The Meaning of Life in Prison, Part II

Over the last several decades, California’s prison population has exploded by 500% and prison spending ballooned to more than $10 billion every year. Meanwhile, too few inmates were being rehabilitated and most re‐offended after release.  The more inmates are rehabilitated, the less likely they are to offend.  Proposition 57 allows parole consideration for people with non‐violent convictions who complete the full prison term for their primary offense. It authorizes a system of credits that can be earned for rehabilitation, good behavior and education milestones.  For some of the men I met, this means another chance at life, an opportunity to reunite with their kids and family, and a way to become productive citizens and in many cases, leaders in their (our) communities.

But what about those serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole? Overcrowded prisons and unconstitutional conditions led to the U.S. Supreme Court ordering California to reduce its prison population. In 2012 Miller vs. Alabama ruled that life without the possibility of parole for juveniles is unconstitutional.  This is a significant ruling.  For several of the men I met, this would mean they could potentially be able to make the case for a chance at a second hearing.

I know what it’s like to be ignored, and I think that is the big problem about the prison system: These people are being thrown away.  There is no sense of rehabilitation.  In some places, they are trying to do better.  But in most cases, it’s a holding cell. -Lee Tergesen











These men live in the shadows of the criminal justice system. Once they cross the prison gates, the world forgets about them and they become ghosts, even to their families.  Transferred to prisons hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away, they are separated from everything that once made them human – their family, friends, food, traditions, in essence, their sense of self.  Some men haven’t seen or touched a single person they love in more than 30 years.  During one of the activities, the men wrote a prose, “Where I’m from.” They were asked to recall sounds, sights, tastes, among other things, from their life outside of prison.  When it came to describing tastes, all the men spoke of the home cooked meals, the Sunday dinners, and the summer leisure barbecues.  They spoke of pork chops with apple sauce, corned beef, hot links, greens, Sunday morning pozole, mole enchiladas, carne asada. It dawned on me as they were sharing, that for some of the men, it has been two or three decades since they have had a taste of this food; meals cooked by their mothers or fathers, perhaps their wives; meals passed down from generation to generation; soul food that held the history and legacy of where they came from.

During the workshops, when it is time for the men to share their thoughts, they dig down into memories of their childhood, memories of a place they once knew as home.  Memories are too painful inside of prison – the beautiful ones evoke nostalgia, heartache, and desperate longing for a time when innocence was a shield from the crude world; and the dreadful memories evoke shame, guilt, and deep, unescapable regret.  However, as painful as it is to remember, they know that in order to heal they must remember.

The men I met had an incredible willingness to be vulnerable, to peal the layers of wounds back despite the pain, and to speak their truth with all the ugliness and darkness that accompanied it.



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