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What Happens When Prison ‘Lifers’ Get A Chance At Healing And Redemption?

In California, a prison program run by people once sentenced to life shows how even the most serious offenders are more than the worst things they’ve done.

The Hope and Redemption Team graduation ceremony at Calipatria State Prison. Photo courtesy of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.Sadé Clacken Joseph

To the state of California, Antonio Cruz is a murderer, permanently defined by the night in 1997 when he took a rival gang member’s life.

Back then, Cruz was a wiry 16-year-old growing up in South Central Los Angeles. Now 38, he spent an October afternoon seated in a ring of blue plastic chairs assembled in a sterile family visitation room inside Centinela State Prison, a high-security facility that sprawls across 2,000 acres of scorched desert in California’s Imperial Valley. Like many of the men in the circle, Cruz has been sentenced to life. The group had gathered to talk about who they were when they committed the crimes that landed them in prison—and how they’ve changed since.

“I was raised in a dysfunctional home, a violent home, where everything was addressed in violence,” Cruz said. “I was traumatized because my father passed away, and I didn’t have the emotional, educational, and physical support I always wanted. As a result I was lost.”

When Cruz was just 4 or 5, his father was murdered, leaving his mother to raise him and his three sisters. With few outlets to help him cope with his trauma, Cruz said he channeled his pain and anger into the “criminal gang mentality.” Gangs provided a semblance of camaraderie and social support, and they dealt with issues using violence, a language fluent to Cruz. When Cruz wanted something, he was taught to take it. He admitted he was irresponsible, impulsive, and selfish—not exactly unusual behavior for a teenager. But in his neighborhood, it happened to be much easier to get a gun than it was to get help.

Eventually, a conflict between gangs erupted in gunfire and Cruz fired a shot that killed a young man. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Cruz has been incarcerated for more than two decades filled with suffering, reflection, and now, he said, clarity and purpose.

“I finally know that I do not need everything I wanted back then,” Cruz said. “And everything I wanted, I already have today—it’s you guys.”

Cruz looked around the circle and thanked the men for their support. He vowed to be a “conducive force,” to set an example for them and to honor his victim.

“I now know that he was much more than just a gang member—he was someone’s son,” Cruz said. “I will live the rest of my life honoring that life.”

Cruz didn’t reach this milestone of growth and understanding alone. Other men in the circle shared their own stories of childhood trauma or unstable households pushing them toward criminal behavior. “Hurt people hurt people,” a few of them said. Some recalled turning to gangs in search of power, status, or community. Regardless of the circumstances that preceded their crimes, they all said they were eager to prove they can contribute positively to society.

Earlier in the afternoon, these men and a few dozen others took part in a rare celebration at Centinela, complete with lukewarm pizza, sheet cake, and for some participants, including Cruz, hugs from family members. It was a graduation ceremony of sorts, meant to mark their completion of a program designed to facilitate self-evaluation, accountability, and healing—the kind that Cruz and his companions have demonstrated—to help them live more positive lives, both during and after their incarceration.

This prison “inreach” program was launched in August 2017 by the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that serves formerly and currently incarcerated people. The course is run by the coalition’s Hope and Redemption Team (HART), a group of former “lifers”—all paroled after being sentenced to life in prison—who are now dedicated to helping other men still behind bars.

HART’s three workshops use a peer-to-peer model for rehabilitation, creating a safe space for participants to confront the root causes of their behavior and develop positive coping skills. In just over two years, HART has served more than 3,000 individuals across eight state prisons, with more than 1,000 people often on the wait list.

In July, HART held another graduation at Calipatria State Prison, a maximum-security facility in the desert east of the Salton Sea, more than a two-hour drive from San Diego. Around 80 men, their baggy light blue clothes emblazoned with yellow letters identifying them as “Prisoner,” filed into a room nearly identical to the one in Centinela.

Like a high school or college graduation, the men were called up one by one to receive a certificate and a handshake from state Senator Holly Mitchell, a Democrat from Los Angeles, who attended the ceremony as a guest speaker.

“It warms my heart to see brotherhood and your families here today,” she said.

But Mitchell acknowledged that policymakers must do more, not only to support the HART graduates, but to expand the promise of life after prison beyond the lucky few who are accepted into programs like this. “We’re working hard [in Sacramento] to give you the opportunities and tools you need to get there,” she said.

Hope and redemption are relatively new themes in prisons like Calipatria and Centinela. For decades, California district attorneys and judges packed state prisons using aggressive prosecution and extreme sentencing schemes eagerly passed by tough-on-crime lawmakers. Many of the people they locked up, disproportionately young Black and Latinx men, faced such long sentences that it was hard for them to envision ever getting out. As a result, many of the HART participants said they saw little reason to get involved in self-help programs meant to prepare them for life after prison. Some were convinced that day would never come.

“When California had the old tough-on-crime, lock them all away approach, the people on the inside lost hope,” Calipatria’s warden, Warren Montgomery, said in an interview. “We dehumanized them and devalued their lives, and what was their motivation to live? There were no success stories to talk about.” 

More recently, state lawmakers have passed a slate of reforms reducing certain sentences, and giving some incarcerated people a better chance at getting out of prison earlier. Legislation has also provided relief for some individuals who received lengthy sentences as juveniles, following research that has shown the adolescent brain is not fully developed.

These changes are a lifeline for HART graduates, said Raymond Madden, Centinela’s warden.

“Just five years ago, the chances of many of you getting out of prison were pretty slim—if you had a life sentence, that was it,” he told the men. “The light at the end of the tunnel is actually a light now, not just a little candle flicker.”

Inside Calipatria, Montgomery sees the men in HART “developing a persistent hope” that they, like the mentors they work with, “can be the next success story.” Before, “they were not able to dream about anything outside these walls,” he said. “Now they picture themselves as the Little League coach, the father who is home, the neighbor people don’t have to feel threatened by.”

Despite recent reforms, the tough-on-crime era still looms large in California prisons. Even with reductions over the last decade, there are still 125,000 incarcerated people across the state—the second-largest prison population in the U.S., behind Texas. And today a higher proportion of prisoners are serving long-term sentences than ever before. One-quarter of people in California prisons are serving a life sentence, and 31 percent are serving a sentence enhanced by California’s “three strikes” law. Over all, 80 percent of California’s prisoners carry a sentence enhancement of some kind.

These statistics fly in the face of research that suggests lengthy prison terms do little to protect public safety or deter crime. A 2016 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, for example, concluded that longer prison terms may actually produce higher recidivism rates, and at best provide diminishing returns for public safety. Other studies have shown that, as with other features of the criminal legal system, long-term prison sentences and sentence enhancements are disproportionately used against people of color, especially African Americans.

By themselves, programs like HART can do little to address California’s legacy of mass incarceration. Despite the work Antonio Cruz has done on himself over the last 22 years, he is not scheduled to be eligible for parole until September 2022. Even then, there’s no guarantee he’ll be found suitable for release, as few parole applications are granted, in part due to overwhelming opposition from district attorneys.

The hardship of having a family member in prison has taken a heavy toll on Cruz’s sister, Celia, who made the nearly four-hour drive from Los Angeles to attend her brother’s graduation. She spoke at the ceremony, recalling that Antonio went to prison around her 15th birthday. At first, she insisted on postponing her quinceañera until he came home. When she realized that wasn’t going to happen, she felt she’d lost another father figure, and worried for years that she might never get him back. The HART program has finally given Antonio hope for the future, Celia said, which has in turn renewed her faith that he will one day return to the family.

“I just want to say congratulations to all of you,” she told the graduates. “Keep positive. Keep going. The sky’s the limit.”

J’Mel Carter can remember a few bright spots in an otherwise difficult childhood. Growing up in San Bernardino in the ’80s, he turned to sports and local after-school programs as an escape from an abusive household. But as the crack epidemic spread and began destroying entire families and communities, those services folded, leaving Carter and other kids with few options outside of the streets.

“When I was growing up, it was like I was destined to end up in jail or prison, or I was gonna end up dead,” Carter said in an interview. “Nobody was thinking about getting married or having a future or a 401(k) retirement plan. Nobody was thinking like that.” 

Carter explained that this sense of hopelessness—the certainty that the system will destroy you one way or another—led many of the men in prison to act impulsively and make poor decisions. That’s why he said it’s essential to invest in education and other community-based programs that can serve as a backstop, offering people positive reinforcement and a space to address trauma or other factors that can lead to criminal behavior. These sorts of resources cannot only be available in a prison setting, Carter said.

Unfortunately, Carter had no such outlet, and by the time he turned 20, he had become fully entrenched in the criminal and gang lifestyle. In 1996, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years to life. The day he went away, Carter promised his mother that he would do whatever it took to come home and right his wrongs.

Carter spent the next two decades wearing prison clothes and being identified by a prisoner number. In October, three years after his release date, he returned to Centinela, where he’d been incarcerated, to lead the HART graduation as one of the program’s life coaches.

Wearing a sharply tailored suit and tie, Carter has become a mentor and leader, admired by HART participants and respected by prison staff. Humble and relentlessly upbeat, Carter is a role model for what the men of HART can accomplish. After all, he “wore our clothes” and “walked in our shoes,” said one of the men. Now, “everyone looks up to J’Mel.”

But the men aren’t only inspired by someone like them leaving prison and going on to forge a successful life. There’s also the fact that Carter has chosen to dedicate that new life to paying it forward.

“Now that you know all this, share it,” Carter told the graduates at Centinela. “It’s not ours to keep.”

After receiving their certificates, Antonio Cruz and others pulled chairs into a circle and began to put that lesson to the test. As the graduates talked about what they wanted to do in the next chapter of their lives, a correctional officer periodically interrupted them, barking out names in groups of three. When the men heard their names, they got up, walked to the front of the room, and disappeared behind a heavy metal door. With only a few men left in the circle, Mitchell Gallien spoke last. His redemption story would be in memory of his grandmother, he said.

“She’s no longer here and I’m just trying to make her proud and show them that I’m not that person I left behind,” said Gallien. “I’m about to be someone different now.”

Finally, Gallien’s name was called, too. Like the graduates before him, he stood up and walked to the front of the room, where he was taken away to be strip-searched and locked back in his cell.

Nick Wing is a journalist and media strategist for The Justice Collaborative. Kyle C. Barry is senior legal counsel for The Justice Collaborative.