Beyond the Bars
Here, you will find stories of individuals we have interviewed during their time incarcerated, and were fortunate enough to interview post incarceration. These stories and pictures provide insight into the struggles many formerly incarcerated individuals face upon reentering society, and reveal life beyond bars.
While some stories contain the gratification of instant success we often seek in narratives, they offer enlightening perspectives on challenges that many people, both incarcerated and non-incarcerated, deal with in society today.
The pictures, quotes, and stories below reveal the experiences, both positive and negative, to which these individuals have been exposed.
We hope that these stories expand your knowledge and understanding surrounding the difficulties many formerly incarcerated individuals face, as well as their lives post-release.
I come from a place of suffering, of loneliness, pain, so when I was first free, I couldn’t believe it. I was overwhelmed, not knowing, with fear of the unknown. I could feel the weight on my shoulders. I went to prison at 23, I was a baby and came back at 39. Now what are you gonna do? You got books, you got plans, you gonna put up that book, you gonna do your music, you gonna find a job. What are you gonna do, Smiley?
I’m not a gang member anymore. I’m working. I pay taxes. I don’t want to be judged for something that I did when I was like 16.
As soon as I got out of the car, my kids came running up and hugged me. My older brother was there, my cousins, friends…
I’m just blessed. I found out that, while I thought I was being a lousy friend, it’s really hard to get back to people. I constantly have calls coming in and my time keeps getting booked up. But, everybody is lousy in communication. Everybody’s so busy.
I scrutinize every place I go. I went to iHop the other day, and the guy walked up to me and gave me two menus. He said, “Is this take-out, or for here?” I said, “I just want to look at the menu; let me see.” and said, “I’ll never come back here again!” The world has changed. I’ll have to find my spot in it, but until they give me an oil well, it ain’t happening.
It was weird how we met. We were both living in the homeless shelter and I had been there for almost two months. I was working for a paper called The Beat Within. I was writing and waiting for my shower time. I heard this voice behind me I didn’t recognize. I turned around, and this woman had the hugest, most beautiful smile on her face. I was like, “What? Who is this?” Then she had a little attitude, cussing people out. I was like, “What! And she’s feisty!” She’s the cutest thing ever.
I felt like everybody was looking at me. I’m seven feet tall and littered with tattoos. Some people were checking me out, but most of them weren’t really looking at me, I just thought they were because I felt like I stood out. I felt like the lights were on me. I went to McDonald’s and talked to a guy and a girl. Once I initiated contact with them, two human beings that weren’t inmates, that was the moment I started feeling human again. It’s hard to explain. I feel like “This is the real world.” I was a little bit nervous.
Philippe “Kells” Kelly
I didn’t sleep. I felt like it was a dream and that it was going to come and get me, that I was going to wake up in prison. So for those first few days I wasn’t getting much sleep.
Yeah, we are free, but we are never free from our experience of San Quentin. You’ll see me in different outfits, different pieces of me, but in actuality they’re all me, you know, and it’s for me to meet the incarcerated me, who I was, and who I am today. It’s a beautiful thing.
My real power is my energy. That’s why you and I connected so well, we both have an immense amount of energy. I feel like God answered my prayers in making me a real life superhero without powers. Another thing I have is that I can see people fully, because I have been seen fully. I have been seen by you, the good and the bad. Now I try to do that with other people. I don’t want to give a false impression of who I am.
I noticed that the same little girl that I was writing to throughout all these years was sitting down right there on the other side of the glass window. She picked up the phone and put her hand on the little table on the other side of the booth. She put her head down and cried. For the first time it hit me like, damn, what am I doing? What am I doing? This little girl cried with so much pain. I went back after this visit, and I cried like I’ve never cried since I was a child.
I see people looking at me and they just have no idea what I just went through. It’s amazing how they just don’t know a person’s story and the trenches of hell that I just came from. They can’t see my perseverance. Nothing can get me down; I’m high off life. I’m feeling good, everything’s beautiful. I just love it. I’m in a happy place now and I’m taking it one day at a time. I haven’t been this happy in a long time. I’m just happy to be here. I’m ready to start putting the pieces together slowly but surely. I’m not going to rush. I’m mentally prepared for this. Nothing will happen overnight, that’s what I started preparing for.
I broke down in tears and cried. I couldn’t believe that it was really over. I’ve been out for two months now, and it still feels shocking to me. Just now, I’m here mopping my foster mom’s house and I’m like, ‘Damn, I’m really here mopping my foster mom’s house; I’m not in a cage anymore.’ It’s still mind-blowing.
Tommy “Shakur” Ross
When they told me I was found suitable and I’d be getting out of prison it was really emotional. We’re talking about waterworks. I was in tears, I was so happy. One of the things that I appreciated is that the parole board was able to see me for who I am today. They explained how I’d be able to impact society moving forward based on the work that I had done inside.
I was basically flung out of San Quentin by the seat of my pants. I truly wasn’t ready. Yes, I had my exit strategy and parole plans set for the board, but I wasn’t given the time to set up housing or put my plans into action before I was released.
I am one of the many incarcerated Humans of Sanquentin. I have been in for 37 years for the Second Degree murder of an associate whom I, at another time in my life sold Marijuana with. Six weeks ago, I was found suitable for parole for that crime.
I was originally sentenced to 201 years to life for a crime I committed at age sixteen. Things really started to change for me when I was transferred to San Quentin in 2012. Moving to San Quentin was a very good thing. I was taking programs , classes and working hard. I also worked in the hospital from 2013 until I was released.
My first call was to my mother. She’d been with me every step of the way. She never ever turned her back on me. She kept me out of trouble, even when I was on the inside. She’d say, I want you to go to school, take every class there is. I couldn’t say no to her, so I signed up, went to college, and self-help groups.
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.