Larry, 69

Larry, 69

Meet Larry…

I dressed in my blues, name tag on and greeted the one and only Kim Kardashian. As a member of the Reform Alliance, she wanted to show her sister Khloe, rapper Lil Baby, and friends, our dogs and trainers participating in the truly life-changing program offered here.

Larry, 69
Incarcerated: 20 years
Housed: Lancaster, California

I dressed in my blues, name tag on and greeted the one and only Kim Kardashian. As a member of the Reform Alliance, she wanted to show her sister Khloe, rapper Lil Baby, and friends, our dogs and trainers participating in the truly life-changing program offered here. Kim sat on the floor next to me, petting my dog, Pepper, and getting covered with her fur. Pepper is a twenty-five pound, six-month old, energetic Husky puppy with bright blue eyes. All the guests were very impressed, down to earth, and excited to be here. They asked what skills the program builds and we had an assortment of answers including responsibility, leadership, time management, critical thinking, compassion, public speaking, communication, and teamwork. My friend, Jason Jenkins told me that he and guest Hanna Jackson discussed their similarities, saying, “We trauma bonded over our experience of having a father who was incarcerated while growing up. I told her about my dad having gone in and out of prison, then being killed by police officers and saw how much it touched her.

She shared her experience of how, after serving time, her father was raised by the prison system and was violated while on parole. We had similar stories but we were two totally different people.” For some, entering prison can be scary and intimidating: guard towers, rolls of sharp razor wire and of course, the electric fence. But, my encounter with this group was very positive. To see celebrities in prison is humbling. I don’t take it for granted. I have had quite a few famous people visit us: Emily Deschanel, Sophia Bush, Natalie Portman, Common, Nick Cannon, John Legend and his wife, Kim and Kanye West,  Justin and Hailey Bieber. I appreciate them for taking time out. It is a genuine sign of kindness and friendship. I was inspired, encouraged, and deeply affected with their relaxed and easygoing demeanor. They left with a favorable opinion of how prison can be rehabilitating by giving us a chance to give back to society. I learned people outside haven’t forgotten about us as they work tirelessly for prison reform. This is true dedication and devotion!

Antone, 28

Antone, 28

Meet Antone…

What I want you to take away – cherish you and your family’s life. Please enjoy the moments, because you never know when your moment will be your last. 

Incarcerated: 7 years
Housed: California State Prison, Los Angeles County

I am a convicted felon for attempted murder. My time is moving extremely fast. As with everything, time makes things grow old. Even family and friends. After my conviction it seems like time has sped up. The stress that weighed on my mother, aged her faster than nature intended. Over the course of my incarceration my mother has passed away. I can’t tell you how I felt, because the feeling was cold. After losing her, one person that brought me into this world has made me view many things differently. Sitting in a cell, as my mother’s homegoing service was taking place, was a thought that never crossed my mind. Helpless, hopeless, lost, afraid, and alone were just a few words. I have had no convictions while inside or behavior infractions, yet I was still told that I couldn’t attend my mother’s service. I felt like a complete failure. Those feelings are relentless, and I’ll have to live with them forever. What I want you to take away – cherish you and your family’s life. Please enjoy the moments, because you never know when your moment will be your last. Life is short, make it count!

Armondo, 44

Armondo, 44

Meet Armando…

I was a violent, domestic partner. It took me 15 years of being in prison to accept I was wrong. I led myself to prison. I was selfish and harmful, consumed with negative behavior and gang activity.

Incarcerated: 15 years
Housed: California State Prison, Lancaster

Everyone needs someone in their life to keep them going while in prison. The love I receive from my family has gotten me through each day of the last 15 years. And my 17 year old son Angel, who needs his father to come back home. I worry about tomorrow. Not knowing if my son will want anything to do with me or when I will be back home. I have not been there for him since he was two. The worry of coming home with my parents not being there. I lost my mother to cancer and my only sister Lorena passed away. I stress about Vanessa, the mother of my son. If she still has a special place in her heart for me. Does she care for me? I guess what keeps me up at night is my past. Everyone who I left behind before coming to prison. Those I love. I have learned that I’m stronger than I ever knew. I’m able to change the old me and be a better version of myself. I learned to be patient with others. To choose my words before speaking. I learned that I had an addiction. It took control while I was in denial and I blamed others for my actions. I was a violent, domestic partner. It took me 15 years of being in prison to accept I was wrong. I led myself to prison. I was selfish, harmful, consumed with negative behavior and gang activity. My parents gave me and my sister everything we needed. They were great role-models. They loved us and spoiled us. The only thing missing was spending time with us. I have learned it is called being “neglected.” I chose to find comfort in the streets. Those friends caused me to be in prison for a long time. I learned I don’t have to be there to be part of a crime, I was supporting the gang lifestyle. I have a board hearing in 2027. By then I’ll be 21 years in prison and 50 years old. What a life lesson.

Dennis, 39

Dennis, 39

“I learned a different way to communicate and worked on becoming the person others could come to for help. The person I always wished I had in my life when I was a boy. I strive to be better.”

Meet Dennis, 

“The baby isn’t breathing.” The baby was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around its little neck and appears to have drowned in amniotic fluid during a very difficult birthing process. He never reaches his mothers arms, instead he is swept away by frantic doctors in an effort to revive him.

The doctor returns to deliver the news “The baby is alive and breathing.”  A moment of relief. “But he was gone too long and his brain was deprived of oxygen for far too long, I’m afraid he will be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life.” Turns out he was wrong. Shortly after, the baby sparked back to life with light in his eyes and developed normally.

He was happy and loved for several years until suddenly the love stopped and he never knew what he did wrong. His father, his superman, began hitting him, administering beatings more and more often. The baby, now a boy, began hating himself as much as he felt everyone else hated him. A cycle of abuse and mischief led him to homelessness in his early teens.

Violence became his language, the way he navigated through life. It became an obsession, then a compulsion, until it progressed to murder at the age of 16 and a life in prison. The boy became a man amidst the prison violence he consumed. Again, violence helped him navigate and even thrive where grown men struggled to survive. He was never lost, because that would imply that he belonged to someone that wanted him back.

The man was sentenced to end his life in solitary confinement. He accepted it for a long time. Eventually, he and many other men in confinement starved themselves in an effort to be released from solitary or die in the process.

With the help of many, he returned to the prison general population, where he sought out every opportunity for education that he was previously denied. Fearful that it would all be taken away again, he learned a different way to communicate and worked on becoming a person others could come to for help: the person he always wished he had in his life when he was a boy.

He strives to be better. I am the baby, the boy and the man and this is my story. 📸Dennis’

Larry, 65

Larry, 65

Turmoil to Tranquility

I spent many years at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City before coming to Lancaster. We were frequently on lockdown due to recurring violence. Races were separated and contact was limited. I had to navigate through rules with which I didn’t agree; rules that were enforced through my intimidation, coercion and extortion. Being fearful and “looking over your shoulder” was a constant norm. Most men just watched TV all day because very few programs were offered.

After attending college for a few years, I was given a job as a teacher’s assistant. I had the honor of helping men attain their GEDs. This position gave me purpose and helped me escape the joylessness of prison. By the grace of God, I was able to stay disciplinary free. Eventually, my record earned me the privilege of transferring to CSP Lancaster. I had heard rumors about the Progressive Programming Facility (PPF yard), where there were men like me who didn’t want to partake in racial prison politics, join a gang, or do drugs.

Upon arrival, I first noticed different races sitting together, talking and walking the track. I found dozens of educational classes, religious services and self-help groups that were offered on a daily basis. I immediately enrolled in several of these programs and I was thrilled when my friend, Jon Grobman, asked me to become part of the “Paws for Life” program. Seeing dogs running on the yard is astonishing, petting them is amazing, and being a part of their lives is a true miracle. I’ve been blessed to have been in this life-changing and inspirational program for over two and a half years. More than ten of the dogs I helped train now have “Forever Homes”.

Bolinas — My Portal into Self-Awareness

There is one road in and one road out. The ocean is on one side, a lagoon on another, and national park everywhere else. The mall town of Bolinas is twenty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. My parents first took me there in 1965. Bolinas had a family style Italian restaurant that went by the name of Tarantino’s. I can still picture the wife of the owner who got around by pushing a food cart. She was quite feisty! Delicious food!

One of the beaches (Agate—near Duxbury Reef), when at low tide, had an abundant selection of ocean life, such as Starfish, crabs, abalone, sea urchins, sea anemones and other colorful “creatures of the deep”. What first caught my eye as a child was all the dogs roaming free and most of the men had long hair and beards. The atmosphere in town was so peaceful and relaxing. It felt special everytime we traveled there. A few years later Tarantino’s burned down.

After high school and college, I started going to Bolinas on my own. I used to sleep in my car and wander around town. The only tavern in Bolinas was Smiley’s (originally called The Schooner Saloon built in 1853). It is the oldest continuously operating saloon in California. Due to its location, prohibition (1919 – 1934) didn’t affect alcohol sales if you’d “Speakeasy”. I enjoyed many fun evenings with the locals at Smiley’s. Most Bolinas residents like their privacy. They would remove the sign on Highway One pointing in the direction of town. The Bolinas Lagoon separates the town from Stinson Beach. I’ve swam the Bolinas strait between the two many times at the mouth of the lagoon. It is usually overcast in the morning and clears up later.

In the late 1970s, I lived in Berkeley with my hippie girlfriend, Mary. I knew she would love Bolinas as I did. I owned a Ford van with two captain’s chairs in front and a cozy bed on plush carpet behind them. We’d “Camp” in it on secluded back roads. We felt totally safe. When Mary discovered the “Nude” (clothing optional) beach, she never wanted to leave. She was completely happy naked. On the other hand, I was a bit shy. Mary liked her marijuana cigarettes. Every time she lit up a joint, it seemed couples from all over the beach made their way to our blanket. She sparked up often. It was a good way to meet locals and other “tourists”. I recall a small cottage/house at the corner of Wharf Road and Brighton Avenue that welcomed us. We spent a lot of time in Bolinas the next few years.

The funky stores were a highlight for her. Mary’s favorite was named “the Chameleon.” It sold clothing, mainly. The Bolinas store had everything we needed. John, the proprietor, was there often. The community bulletin board on the store’s outer wall filled us in on the latest happenings in town. The Coast Cafe served fresh fish and tasty ice cream for dessert. The Grand Hotel always seemed to have a flea market in front of it. The community center had all kinds of interesting activities with guest speakers. I recall attending many a breakfast to benefit local causes. We enjoyed the book sales in front of the library.

There are various routes to get to Bolinas. Highway One is a pretty drive, but the heavy traffic can make it miserable. Via Olema is another choice. The Fairfax-Bolinas road is my favorite. A slow, relaxing cruise through the redwood trees. It Always puts me in a mellow mood. True bliss is when the Pacific Ocean comes into view. I believe it followed an old stagecoach route or horse trail from San Rafael through Fairfax up the Bolinas Ridge to the summit house and down to Bolinas.

For most of my adult life, Bolinas has always been the “Go To” place when “city” stress got to be too much. The solitude of strolling an isolated ocean beach with the fresh air blowing through my long hair, cleared my head from the daily turmoil. The magnificent sea life during low tide at Agate Beach is truly unique and added to the enjoyment. The dirt path down to the beach is less than a half mile.

On one particular day, the wind was howling and extremely unpleasant. By a stroke of luck, I discovered a small opening hidden and partially obscured between some overgrown vegetation. It opened up into a small serene valley protected from the wind. It felt I was treading through uncharted territory. A little further up this curious route I noticed a wooden bench near a creek. It was a welcome sight. The babbling brook was uttering captivating sounds. I immediately flashed back on a book written by Herman Hesse (Siddartha). An elderly man listens and learns from the river. I began to take a few deep breaths. The guise of this bench had become my portal into self-awareness. I relived past experiences, pondered the future and then, returned to the present moment. I never judged myself too harshly. I have laughed, shed tears, made love, meditated, prayed, asked for forgiveness, grieved, was lonely, had anxiety, released anger, felt calm, was grateful and hopeful as I sat on this invaluable creation.

Who built it? Why? When? Perhaps I’ll never know. Returning often over the years, I always left encouraged, optimistic and rejuvenated. You can see why I hold it dear to my heart and why I hunger and thirst to return one day for more spiritual guidance. I wonder if anyone else has felt the magic here. I’ve never seen anyone while I was there.

I took my future wife there in 1987. Sharen was pretty, conservative and didn’t quite understand the peace I felt while in town. After a few years of dating, she wanted to get married. Her being Catholic (I wasn’t), Sharen needed to be married in a Catholic church. I agreed, that is, if I got to pick the location. Enter Saint Mary Magdalene Catholic church in Bolinas.

Gregorio Briones willed the land upon his death in 1863. The Mexican governor of California deeded him ten thousand acres (roughly three miles by six miles) in western Marin. The land grant was called “Rancho Baulenes.” The church was built by Timothy Phinney (a chicken farmer) in 1877 for $2000.00. It has always been a mission church without a resident pastor. There is an old pioneer cemetery behind it.

We met the priest and decided on a wedding date for November 17, 1990. Father Raymond Decker presided over the ceremony. We filled up that little country church with  family  and friends totalling nearly 100 guests. We were told of a secluded bed and breakfast inn for our honeymoon. It was on the road towards the southern entrance to Point Reyes. A “Rose” symbol was the only clue to its location. I’ve forgotten the friendly owners, but I do recall their huge dogs (Huskies?) named Oscar and Lily. We continued the tradition of staying there yearly to celebrate our blessed union.

Our reception after the wedding was on the mesa. The location was a lighthouse style Bed & Breakfast (on Kale?) with a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean. The catering was provided by the local bakery. All the employees wore tie-dyed shirts. The pumpkin cheesecake made the special occasion memorable. A couple we met at mass performed the music at our reception. They lived across the street from the church. A long dirt driveway led to small cottages. I booked the two rooms at the Grand Hotel for my best men and their friends. Everyone went to Smiley’s afterwards. 

Sharen and I had three children. The five of us strolled through the cemetery before and after mass. We noticed very few new plots. I seem to remember a wooden bear tombstone with trinkets left under it dedicated to a young boy. It was drizzling a certain Sunday morning and we took refuge under a tall redwood tree. Right in front of us were two burial plots. Our middle daughter suggested we purchase them. To make a long story short, I did, #173, #174! They overlook the beautiful Bolinas Lagoon. It gives me total satisfaction and peace of mind knowing I will be buried in a place dear to my heart. I often daydream of all my carefree and fun times in lovely Bolinas. Soon, my spiritual eternal home will call my name.

Dedicated to my two friends: Norman Staub Sr. of Stinson Beach and Father Raymond Decker. Acknowledgments: The Bolinas Museum and the Stinson Beach Historical Society.

SPIRALED OUT OF CONTROL

My life as I once knew it, is gone forever. It has been replaced by a new set of rules that I have little control over. In my freedom I took a lot for granted. I used to swim, loved driving my car or riding a motorcycle. I used to go to restaurants, take hikes in the forest and stroll up and down the beach picking up seashells. Can you relate to this? I used to check out concerts, play golf (it was my thing) and feel the thrill of catching fish. Even the little things: walking to the store, or setting off fireworks on the 4th of July. All of that is gone now. I miss going to sports events, living with a woman or cutting down a real Christmas tree. And Halloweens were the best!

Now I can’t even visit my friends and family. And the worst is not being able to go to their funerals when their time comes. I can’t even say that last goodbye. Many have passed away, and the mail is so slow I always learn of something after the fact. My parents are currently 87 and 88 years old. I don’t even like to think about it.

I have made some really bad decisions. I have caused a lot of pain and grief to many people, friends and strangers. When you hurt people it spreads to other people you can’t even imagine, hundreds upon hundreds, because people know other people and we are all connected. It could even be a thousand people affected in my case. It is very sad. I was a selfish person. I didn’t think of anyone but myself. That’s not the way it goes. I was doing drugs. Even when you don’t plan for it, that’s what drugs eventually do.

I didn’t listen when people were trying to advise me. It was like they were preaching to me. I hated it. My parents, teachers, and friends all tried to tell me I was going down the wrong path. I refused to listen. Even to my best friend! I began doing drugs by myself. I would hide it from people. I spiraled out of control.

Don’t make the mistakes I made. Don’t spiral out of control.

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