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A man squints in the afternoon sun, taking in a warm breeze on the porch of a meticulously maintained two-story home at the intersection of downtown and South Central. Laughter echoes from the street, an ice cream truck jingles, kids meander home from school. Inside the house, hardwood floors and easy chairs make it the kind of place where an elderly couple could savor the time left in well-planned lives.
“It's a different time,” says the man, whom we will call Bill. “Kids are crazier now and radical. They really, really don't care. It's a harder world out here now. I understand it. I see it.”
Actually, Bill hasn't seen it with his own eyes for quite a while.
Bill's a lifer, or at least he was until a few days ago. He served 26 years in state prison. Fossilized as a teen, he received a life sentence after he was convicted of a violent crime, the nature of which he doesn't want to discuss. Now he lives in a parolee house.
He was frozen in time for 227,890 hours; Bill's thaw has begun for the properly remorseful, well-presenting 43-year-old. Handsome, healthy and free at last, bearing no visual remnants of time served in the nefarious California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: no prison posturing, no cryptographic tats, no furled brow, just a decidedly enthusiastic attitude and an inviting smile.
A lot happened while Bill was locked up: Osama, Obama, cellphones, the Internet, the '80s and '90s. His parents and grandparents died while he was in prison. “No funeral privileges for lifers,” he says. “You have to accept what's happened and just roll with it. Everybody goes through it. Everybody grieves in their own way.”
Bill just sent his first text to an old friend. “I've seen it on TV, but I haven't used any of this machinery or these little appliances.
“I told him I missed him.”
Bill willed himself into manhood. Set his intention and chiseled away, etching out his character for 26 years. He never received a 115 (violation for rule infraction) the entire time he was incarcerated — a rare distinction. He also got some training; he's a draftsman and a graphic designer with some college under his belt.
“I maintained myself that way. I kept my youth. I've still got a young heart. I've got a young mind. Not a young mind to get in trouble.”
Bill sleeps well and gets up at 5:30 a.m. “Let's go, let's go. I got this opportunity and I'm gonna make sure everybody gets the best of what I got to offer,” he assures.
His conviction is inspiring. He could be a motivational speaker. Not like some ex-senator or a washed-up sports figure who ran out of options — this is authentic. “You just can't quit. You gotta persevere. … Some days you might get depressed, but you gotta pick yourself up and just go.”
Bill attributes his enlightened perspective to his association with lifers. It's a state of mind, a bond that transcends race.
“A lifer is a guy who lived out in society and worked a 9-to-5 and he had some sense about him, and he made a terrible mistake and a lot of people paid for it: his family, his victims, and he paid for it himself. … He did everything he could to correct himself. Most of the lifers are like that.
“Short-timers, they don't care. They're doing their own thing, living a fast-paced life. But the lifers, it slows down for them. A lifer carries himself in a way that shows a lot of respect, a lot of dignity, and you can tell he cares about doing the right thing.”
Also living in the house is another man, age 52, whom we will call Ralph. He served 31 years and has been out for 15 months. State-issued bifocals, goatee and tats, Ralph is lighthearted. He laughs a lot.
“Bill's gonna do fine,” he says. “Most lifers do fine. He probably should have been released 10 years ago.
“Lifer is kind of an attitude in prison. In any social setting there's a stratus. Lifers consider themselves the top of the stratus because they're there for the duration.”
Ralph says the people in prison are just like everybody else, except that they made a mistake. “We're not Charlie Mansons,” he says. “It's a big shock when you get out. We think in terms of before we went to prison. In my case, I was expecting a world in the late '70s. Cellphones and computers … everything is different.”
Ralph has some ideas about incarceration. “Prison don't work. Everybody makes money off of prison. Prison is the biggest industry in California. You're paying $34,000 to $64,000 a year to house an inmate. Most of the money goes to the staff that watches the inmates. That's why we have 170,000 in prison right now. Politicians play on people's fear — we can't let these killers out of prison. Less than 2 percent of paroled murderers ever commit another crime and go back to prison.”
That's not true of the short-timers, he says. “I don't care how many they let out, they'll keep coming right back in. It's a cycle. You let 50,000 people out, you're gonna have 40,000 back before the beds get cold. It's too profitable. Unless they put a cap on prisons and say, 'OK, 120,000 that's it. You bring one in, you let one go.'”
Bill isn't thinking about prison. He has a simple vision for the future: a job, a house, a family. He says he's gonna be a good thing for California. The past is past. At some point it doesn't really matter what he did. Time served, the future is a wide-open road.