Six months ago, Mr. C’s life was very different from what it is now. He was a state inmate serving a potential life sentence for a murder conviction. Now, thanks to the help from his lawyer, Aaron Spolin, and Mr. C’s own persistence, he is a free man. In this exclusive interview for Lawyer Monthly, he discusses how he dealt with prison life, the problems in the criminal justice system, and how it feels to finally be set free.
The Impact of Being Prosecuted and Sentenced
What was your reaction when you heard your original sentence of 39 years to life?
I felt nothing. I was 21 years old and had already been inside since I was 19. I don’t know, I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel anything until I was locked up for 10 years, and then I started to feel like, “Oh wow, you’re locked up for life, bro.”
What effect did your imprisonment have on your family?
I’m just now seeing the effects of it. A lot of missed time, a lot of pain that I put them through. I couldn’t see my daughter. I lost a lot of family members while I was in prison. The most recent one was my uncle a few years ago.
I’m sorry to hear that. How did your fiancée T help you get through all this?
She’s my backbone, my everything. She’s the one that keeps me sane, keeps me going. She never gave up; the one that never lost hope. She came into my life and gave me that hope and gave me that push when I didn’t have it. I felt like it was over with.
Life in Prison
How would you describe your life and conditions in prison?
Well, I mean, I did what I had to do to survive.
How were the conditions? Were they acceptable for what they were? Do they need to be improved on?
Oh yeah, it needs to be improved on.
If you could become the warden for the day, what would you change?
A lot of the rules. A lot of the rules are double-edged swords and it doesn’t matter what you do, you lose no matter what. Even if you are in the right, it doesn’t matter as they try to make you lose.
Is there a specific time or instance that you’re thinking of?
Yes, they put a whole year on my sentence that the judge took off, but I ended up doing it, and they basically swept it under the rug like, “Hey, it was just a typo”, but I actually did the time, even though I proved to them I didn’t have to.
Did life in prison ever become “normal” for you?
Yes, for 15 years, that was my life. I grew up in there, so it was similar to how a teenager may grow up in the street, I grew up in prison. I learned things the same way you learn things out on the street — I was just in prison.
You mentioned that 15-year mark. Did something happen at that 15-year mark?
I went down to a lower level, and when I did…it was different, I’ll say that. It was unlike what I was used to. Once I got there, and I had seen how different it was, my outlook changed. At a higher level, you become a victim if you have feelings, but when I got to a lower level, it was different. I could have feelings. I could start living my life.
When you got to a lower level, did it seem like you could get released sooner?
Exactly. When I first got to a lower level, the first person I saw go home, I was confused and asked, “Where you goin’?”. They said, “I goin’ home.” I replied, “You goin’ home? People go home?” I had never actually seen anyone leave prison.
What are your main concerns and issues with the prison system?
The way they treat us, the food, the healthcare, the living… it’s filthy. People are willing to clean up, but at the same time, they don’t give you anything to do it with. Just like with Coronavirus, they don’t give you what you need to sanitise and that is why everyone caught it. It shows it’s falling apart. It is super cold in the winter and with no ventilation, it’s super hot in the summer.
Do you have suggestions for new programs that would help people integrate into society better after being released from prison?
One thing they don’t set us up for is the reality of easing back into ‘normal’ life; they try to set you up for jobs and reentry to your family, but they really don’t regard or let you know how it’s not as easy as you think it will be. After all those years, going home and trying to introduce yourself back into your family… Your family still sees you as the 19-year-old boy that went in. If I didn’t do a life skills class or any of the classes that prepared me for family issues, I would never have asked myself “What do I need to do to make this transition better? They may not understand it, so what can I do to help?”. But there’s some stuff they can’t teach you. Maybe someone who has been out and experienced it could come back and teach you. In there, everybody helps you out. If you need to eat, someone will help you eat. Out here, it’s more, “It’s not my mess, so why would I pick it up for?”
So, it’s more individualistic outside of prison?
Yes. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out here more so than it is in prison, which is the opposite of what most people may think. If you feel like you can do it and deal with the consequences, then that’s fine. A few years ago, I just started living my life like chess. I calculated every move, and that’s what keeps me out of trouble. If a move isn’t worth it, I’m not going to do it.
And you felt that was a view you accumulated while in prison?
I didn’t have that view before. When I was 19, I was spontaneous. If someone said, “Let’s go beat someone up”, without too much thought, I would say, “OK.”
That community feeling in prison — did that go for both the higher and lower levels? The feeling that everyone had everyone’s back.
Same all the way through. It may not be the same amount of respect on every level… the higher levels have more respect and more structure and that’s what I grew up on — the higher level structure. When I got to a lower level, it helped me detour from that life. I think everything worked according to God’s plan. It all fell into line.
What motivated you each day to keep fighting for your release even after 25 years of imprisonment?
My daughter. I saw her almost every weekend.
Life After Prison
Has prison changed you? How?
Yes, but not for the worse. I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it weren’t for prison.
How would you describe yourself now?
Generous, life of the party, always willing to help.
Do you see anything positive about your time in custody?
I ended up going to a prison ministry retreat that they call “Kairos”, and once I went there, I started seeing a different way of living, which I had known when I was younger but didn’t accept. But I finally tried it, and everything turned around after that. I did what I had to do to get out. I let the old me go. My goal was to give back instead of taking. That’s how I ended up getting an education. I became a tutor, I helped people get an education, helped them get their GED, helped people who were struggling with their life in prison get their lives together.
How did it feel to learn you won your case?
I didn’t know what to feel. My whole body was tensed up. Every muscle was tense. My body was in one big cramp. I didn’t know how to feel or what to think. I was just thinking, “Wow. Finally… Finally.”
Did you feel justice had been done despite your lengthy incarceration?
Of course, it wasn’t their fault. It was my fault. I put myself in that situation. Nobody else put me in that situation.
What was the first thing you did after being released from prison?
Two of my nieces, my oldest brother, and my oldest niece’s boyfriend came to pick me up, and the first thing they did was hand me the phone, as there were people already on the line wanting to talk to me. I was finally walking through the gate not to get on a bus and go to another prison, but walking through it to go home.
What were you most excited about with your newfound freedom?
Being able to see my mom and dad on the other side, without restrictions on contact and how long a visit is, or what food we have to eat. Also, being able to spend time with my daughter for the first time outside of prison. She was born after I went in. Some of the things that are tough to you, you don’t see them as being tough anymore. They just are what they are.
What were you most nervous about upon being released?
A lot of things. I think the most prominent thing I was probably worried about was people thinking that I was weird because of the things that I became used to, because I know the things I was accustomed to doing while I was in prison, is not normal in everyday life.
Do you have a specific example of that?
Mainly just how I’d been living. It is a different living style in prison than it is out here, especially in relation to respect levels and socialising. I felt more love in prison than I do on the streets. You have to be a family in prison. Everybody greets everyone with a “good morning” in prison. Out here if you do that, they swear up and down that something is wrong with you.
What were your job opportunities when released?
I had so many job opportunities. If people say there are no job opportunities when you get out of prison, it’s a lie. I worked one job for two weeks, but they were treating us badly, so I left. Two weeks later, I got another job that I’m still working now.
Is this a testament to your work ethic?
I learned when I was in prison. I took every class I could in order to prepare me for life upon my release. The Employment Prep class showed us how to find jobs outside of prison; they taught me parts and T helped me with the stuff I didn’t know. I also always had a job in prison. If they wouldn’t give me a job, I was going to find a job.
Did these jobs in prison help you find jobs on the outside?
Of course they did. Without that experience, I wouldn’t feel comfortable having an interview with somebody or anything like that. When I did my first practice interview, I was so nervous I was sweating.
Do you get value out of your work?
I love my job, even if, like most people, I don’t love going on some days. I try to do so much on my days off, and work just as hard on my workdays. I feel like work gets in the way sometimes, but I like making money and you know what they say: you work hard, you can play hard.
What would you tell the people who think you should still be in prison?
They are one step away from being in there themselves. Everyone has something that could cause them to be where I sat. You accuse somebody, that’s a life sentence. I have a best friend named L who has a life sentence because he hit somebody and kept going, not realising the extent of his actions, and he’s been in there for 22 years now. Everyone is a step away from being in that place if you don’t make the right choice. I made the wrong choice. I hung with the wrong person. Everyone is going to have that feeling that people shouldn’t get out. Somebody in there could save your life. People in prison change and teach other people in prison to change. Lots of people feel that those who go in there should never come out. A lot of those people call themselves Christians, but if you aren’t willing to forgive someone in prison, what kind of Christian are you?
How do you feel about the criminal justice system in California in general?
It’s screwed up, really screwed up. All you have to do is look at the population of the prison, where they grew up, where they lived, and then look at the justice system. Who are they locking up? You know they’re not locking up people who stole a billion dollars; they’re locking up someone who stole bread to feed his family, or somebody who stole because they couldn’t get a job because of their history. That’s the plus side for me is that they don’t see a record because I’ve been gone for over 20 years, but for someone who has been gone five or six years, they will see their history and won’t give them a job. They’ll simply say they’ve already hired this many felons this year.
Is it a numbers game to them?
Yes, they don’t want to hire too many ex-convicts. They don’t want their company full of felons, but that’s who they should hire, because they would never steal from you. After all, they don’t want to go back to prison.
When you referred to who they’re locking up, who were you referring to specifically?
Minorities. You don’t find someone in the upper or middle class — that’s 1 out of 100 people. They also then want to lock you up forever. A lot of people in there with life sentences are 60 to 70 years old and have been in there for 40 years. What are they going to do out there, when they are barely moving in prison! But that’s what they want. They want you decrepit. They hate to let you out when you still got youth in you. People have been clean for 20 years that are still in there, but if you go to the board they will just knock you down.
What do you know now that you wish you would have known when you were 19?
That life was easy then. Life was easier than I thought it was.
When you say life was easier, did you feel somewhat hopeless at 19? And is that what led you to commit crime?
At 19, I was trying to keep up with everyone else. I wanted the nice cars, the shoes, the clothes… but if I had known I could have gone and got a job and gotten money easier than the way I was getting it, I would have done it that way. I did not get my first job until after I was released.
What emotion did you experience most in prison?
What emotion have you experienced most since your release?
Joy, just joy. I wake up every morning looking forward to my day. What I can do, accomplish, learn…
If you wrote an autobiography about your life, what would it be called?
“Listen to What’s Been Said.”