Thanh Tran, 6 years inside

Thanh Tran, 6 years inside

Thanh Tran, 6 years inside

Diane: Start when your sentence was commuted.

Thanh: In January, the governor commuted my sentence. He said, “This person deserves a second chance to be in society.” I went in front of a parole board to argue my case, that I am a rehabilitated human being and not a threat to society. However, I wouldn’t have the chance to get out until next year at the earliest, if all things worked out. The District Attorney of Santa Clara said, “You know what? Thanh deserves to be out right now.” He resentenced me to 1170D,” which is basically resentencing for a myriad of reasons, but in my situation, it was for good conduct. It was May when I got resentenced, and literally two weeks later, I was kicked out the door.

Diane: Tell us about your release.

Thanh: I got my box of clothes, and as I’m changing out they were like, “Hey, you actually have to do a rapid Covid test real quick? You know, I’m floating, I’m joyous, I’m out of here, this is the win, I’m ecstatic. I go into this Covid test and I’m like, “This is nothing, I don’t feel sick. I should be good. They were like, “Hey, you have Covid! As a matter of fact, we recommend that you’re sent directly to a hotel. We don’t recommend you go back to your family.” I was like, “Woah, this is crazy to make these last-minute adjustments right when everyone is outside at the gates for me.” I wasn’t sure what to do. I called my partner, “What do you think is the right move?” They’re like, “Give Thanh back to us – we want him back right now. We’ll take care of him.”

Diane: Were you nervous the night before? Did you sleep?

Thanh: No, I didn’t sleep at all. The night before I was released, I stayed up all night talking to my bunkie, my closest friend. We talked about our plans, our goals, we talked about basically everything I was going to do when I’m free. I think somewhere around three I must have passed out. Two hours later, I’m fully dressed and ready to go. I’m ready for the CO to pop the cell and let me out because I’m ready to go home. 10 ½ years was plenty for me. 

Diane: How were the officers when you were leaving?

Thanh: The officers were all very cordial. They were all business, making sure I was the person that was supposed to be getting released. I must have had my name and CDCR number checked seven times on the way out. When they told me I’m Covid positive, they made me double-mask up, double-glove up. I kinda looked like one of those guys who kidnapped ET. I’m in this hazmat suit, essentially. I got into the van and couldn’t breathe because of this double mask and face shield. Finally, I saw all my family and loved ones and we did this weird dance of – do we hug or not? Some of them said, “Screw it, we’ll quarantine with you,” and gave me a hug. 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.

Diane: Take us back to your release at the gate.

Thanh: I got in the car with my partner, Lupe, who took me back to Sacramento, and I quarantined with her and my little sister who actually had Covid. It was like a little quarantine party, it was excellent.

Diane: What was your first meal?

Thanh: My first meal was terrible. I was starving. I said, “Let’s just stop and grab some food, so we stopped by Jack ‘N’ the Box. It was greasy as hell. My body was used to eating Top Ramen. I’m not going back to Jack ‘N’ the Box ever again. That was my first terrible meal.

Diane: What was your first good meal?

Thanh: My elderly foster Mom rolled up in the driveway of my little sister’s house with vegetarian food from the temple. I hadn’t eaten that since I was a little kid. It was the best meal ever because one, it was delicious, two, it was healthy and three, it was nostalgic.

Diane: What did she make?

Thanh: She made Bì Bún, white noodles with vegetables and a vegetarian alternative for shredded pork, made of shredded potatoes. It’s all vegetarian and it’s amazing. 

Diane: Was your parole officer okay with you going to Sacramento?

Thanh: Actually, my parole required me to go to Sacramento. I wanted to go to San Jose where I have housing. My parole forced me to go to Sacramento and I was like, “Alright, that’s where my little sister’s quarantining anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal. It actually worked out for parole, but now I’m stuck in Sacramento because my parole transfer is not working out. 

Diane: What were those first couple of days like?

Thanh: It was wonderful. I was Covid-positive but I didn’t have any symptoms.

I just hung out with my little sister. We were in the house for a week talking and catching up. We played board games. It was beautiful.

Daine: You mentioned you and your cellie talked about your hopes and goals. Have you accomplished any since you were released?

Thanh: There were small goals. I told him, “I want to be at the gates to pick you up,” because he was in the process of getting resentenced himself. He’s supposed to be coming home any day now, as a matter of fact. I also talked about career goals, like doing policy work. I talked about doing music. Since I’ve been out, I officially got hired with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. I’m also in the Comm Department doing film work. I’m actually living out those dreams. Those steps are manifesting as we speak. I’m still working on my music goals. Music is a big investment on the front end financially before you ever see any returns. I was on the San Quentin Mixtapes if you ever heard of that. I sing and I rap…kind of like some Drake-type vibe. I rap about love, relationships, hustlin,’ grindin,’working hard for what you deserve.  I rap about things I experienced on the streets and about how you have to be above that stuff. I don’t rap about guns, I don’t rap about selling drugs, I don’t rap about violence, none of that stuff. I’m trying to invite people to go a different way. I’m trying to give people motivation – like, “Go get a job, bro!”

Diane: Did you experience any transitional shock?

Thanh: They’re so many things that shocked me, like driving. I was tripping out- people are such dangerous drivers. I remember when my little sister helped me set up a TV in my room. We had a remote controller, she hit the little microphone button to start talking to it and it shocked the shit out of me. I was like, “Hold on! How long have you had this technology?” The youth shocked me. Being around my nieces and nephews, talking to them about their struggles and what culture is like for them. Lots of exclamation points behind the shock.

Diane: What do you look forward to doing? 

Thanh: The thing that I enjoy the most is doing absolutely nothing. I like it when I’m not busy because usually I’m super swamped, taking calls, meetings, etc. I commute at least once or twice a week between the Bay and Sacramento, so I like just being at home and watching TV, being with my little sister and talking crap!

Diane: How has the process of rejoining society been?

Thanh: I feel that I’m blessed and have had a lot of support in a lot of ways. Reentering has been fairly seamless. As for discrimination, when I opened a bank account, they were like, “Why don’t you have credit? All I had was my driver’s license and my prison I.D. Why this, that and the other?” I was like, “Alright, I was imprisoned.” There was no way to get around it. Immediately, the treatment was different. Immediately, I could tell that the bank teller was not feeling me. He was curious. He asked a lot of prying questions. He was like, “Man, what were you in prison for?  “Well, what do you need a bank account for? Can you tell me what you’re going to be spending money for? You’re not selling drugs, are you? Is this account going to be used for drugs?” I was like, “No, dude! What the fuck?” Everything was cool until I said I was imprisoned. I switched banks immediately.  The word “important” doesn’t highlight how pivotal having credit is in our society. I feel like that’s another struggle I’ve been going through, just trying to figure out how to get my credit right. I’d like to think I’m a fairly intelligent guy, and I’ve been really struggling making a bunch of calls. The average incarcerated person has a very low education level. A person who is illiterate or something – how are they supposed to reenter society, get their credit and be able to navigate all this bureaucracy without assistance?

Diane: What other parts of society surprised you?

Thanh: A good thing I’ve noticed is  people are a lot more conscious and thoughtful, especially in the language around the LGBTQ community and people of color. There’s still a lot of bigotry of course, but it’s refreshing to see people care, they are trying. I don’t always get the pronoun stuff right; I’m still figuring it out. A thing that surprised me negatively is the amount of homelessness. In Sacramento, all the way up and down the freeway ramps are a bunch of tents. My family, my mom and my oldest brother are both homeless and addicted to drugs, so homelessness is something that hits me close to home. It’s wild, Sacramento is our state’s capital. This is supposed to be a place we’re proud of, yet it’s like toe up. That was shocking.

Diane: I saw you in Norway when you were recently released. How did that happen?

Thanh: I got invited to Norway when I was still in prison with Uncuffed, the podcast broadcasted from inside San Quentin. I needed to get a passport. My parole to approve it. We needed funding. There were all these moving pieces. Honestly, I didn’t have that much faith that it would work out. But it all came together. I was on a flight to Norway, it was my first time ever on a plane. I’d never been anywhere before my incarceration. I was a gang member. I never really left my block, this small-ass radius in South Sacramento. It was the first time I’d been on a plane, and it was a wild experience, to see a whole new culture and people.

Diane: How was traveling? 

Thanh: I think the best way to describe it, there are no expectations on you in any way. You can be your truest self. Nobody knows you and nobody expects you to be a certain way. I don’t have to be anybody the world expects me to be. I can just be Thanh Tran. I can be my goofiest self. I can do whatever. It was a blessing. It was an absolute blessing.

Diane: Did any prisons stand out to you in Norway?

Thanh: Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t expect to see so many people suffering. I was kind of Pollyanna in my belief that Norway was the way to go. These are humane prisons and people are happy there. I stepped into the prisons and the first thing the first incarcerated person said to me was, “Brother, help me. They have us on a 22 hour lockdown right now. They’re going to show you a pretty prison, but we’re all slammed all day.” I thought, maybe this dude is trippin, but more people kept coming up like, “Bro, please tell the world that we’re here suffering.” I came to find out that Norwegian prisons are violating Geneva conventions right now. They’ve actually been cited for it and have a bunch of lawsuits against the prison system right now. Ironically enough, they’re still selling themselves as one of the best prison systems to the world. I think that my biggest take away from the Norwegian prisons is that prisons are still prisons no matter how pretty you make them. Suffering is still suffering. We have to create new systems if we want to see a better society, and more humane treatment. It doesn’t matter how pretty you make it, whether you put it on an island, a brewery or a mountain.

Diane: I’m laughing at the brewery. That wouldn’t really suck if you were in a brewery.

Thanh: Right? They turned a brewery into a prison and took all the brew with them, so it was a complete loss.

Diane:  What prisons did you visit in Norway?

Thanh: I went to the Oslo prison and Bastøy Prison- that was the island prison.

Diane: Did you have a better experience at the island?

Thanh: There were horses, people riding bikes, a ferry operated by incarcerated people, jellyfish and goats, and it was just bananas. There were officers barbecuing with incarcerated people, officers running a marathon with incarcerated people, they live in little cottages. They live like Little House on the Prairie but in prison. However, the first thing people said when we finally talked to the incarcerated people, “Brother, this is a prison. We’re not happy here. It may look beautiful all around us, but we can’t talk to our families. We can’t leave this island. We’re still being punished. I think another thing that was highlighted when I was at Bastøy Prison: they said there were about 50 incarcerated residents there, and there’s 3000 people in their entire system. That means that only a small percentage of incarcerated people get to experience this nice island resort prison. No matter how nice and plush this looks, this is not accessible to your entire incarcerated population. There’s a rare, small lucky 50 out of 3,000. I kept that perspective in mind.

Diane: Is it true they spend their last nine months of incarceration there? 

Thanh: No, there are some people who have been serving a couple of years, but generally it’s for short-termers. It’s the equivalent of a fire camp in California, but it’s on an island with horses, goats and jellyfish. 

Diane: Is there anything you want to share?

Thanh: I want to highlight the suffering of the brothers who are still incarcerated right now. I want to highlight what learning to live with COVID in prison means – solitary confinement, shutdowns left and right, being infected multiple times. I was infected with COVID three times, and again when I was released. Even though the world found a way to live with COVID, in prisons it means more and more suffering and more and more human dignity stripped away from you.

Tommy “Shakur”

Tommy “Shakur”

Tommy “Shakur”

Shakur’s First Day of Freedom

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. It just felt good to come from one extreme spectrum when they said, “Mr. Ross, we’re not going to let you out of prison with a high rate of recidivism; we just can’t do it, the public won’t allow it.” Back in 2016, the board did not grant me release. They validate who I am today and found me suitable. It’s almost as if they’re saying, “I could see you as my neighbor.” It felt good to be validated in that sense. I was super excited.

On the day of my release, I went down to Receiving & Release, and guess who came down to film me? HoSQ co-founder, Juan! So, I’m cattin’ around with Juan and the cameras. I had purchased this suit – well, a friend of mine wanted me to send out my measurements so I could get a tailored suit. When it came, the coat didn’t seem to fit. And the black shirt that I had definitely didn’t seem to fit: it was so tight on my forearms. My veins were popping because it’s too small, but it seemed like it fit in the pictures. They’re doing the interview when I’m putting the suit on about what it feels like to be getting out of prison, and everything is pretty much a blur. It’s surreal. I see them, but I don’t see them because I’m so excited about what’s about to take place.

As I’m walking out and the cameras are following me, there’s two others who were being released at the same time. Together, we got in the van and drove off. The other guys told me, “We thought you were supervising the guys with the cameras!” I didn’t look like I fit in that environment. So even before I got out of prison, I had already transformed the way I looked and the way people saw me. It felt good for me.

I walked out, and there were all of my supporters, my brother, my sister, and my cousin Fanya Davis. Angela Davis, couldn’t make it. My family members that were there and my circle of supporters. About thirty people showed up. I said, “When I went to prison, it was in the 80’s, and they were doing dances like this.” I did this dance that made me look like a damn fool. Then I did this dance that a lot of white guys used to do. I said, “But now, we’re in the new millennium and I did the Bernie.”

Next, we headed to the Dream Center which is a transitional housing place where I will live in Oakland. When I get there, they tell me to come back in 24 hours. I asked Fanya if I could stay at her place. Now, Fanya stays in Oakland Hills. In Oakland Hills they have greenery… it’s greenery, I mean, the scenery is greenery. You know what that means, right? I noticed that she has a lot of family pictures and African art around, and I appreciate the space. We bought some Thai food, shrimp fried rice. That was basically the only food I wanted out here.  I put on some short pants, some flip flops, and we’re sitting on her patio, under an umbrella and I can’t get over the greenery.  I get the food out of the bag, and I just start laughing. She’s like, “What’s so funny?” I respond, “Less than 24 hours ago, I was in a prison cell, and now it seems like I’ve been plucked from the prison cell and dropped into an oasis. There’s blue skies, and there’s greenery. It’s nice weather, beautiful weather, and it’s a wonderful feeling to just be free knowing that not too long ago I was in a cell. And not just in a cell, but 36 and a half years of being incarcerated. So, that was the first thing that stood out to me that day. 

The second thing, today I have a GPS, ankle bracelet monitor because I’m considered high-risk. While at Fanya’s I didn’t have it on yet so I was able to sit in a jacuzzi bubble bath. How about that? Fanya has these salts that she puts into the water. In prison, we take showers. It’s a communal shower area. Can you just imagine what it’s like to just sit in a hot bath? Just allow your body just to sink into that hot bath and become engulfed with that warmth? It felt so good to sit in that. And then, to hit the jets? I was in heaven! And I laughed because it was a happy moment for me to experience. So that was the second thing.

The third thing was I went into the guest room. The guest room has a queen sized bed and a comforter, and when I layed on that bed it felt like I sunk to the bottom. In prison, we have these steel plated bunks with a mattress that might be three inches. So, there’s no give on a bunk. When I cut off the lights, pitch darkness and complete silence. In prison, there’s always a light. There’s a night light, there’s always some type of sound whether it’s a radio, a TV, somebody’s keys jingling, somebody’s coughing, somebody’s talking, the PA system. So if you can imagine what it’s like to be in a comfortable bed in pitch darkness and complete silence. Of course, I laughed because it felt really good. I definitely remember that night. The first day I was out of prison, the way it made me feel. An unbelievable feeling just knowing I was finally out of prison. I have my whole life ahead of me now- essentially what I have left of my whole life.

FULL INTERVIEW COMING SOON

Patrick, 56

Patrick, 56

Patrick, 56

Patrick: 56 
Incarcerated: 37 years

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. Although I am extremely relieved that part of my life can now be redeemed, there is another aprt of me that grew up here, matured and learned to actually care for others. My heart and personal commitment to the inmate population and community behind these walls as a peer mentor, health educator and facilitator remains genuine, grounded in acceptance and respect. It has become ‘my something’ I am passionate about. I pledge my allegiance to the education of otehrs for hte understanding of health adn personal well-being, through a self help, self-health style of communication and promotion.

In 1998, I graduated from teh Infectious Disease Requisite for Peer Health Education iin Solano State Prison. For the last 21 years, I have been learning, teaching classes, facilitating nad strengthening my knowledge as a peer mentor and health educator. 

The real story here is not about me, it’s about being aware of how family, community and culture shapes one’s values, beliefs and actions, then how that plays into behavior choices.

Being empowered with the information to protect our own health benefits one personally, and extends to the community behind the wall and eveutally to society upon one’s release back home. In the Peer Health Education Program our motto is: Your Health Is Your Wealth, regardless of your sexuality, ethnic, racial, cultural or regional background. Developing skills for making healthy choices ranks supreme, adn is an important step in becoming aware of otehrs So yes, parole will be amazing, however this work must continue in our post-pandemic world and I am here to be consciously proactive. Here in San Quentin we lost all of our self-help programs and the sponsors that facilitate those programs. “Peer Health” lost its outside sponsorship, resources and facilitators. I ahve been able to float the program with the very helpful and dedicated assistance of Diane Kahn and Lt. Sam Robinson. It is my hope to return to SQ as a free outside facilitator and sponsor to reignite its mission after the all clear bell is sounded. Please join me.

Larry White, 26 years inside

Larry White, 26 years inside

Larry White, 26 years inside

Diane: How long were you inside?

Larry: I was inside for 26 years.

Diane: How did it feel when you found out you were being released? 

Larry: Oh man, it felt awesome. I had a mental obstacle to overcome because I told myself  that I was gonna grow old and die in prison. In the back of my mind I had accepted that I would never get out. I was protecting myself,  I didn’t want to set myself up for that hope,  y’know what I mean?  I was thinking ‘well I’m here and I’m not getting out, so Larry just make the best of what you have. You know what I mean?

Diane: Tell us what happened when you first heard you were getting out.

Larry: It was the best feeling, I got a phone call and said I got it! It was special since I’d been shot down by the Parole Board three times prior to being found suitable. What hurt the most in the past was telling my family I’d been denied. Everyone had their hopes up. I tried to be optimistic for them, even though I didn’t believe they’d let me out. Because of Covid, the hearing was not done in person. I tried to get my attorney to call my family, but he said I’m not going to take that away from you. Guys were already on the phones making their own connections with their families, but once they heard I’d got a date, they got excited for me and gave me their phone time. 

Diane: Who was the first person you told?

Larry: 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. I’m so glad she did that because while everyone was getting involved in the prison drama, I was in class bettering myself.

Diane: Take us to the night before you were released?

Larry: l had a lot of trouble going to sleep that night. I pretty much stayed up all night, trying to force myself to go to sleep cause I knew I was gonna be walking into the new world and I wanted to be rested, but I couldn’t go to sleep. My mind was racing. At the time, San Quentin was going through quarantine so I was stuck in a cell all to myself. I got up and pace, I’d lay back down, try to meditate, and get up and pace. Nothing worked. They don’t come and get you until four or five in the morning. The nightman already knew what time it was, as soon as he walked up to the door, he was like you ready? And I was like yes I am. I already had all my stuff bundled up and walked out of the cell. He said it’s going to take a minute to kick back.  I asked him if I could run upstairs for a minute to say goodbye to a couple of people? I was lucky the C.O. gave me the chance to say good-bye.My friends’ gates weren’t open yet, so I had free reign of the building and ran around to say goodbye to people and give away the last little bits of my property. I’d been with most of these guys since I was 19, I grew up in prison. I mean they were like my second family. Men that I’ve met in prison actually became like my uncles and my brothers, we really developed a strong family bond. So leaving was bittersweet. It was so great to have the opportunity to leave, but then I’m actually still leaving people behind that I’ve grown to love.

Then we were taken to R&R for dressouts and locked in individual cells. Taking off my prison clothes felt like I was shedding my old skin. It was a new day! Once I put on my own clothes, getting out finally felt real to me. 

Diane: Did you feel you were prepared to get out?

Larry: Yeah, but at the same time, I realized that society had moved on without me. I was apprehensive about technology. I never messed around with cell phones inside because I knew if I got a write up, I could be denied. My release was coming closer and closer. My nerves are jumping about because the day I thought was never going to occur is happening. I’m leaving prison behind. The place I grew up in since I was 19 years old. A kid. And now I’m a 46 year old man. The youth offender law that was passed gave people like me a second chance. My attorney Keith Wattley, is the founder and Executive Director at Uncommon Law, he told the board that I put in the time and work to change my life, so why was I still there? I was blessed to have Keith as my attorney. He took special notice of my case. 

Diane: Did you have anyone at the gate?

Larry: I got on the transport van from prison to outside the gate. It  seemed like it took forever. I saw parts of prison I’d never seen before, cars, the bay, people walking around outside the gate. It was awesome. The correctional officer opened up the back gate, that door in the van and we stepped out and this is the last.  I can finally cut the tether between me and this prison. Now I can walk away from it and walk into the arms of my loved ones, hug them and grab them. Yeah, it’s beautiful.

At the time, I was married and my wife said she would be waiting for me. My mom also drove up, probably too fast, all the way up from San Diego and was waiting for me outside the gate. My mom grabbed me and hugged me. I was finally untethered from prison. Keith Whatley, my attorney was there too, he was filming my release for a documentary. I was a little camera shy so it was a bit awkward.

Diane: Where was the first place you went?

Larry: I got in my mom’s car. She said, “You’re skin and bones, I have to feed you.” We all went to Denny’s. I ordered eggs sunny side up, hash browns, sausage and french fries. I guess I kept overthanking the waiter. I kept saying every time he brought me something “oh thank you very much ”  because this is the first time I’ve ever had someone serve me, you know what I mean. I don’t get served food in prison, it just gets slapped on your tray and you have to keep it moving. It was a new experience for me. The food was excellent, the atmosphere and the company was so nice, so I really enjoyed myself. Plus, everyone was so nice to me. 

Diane:  Had you been to San Francisco before?

Larry:  Yeah when I was a kid. We used to go to Pier 39 and buy little wooden swords, me and my little brother would have fights. We’d buy churros and look at the water.

Diane: What happened next?

Larry: I got dropped off at my transitional house, called GEO, in San Francisco. I was free in my heart and my mind until I walked into GEO. I felt like I was incarcerated again. I was put in isolation to quarantine because of Covid. My wife  bought me an iPhone which was really nice and helped me pass the time. I started to learn the functions of the phone, so for two weeks I’m playing with it. Having good conversations, texting, learning how to search for things on Google, and watching Netflix and YouTube. That was a similar concept of being in prison and having a cell phone. I felt like I wasn’t supposed to have it and I kept trying to hide it whenever the workers would do a room check. I was so appreciative that I had it. When I heard the key hit the lock I would tuck the phone and after count I would pull the phone back out.  Then I would tell myself this is okay, this is authorized, I’m no longer in prison.

Diane: How did you get food while in quarantine?

Larry: I was basically given the same style of prison food. They give you lunch, breakfast,  and dinner, but they’re of a lot higher quality. Things like bologna and mustard. I made a promise to myself: I said once I get out of prison, I am through with bologna. I spent 26 years eating bologna sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly, it’s terrible. I mean I still like peanut butter and jelly but I haven’t eaten it since. I keep telling myself that I can save money by making myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and then I think about it and I’m all – hell no. The memories are too deep.

Diane: What’s the first thing you looked up when you got out of prison, do you remember? and you can take the fifth on this one. 

Larry: Haha, a workout video, quarantine workouts.  In prison, especially in the cells, they’re so small and then they jam two people in there. It’s basically a single-occupancy cell with two people in it; so they can’t really work out in there during quarantine. Before quarantine, I ran the track, hit the punching bag, did pull-ups, burpees, dips, and curls. Now that I finally had the space to myself so that I could actually move around, I felt better at exercising. I feel good when I exercise. I kept looking at the phone and thought to myself,  man I bet they’ve got some great workout programs on there. One of the things that always motivated me to exercise and work out was that I had a workout partner. He would call out the workouts, the cadence, and do the count. So I looked it up online for myself. and set up my little phone.

Diane: What did you do when you finally got out on the street?

Larry:  That was pretty cool matter of fact, I took a lot of pictures.

Diane: What did the world feel like? How were you treated?

Larry: After being locked up for so long, I’m happy all the time. Do you know what I mean? And I got to move around the city and cross paths with people. I was saying good morning, good afternoon, and some people would be very rude, like ‘why are you talking to me?’ and kind of rude and I would be whoa, no disrespect. I was just trying to be cordial.  People looked at me like I had an ulterior motive, I made one lady crash into a door by accident. We were going shopping and she was coming out and we were going in. I saw her and I was like Hey, good morning and she looked right at me but kept walking and crashed right into the door.  That’s when my friends are like ‘Larry quit saying hi to everybody.’ I think that was the most difficult thing for me to grasp. People are in their own little bubble, they want their own space. I was just being friendly and being happy and wanting to greet them. I know sometimes it just comes out too quick I can’t rein it back in.

Diane: What kind of emotions are you experiencing?

Larry: All kinds. It’s a steady elevation. I want out of my transitional housing, but I am grateful to be back in society. It was hard learning technology and I’m still working on it. I’m giddy when I wake up and I count my blessings every day. I love it. Every day gets better and better. I am a fast learner so I’ll get it!

Diane: What has it been like the first few weeks back into the community?

Larry: Once I was able to come and go, I learned how to get acclimated to the city. How to get back to GEO. I had no ID, no bus pass, no nothing. I’d get a two hour pass, but I didn’t have any funds except for my gate money. I walked a lot.

Diane: And Now?

Larry: At the time of my release I was married. My wife owned a bakery in Oakland and working there allowed me to leave GEO for long hours. But, I didn’t know her prior to my incarceration and I believe that led to our break up. She was a different person when I was out. It was really hard. Thank goodness I had good friends like Joe Krauter, he got me through my divorce. He used to be the librarian in prison. He would get so busy that he would let me come behind the counter to share with him and that became my therapy coach. He continued to be there for me outside of prison. That marriage wasn’t meant to be and I had to refocus my life. 

Diane: What keeps you motivated?

Larry: Work, for sure. I want to learn more about psychology and counselling. Dealing with my triggers and stressors. They also help me understand other people.

Diane: What have been the highs?

Larry: Reconnecting with my family and my new girlfriend, Princess. I saw Princess walking by everyday on my lunch and one day we walked the same way and I got to introduce myself to her. 

Diane: And lows?

Larry: My housing. Originally, I was supposed to go to The Dream Center in Oakland, but one of my victims lived in Alameda, so I was blocked from living there. So I’m at GEO until September 25th then I move into my own place. My marriage falling apart was really difficult as well.

Diane: What brings you joy? 

Larry: Connecting with the community and especially working for Urban Alchemy. We provide safe passage for tourists, help the homeless find shelter and administer Narcan if we find people that have OD’ed. I want to be a Director at Urban Alchemy, I’ve already put in for a promotion. I saved someone’s life at my job by administering Narcan. It was an amazing feeling and gave me a purpose. Being treated like a human being and not a number or an animal. My girlfriend, Princess, brings me joy. She is beautiful. She stole my heart when she made me Edamame. She’s so adorable. Also, food brings me joy.  I found the best place to eat, it’s called Krispy Krunchy Chicken, on Eddy and Taylor. I call it “Crack Chicken.” It’s that good and the prices are decent. My roommates were betting if I would come home with Krispy Chicken and laughed when I walked in with it. It is that good! 

Diane: What surprised you about being out?

Larry: I’m happy everyday because I’m free, but I miss the camaraderie and the intense levels of respect that influenced me to be a better person. I have a strong sense of respect for others, especially my elders. I haven’t seen that so much out here in society. I really miss people being cordial to one another.

Diane: What are the biggest challenges?

Larry: Finding affordable housing and catching up to the digital age.

Diane: What are you most afraid of?

Larry: Overzealous police officers or parole officers trying to trip me up.

Diane: Advice for your peers inside?

Larry: Growing up in prison, the guys became my brothers, my second family. It was bittersweet leaving them behind, but it was my time. I’d tell them to take classes and participate in groups. Do the right thing. I earned the right for a second chance.

Anthony “Ant” Ammons, 37

Anthony “Ant” Ammons, 37

Anthony “Ant” Ammons, 37

Anne: How many years were you locked up?

Ant: 20 years, since I was 16 years old. I was so young.

Anne: I can’t even imagine what that was like. 

Ant: Yeah, emotionally, I was a wreck, but externally I was the toughest person you probably ever wanted to run across.  I was putting on this facade because I had identity issues.

Anne: Tell us about your transfer to San Quentin in 2012. 

Ant: I was originally sentenced to 102 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. I oversaw the Covid Strike Team. I was also the lead janitor in the mental health unit. I am certified in OSHA rules and was also the head hazardous material expert. Then, a new juvenile law took effect.

Anne: Ah, did that help?

Ant: Well it didn’t in the first board hearing, but because of the work I started to do at San Quentin, Governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence. He is the best and I wish he was still Governor. It took you so long to get out, then he commuted it to 19 years to life. The board taught me a few things about myself that I took to heart. I respected what the board had to say, and I followed their recommendations. They felt I needed to be clean longer than four years and that I didn’t go far enough into the causative factors of my crime. I respected their truth. I had committed the crime because I wanted to be tough, not because I was embarrassed or humiliated, and I didn’t understand that until the Parole Board pointed it out to me. I was still trying to act in the old masculine way. I got a three-year denial, knuckled down, and worked on the areas I needed growth in. I learned from that experience and changed my narrative. The second time I went before the board was December 17th, 2020. When I heard I was approved, it confused me because I believed I was denied. I wanted to cry when I finally heard I’d been approved. I was so surprised because I had just got written up for getting on the phone without permission that July, but my attorney said it wasn’t a nexus to my crime.  In part, I was approved because of all the letters of support I’d received from correctional officers, doctors and nurses in the prison hospital. They wrote to the board explaining how much I’d changed,  the level of growth they had witnessed and my maturity. That’s a huge reason I was approved, it set me apart from my write-up. Change is not just flipping a light switch it’s a process. I admitted I had been impulsive, and I also stood up for myself, not in an argumentative way but as an advocate. It’s called rehabilitation, not rehabilitated. I will always be moving forward, learning about myself, and working towards a higher level of maturity. This is my lifelong journey.

Anne: Tell us about what was going through your head after you learned of your release?

Ant: Well, being only sixteen, I had to learn how to shave in prison, to think for myself, to stand up for myself. I learned how to grow up in prison. And as I walked out of the hearing that day—the sky was blue. I could breathe easier. I went and called my Mom. She started screaming. The feeling was indescribable- like being on a high better than any drug. What was cool was that she saw me struggling all those years to do the wrong thing and now she had watched me as I struggled to do the right thing. I started thinking about how prison is done in three phases. How am I going to do my time?  Learning the politics of prison which took years- especially at 16 years old, as a child. Stage two, I had hope I would go home, but I was also like who cares, I’m never going home. At the same time, in the back of my mind, I had a tingle of hope. I started going to groups, working, and believing in myself. Then  I was found suitable. I was walking on eggshells. I knew I couldn’t get a write-up. I wasn’t sleeping, and I would just stay in my cell except for showering.  So much emotional stress. Was the Governor going to deny me? I was finally released on April 22nd, 2020.

 

Anne: What were your duties, and your job in the hospital again, and can you still use those skills? 

Ant:  I was the head of the strike team when the coronavirus cases appeared in San Quentin. happened. We went and cleaned all the cells after any coronavirus outbreaks. That was part of my duties. My other duties were working on the mental health floor. I was a lead, a janitor, making sure all the restrooms were clean, coming up with agendas and schedules, for rooms to be cleaned and talking to them.  I worked there from 2013 until I was released. I want to use those skills out here because I am trained.  I want to use that. I also want to help kids and try to open the door for them to understand their emotions and their feelings so that they won’t make the same mistakes. Crimes are committed when they don’t understand what self-worth is. I think that’s what I’m going to do, I want to go to school and get my degree, so I can be certified. Hey, I got experience!

Anne: After you were approved for release were you worried about them rescinding your approval at all?

Ant: Yes, there is a guy named White Eagle in there. After 45 years in prison, he has been found suitable. And because of the victims’ family push, which is their right, they took his name. They showed up every time, like 11 times. On his way to be released, it was taken back.  There’s another guy,   a lot of people don’t like to say his name,  Bruce Davis. He’s Charles Manson’s guy who drove the car. He has been in prison for 50 years.  He’s been found suitable six different times for release. Those guys are not getting out. It’s like the Manson girls, they’ll never get out and I mean they’re never gonna get out, and they were just kids. That happened to Bruce Davis as well. He’s a really good dude! They interviewed him, did you see? Documentaries, Manson Charles Manson on Netflix. One of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. It’s so political though.

Anne: That makes a lot of sense. Can you tell us anything about the day of your release?

Ant: The correctional officer comes to my cell at  4:30 am. He says get ready, I’ll be back in 30. I was like,  is this real life? I felt like I was in a dream and I’m praying  I don’t have to wake up. I got dressed and I’m saying bye to the guys. It was hard because I was leaving behind a lot of good guys who also have earned their way to get out. I don’t say deserve because deserve is not something we should have because of the crimes we committed. So a lot of guys have earned their opportunity to go home as well. I feel this sense of sadness and gratefulness that I was the person that could go out and hopefully represent them. I went to R&R and put on my dress-outs that my Mom sent to me. The van comes, I get in and start tearing up because it’s getting real. My heart’s racing, I’m sweating. I can see the water in the bay as the gates open. There were so many people waiting for me. Family and friends, Rasheed, and James King. My brother who’s been my rock. My Dad and Mom. I’m so excited and nervous. It was a blessing. I realize If I hadn’t been caught at 16, I would have gotten worse. I had been in an identity crisis. I was playing sports- basketball- but I never saw people in the stands. I found acceptance in the streets in a gang. I joined up by the time I was fourteen.

I got into the car with my brother, and we went to some restaurant, whose name I don’t recall. I do remember the meal: bacon, eggs, French Toast, sausage, orange juice and coffee. I didn’t even taste it, I just scarfed it down. It felt strange being in a restaurant. I sat with my back against the wall. I felt worried and paranoid and believed the prison made a mistake and was going to come in and take me back. It was chaotic. Sensory overload.  Being in the car driving under the overpass gave me an anxiety attack. I went to Costco and it was overwhelming. Too crowded, people were bumping into me, which is a sign of disrespect in prison. Then I went into Starbucks and didn’t know where to go, what to do. Then it came to me— I need to ask for help. I asked if I had to pay for the drink and was told no, then the cashier forgot my order and I had to go back in again. I apologized to her and let her know I’d just been released from prison. She was so helpful. She had sympathy for me and was kind. It pays to be honest.

Next, I went to see my parole officer (PO) and then straight to the house. My PO is cool. A straight shooter, he said if there is an issue just talk to me. He’s helping me get a state ID. The problem was I only had my prison ID and it has my wrong birthdate on it. It took three weeks to get an ID and it still has the wrong birthday on it, because when I got arrested, I lied about my date of birth. I wanted to be in an adult prison, not in juvie. I’m still waiting on my birth certificate.

 

Anne: You spoke of wanting to go to college at one point. Is anyone helping you with the college process? 

Ant: There’s supposed to be a new college program that helps me pay for college. I think Google has a program that I can apply for. I don’t know if you guys know Richard Richardson? He knows some people that are signing up for free college, which is helpful. He’s going to help me set that up. Right now I’m just going on YouTube looking at English classes, trying to improve my spelling and grammar. . Trying to learn the basic steps. I’m not good at writing. I’ll write a letter and there will be no punctuation in it. Reading is another story though.

Anne: Do you enjoy reading?

Ant: I do enjoy reading. I haven’t picked up a book since I’ve been out because I want to see and do everything. Reading is the best way to learn. I like getting lost in books. Before I left, I read this book by Elaine Brown. She was the only woman that was in charge of the whole Black Panther organization! A lot of people would never know that unless you read a book and it’s it. She was Cleveland’s girlfriend. She’s still alive to this day. Her book amazed me.

Anne: After being released did you find it hard to change habits or routines?  Do you still wear shower shoes?

 

Ant: No, I’ve just started changing that. In prison, I showered with my boxers on and I had to tell myself that I don’t have to do that anymore. I struggle with waking up early. I’m up at 4:00 am. I also struggle with sleeping in a bed.  I struggle with whether I should spit in the toilet or the sink when I brush my teeth. It’s like I’m trapped in between some moments. I’ll spit in the sink because I’m here. In other moments I’ll spit in the toilet because I’m overthinking it. I’m still stuck in that psychological frame that it’s a negative fit.

Anne: How come you couldn’t spit in the sink inside San Quentin?

Ant: We cookout of the sink and wash everything in it. So every prisoner knows that’s a rule, to spit in the toilet. The sink needs to stay clean.  I am getting used to using metal silverware as well. I still prefer plastic and a disposable plate. It feels weird just the other day I heard some metal dropping and I  hurried up and looked down thinking it was a knife or something. It’s PTSD,  a survival instinct. The state offered me mental health treatment and I am going to take it.  I never took it inside because of the stigma, now that I’m out  I want the help. At first when they asked me if I wanted help,  and I’m like, no, I don’t think so. Then, my girlfriend who worked in the psychiatric field in Orange County jail told me that it wouldn’t hurt. It won’t stop me from getting a job, it’ll just help me communicate.

Anne: That’s great! All support is welcome!  Do you have to meet with your parole officer more?

Ant: Because I was a lifer and committed murder, I’m considered high risk. I see my parole officer twice a week. I believe my parole is for three years. Coming home was earned and not deserved. A validation that I am not the worst moment of my life. I am a pretty good human being although I committed a heinous crime. For the rest of my life, I will live and breathe for my victim; always strive to be a better person. I am here to give back.

I am learning how to be attentive and how to cope, to be present and be included. I don’t want to digress when I feel overwhelmed. I’m learning how to be in the present. To converse with my roommates, not to just look at my cell phone and go into myself. I’m exploring my surroundings. I’m learning how to use public transportation. I run every day and play basketball with the guys that came in and played basketball in San Quentin. I was on the poster for the movie ‘Q Ball.’ I’m in a relationship and learning that communication and vulnerability are key to having a healthy relationship. I can’t just make decisions for myself anymore which was confusing to me at first. I’m learning how to be considerate and to think of the other person. I’ve changed the narrative and realized she is there for me. She is not judgmental. She loves me, for me, and that feels good.

I want to work on my  ‘Emotional Intelligence.’ I’d like to go back to school to get a counseling degree.  I want a career working with kids that are angry- to help them understand their underlying components.

 

Anne: Speaking of support, is your family nearby? 

Ant: No, all my family’s in LA. I chose to stay here so I can figure out who I am as a person and who I am as a man. I want to transition without a crutch. Even though I love them, I have to make my own path.

Anne: Where do you live now?

Ant: Oakland, California and it’s amazing. I went Kayaking and fell in three times! I can’t even be upset just to be in the water was beautiful! I like the weather, I can kayak or take a walk. Even though my fear of trying new things is there, I was like why not experience kayaking. I have great memories of that day, being out on the water.

Anne: Are you close with your Mom?

Ant: Yes, we text every day.  She worries about me like Moms do.

Fateen Jackson

Fateen Jackson

Fateen Jackson

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.