—just having to go through it. Oh, you know what I did on my first day out?

Diane: What? 

Eric: I went to an NA meeting on my first day out. Who does that, right? After nearly 15 years, I made the announcement:

“Hi, my name is Eric, I’m an addict. I haven’t used it in over 14 years.” and everybody clapped. “I was released today from prison after doing over 14 years.” And, it was like, “What, you couldn’t have done anything else? You had to go to an NA meeting?” I was like, “Yeah, why not?” So, that was pretty cool. I was amazed by how many people didn’t define me. They came around me, embraced me, and exchanged phone numbers. I have a network of people I get in touch with now, so it’s amazing that it feels good. It really does.

Diane: Tell me where you went that night. You left the NA meeting; where did you sleep?

Eric: I was accepted into Abraham House, Thrive for Life. It’s a niche halfway house. It’s state-of-the-art. I could not believe the amenities that they had there. There are only 14 individuals in this house. Most of us have our own room, and I have a memory foam bed. There’s a library with computers – it’s amazing, and the food they serve… I had filet mignon and shrimp. The staff is really nice; Father Zach has been amazing, and Judy and Milagros, the counselors, help you because they know that you’ve not been in society for so long and you may not know how to navigate yourself around the city or how to go about who to call when to call.

They’ve been helping me along the way, and I’ve been blessed; there are also community meetings where everybody talks about what they’re going through, and most people have anxiety after being in for so long. Now, all of a sudden, there are all these people around them. I was anxious on the train, and there were so many people, and I just tried to put my head down and look normal.  

Diane: You got on the train the first day? 

Eric: Yeah, not from Sing Sing. A friend drove me to Abraham House. But once I got there, I unpacked all the clothes that they gave me, and they said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’m going to an NA meeting.” They said, “Are you kidding me?” I said, “No, I’m not.” “You know how to get there?” “I’ll figure it out.”

It was nice to walk alone across the street and ask for directions. I made it down there and then came back… it was nice. I went to the store and took out a dollar. I can’t believe little things are so expensive. Tic-Tacs! I remember that before going to prison, it was only about 75 cents. I handed a guy a dollar, “Let me get a pack of tic-tacs.” He goes, “You need two more dollars.” I said, “What? $3!” I’m in the South Bronx over here, but I’m not on the Upper East Side of Manhattan! They said three dollars! A lot of things became expensive. I don’t want to go to Starbucks because I can’t imagine. It’s through the roof. That’s my only vice. You know, it’s just coffee, and I need coffee. 

Diane: How was your first night sleeping as a free man?

Eric: I actually slept really well. Although it was only for four or five hours, it was restful. It was like a relief, and I thank God. I prayed and prayed and prayed. I did. And, I’m not religious, but I know that you pray and make some promises, and you better keep them. I will.  

Diane: As my husband likes to say, the only thing we really have is our word. 

Eric: That’s right.  

Diane: What else do you want to share about your first couple of days out?

Eric: My younger brother… He’s so happy. So is my son. During my incarceration, he was touch and go. He was little and resented that I was absent from many parts of his life. Now, he’s like, “Hey, I’m actually glad that you’re out.” I’ve been talking to him, and he’s getting a little bit better but has anxiety somewhat like I do. I said, “On a scale of 1 to 10, Joshua?” And he’s like, “About a 7.” That’s pretty high… So he and I have been talking through these exercises and practicing leaving anxiety. He’s instrumental, you know, being part of his life, somewhat proactive. He’s an adult now, but I wanted to see if I could strengthen and re-bond.

Diane: Yeah, in time, right? Just give it some time, be there.  

Eric: He said he might come back down during Christmas, just because his mom lives in Westchester, and I was like, “Oh, that’d be cool. I like that.” 

Diane: What about your younger brother? Are you going to see him? 

Eric: He’s all the way to Chula Vista, CA, so maybe. I need to tell my parole officer. I’m following everything, all the required mandates, right?  

Diane: What are you looking forward to doing?


Eric: Well, I’m looking forward to working. I want to work just about anywhere right now, part-time. However, for a career, I want to do some counseling for at-risk youth. I was definitely one of them growing up. If I had that one particular person that I could find. Please find it in someone who’s been there; I might have been able to listen. I want to save at least one person.

Still, I’ve also been speaking with Professor Epstein, who is from Mercy University, and he walked me through how to run and operate a small business. I did a PowerPoint presentation on how I used to bake jumbo-sized cookies. We call them School Bus Cookies. Why a school bus, you ask? I used to get bullied as a kid. So, my mom would bake cookies. And, she would say, “Bring these with you on the school bus and give them out. You’ll make friends.”

Diane: Smart woman.

Eric:  So, in honor of my mother, after she passed, I remember baking cookies with her, so I started making cookies in the prison because, on the block, you have the refrigerator, the microwave, and everything.

I made different types of cookies, like amaretto, chocolate chips, and coconut. I had bags and packages, and I was giving them out to people in the prison. Before I knew it, I used to get these pieces of paper: “Hey, this guy gave this to me and said to send me some of those cookies.” So, I started making labels: School Bus Crookies. I want to continue with that. I think I could do something with it. Proceeds can go to higher education in prison because it changed my life. Many of these organizations, such as Hudson Link, are how I thrived – the contributions. I want to be that guy; I want to give back. I want to be a success story.

Diane: I want to open that cookie store with you.

Eric: Yeah, definitely. I have a lot of ingredients. I don’t want to make a regular chocolate chip cookie; I want to make something with guava paste and banana.

Diane: That sounds delicious, especially now that you can put a little piece of guava on top or something like that. You’ve always been a good proponent of Humans of San Quentin. I would love to hear you speak about that and how it affected you or your view. 

Eric: Oh, it was definitely empowering. A few years back, all of a sudden, I went to my kiosk to see if my brother responded to my email, and there were Humans of San Quentin asking if I wanted to be interviewed. “How did they get my information?” I asked people on the fly, and I thought, “Alright.” I asked around, and they said they didn’t know what you were talking about. 

Diane: We were coming to the area and got a hold of the Public Information Officer, Tom Miley, and said I wanted to come and interview people in prison. He said, “Great, who are they?” Katie Parsons, a senior in high school at the time, went on the NY Department of Corrections Inmate Locator and looked up common last names. So, we found six people. 

Eric: Oh, man. I’m glad it wasn’t like Bartholomew. So, I was one of them, and from there, Diane and I developed a good rapport, and I would always send suggestions or questions. 

Diane: I still have them!

Eric: I was trying to network, and I remember doing a roundtable discussion with some people there. I was involved in RTA, Carnegie Hall Program, Mercy University, and Hudson Link. There were 12 different rehabilitation programs, and I suggested to the roundtable questions that could be addressed, such as what made them want to do this/be a better person. So, Michael Shane Hale, singing Opera in Prison, told me, “I have to do it quietly.” I said, “How do you do it quietly in your cell to practice?” He goes, “Under my covers, it’s too embarrassing otherwise.” He’s a lot of people’s favorite in prison. He broke a lot of stereotypes in prison about being gay. Unless you heard it from someone else or he told you directly. Most people are used to being flamboyant, but he’s a wealth of information, and he’s everyone’s favorite guy for help with whatever it is. He’s super smart and a friend of mine for life, for sure. 

So, the last time you came into prison, you interviewed three individuals that I am very close with, and I knew that they would have something smart to say: Kareem Cunningham, Michael Shane Hale, and Samuel Acevedo. Sammy is getting out May 12, after 25 years or something like that. He has achieved a Master’s degree, and he’s been an inspiration, not just to me but to many individuals who I’ve noticed that years ago, they weren’t doing anything. But because they were around Sammy for a while, he encouraged them to have a brighter future down the line, and I feel good that these are my network of people that I’ve been around.   

Diane: Is there anything you want to add?

Eric: I want to say that regardless of what you’ve done, your crime itself, don’t let that define people. Don’t let that be the reason you are defined today. I mean, we’re talking many years afterward. Judge me not by the color of my skin. I had certain prejudices about people’s behaviors before studying psychology and sociology. I got to know a little about myself and others and found empathy. I understand people a bit more; it feels good that I’m past that. I don’t judge people. I want to make myself a better person and try to practice it. It wasn’t easy. I just wanted to surround myself with good individuals. The idea is you gotta get out.     

Diane: It is so good to see you.

Eric: Not a problem, thank you. So awesome.

Leave a Reply

Receive more inspiring stories and news from incarcerated people around the world.