For 'Lifers' Paroled, Stepping Into Life Beyond Bars Isn't Always Easy

Originally published on June 10, 2014 9:53 am

For decades, inmates in California serving sentences like 25 years to life with the possibility of parole rarely got out of prison. Recently, though, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of "lifers" being paroled. Scott Shafer of KQED explains how the change is affecting life on both sides of the prison walls.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. 25 years-to-life with a possibility of parole. For decades, California inmates serving sentences like that one rarely got out of prison. As we heard yesterday, that's changing. There's been a dramatic rise in the number of so-called lifers being paroled in the state. Well today, Scott Shafer of member station KQED reports on how the change is being felt on both sides of the prison walls.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: It's graduation day at San Quentin prison. About 50 inmates, most of the lifers, have just completed a course in leadership.


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 1: Mr. Calex (ph), Mr. Cappel (ph), Mr. Cooper (ph).

SHAFER: On by one, they come up for their diploma and a photograph. After the ceremony, Associate Warden Jeff Lawson says that as more and more lifers are granted parole and leave prison, the inmates here are taking notice.

JEFF LAWSON: Most of these guys understand that there is light at the end of the tunnel now. And it gets the ones that were maybe straddling the fence to actually get off the fence and get on the right side.

SHAFER: Inmate Duane Reynolds just completed the leadership course. On the way back to his cellblock he describes to me the crime that sent him away.

DUANE REYNOLDS: I murdered my supervisor. High on drugs so my life was out of control.

SHAFER: Reynolds was 30 at the time. He's now 54. And despite being turned down for parole three times before, he's hopeful that will soon change.

REYNOLDS: The fact that people are going home is just really encouraging to a lot of individuals.

SHAFER: Since 2009, more than twice as many lifers have been paroled in California than in the previous two decades combined. There are several reasons -one, a state Supreme Court ruling six years ago that made it tougher to deny parole inmates no longer considered dangerous. Also, Gov. Jerry Brown's appointees on the parole board are granting parole at a much higher rate than previous commissioners. And unlike his predecessors, who usually block parole for murderers, Gov. Brown is allowing 80% of the parole recommendations to go forward. One beneficiary of that is Gregory Rivers. He was just released from prison after serving more than three decades for murder. The former gang member was 17 at the time. Now 55, he recalls that first full day on the outside.

GREGORY RIVERS: That morning, when I woke up, got dressed, I was scared to open the door. Because though I'm free physically, mentally I still have some work to do.

SHAFER: He worries that somehow his newfound freedom will lead to trouble, and right back to prison.

RIVERS: I do plan to walk a straight, narrow path and give back to society. You know, it's remarkable that I was given a second chance when I didn't give my victims a second chance.

SHAFER: Rivers is standing inside a Chinese restaurant in Berkeley. He is, in a sense, the guest of honor -joining a dozen other former lifers recently released from prison.

RIVERS: Congratulations. It's great to see you.

SHAFER: The gathering is part celebration, part reunion. Sitting around a large corner table, the men are talking about life on the outside. All were trained in prison to be drug and alcohol counselors. One of them is Vandrick Towns. He's been out of prison less than a year. He's working now as a substance abuse manager. But he remembers how hard it was to find that first job.

VANDRICK TOWNS: For my first 6 months nobody wanted to touch me, oh, you're a parolee - sorry, next.

SHAFER: Another former lifer, Greg Jones, was also released from prison just over a week ago. On this day, he's celebrating something most people take for granted.

GREG JONES: I got my ID today and I was elated. That was a big deal. And I got my drivers license today.


SHAFER: The men laugh and warn him not to text and drive. But there are plenty of serious moments. They talk about getting reacquainted with their children and grandchildren. The philosopher in the group seems to be James Thomas. He killed someone during a robbery in Los Angeles when he was 17. He was paroled last year. Now 47, Thomas talks about humility and resisting disappointment after being turned down for jobs. The key, he says, is patience.

JAMES THOMAS: Everything good will come to you if you just wait for it. I've tried to chase it and I guarantee it's an uphill battle to try to catch it. Because no matter how close you get, it's always going to be one step ahead of you.

SHAFER: There are still more than 26,000 California inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. Many will never be released. Those who are will need the kind of support these men have found to make the most of their second chance. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.