Life After ‘17 to Life’
STOCKTON, Calif. — In California, known for decades as one of the nation’s most avid jailers, the trajectory of law and order is shifting. Through litigation, legislation and a series of ballot initiatives, the state’s prison population has dropped 25 percent over the past decade.
The photographer Joseph Rodriguez has been documenting crime and punishment in California for years and recently focused his gaze on the migration home, in Stockton — a barren outpost in California’s Central Valley.
The roughly 600,000 men and women who leave incarceration nationwide each year are the long tail of the nation’s prison boom. Finding housing tops the list of challenges they face, followed by getting and keeping a job. These practical barriers are compounded by internal obstacles. Researchers report high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as histories of abuse and neglect among prisoners. These early wounds are compounded by the violence, humiliation and bone-deep isolation of the prison experience.
“It’s a lot of work to unravel the garbage I created,” said Jesse De La Cruz, who spent three decades in and out of California prisons. Former prisoners, he said, are expected to “change everything they’ve done all their lives in three months. It doesn’t work that way.”
David Eng was fortunate in this regard. He was sentenced to 17 years to life for second-degree murder for stabbing to death a man who he said had beaten and sexually assaulted his sister. After 28 years, he left prison with the support of a handful of family members and friends. A brother in Stockton offered him a place to stay. A year and half later, he has a car, a new wife and a job helping other returning prisoners get on their feet at Fathers and Families, a Stockton nonprofit.
Mr. Eng is part of a wave of newly released lifers pouring out of California’s prisons — nearly 4,500 since Gov. Jerry Brown took office in 2011, compared with a handful a decade earlier.
Mr. Eng, who had six parole board hearings before being approved to walk out, keeps a black binder documenting the effort to gain parole. Plastic sleeves protect certificates from the American Bible Academy, anger management classes and workshops on “pro-social values”; abstinence contracts; relapse prevention plans; a high school equivalency diploma; letters of apology; and letters of support.
Mr. Eng described a childhood marked by drugs and neglect. At 5 years old, he said, he witnessed his mother’s murder. This kind of early trauma is widespread behind bars, according to Daniel Silva, 60, who spent 39 years in California’s prison system. Mr. Silva was still locked up when he began to develop the curriculum for the Self-Awareness and Recovery program, which runs healing circles inside several California prisons.
Mr. Silva was waiting for a moving van when we spoke; three years out and newly off parole, he was headed for a new apartment, the first in his lifetime with his name on the lease. He attributed his own trajectory through a series of foster homes, group homes and juvenile halls — and eventually, he said, to prison for a crime he did not commit — to an absent father and an abusive, alcoholic stepfather. Addressing these early wounds, he said, is the key to successful re-entry to society. “You can get a person a job, get them into school, but if they’re not at peace, they’re not going to succeed.”
This same insight drives the San Joaquin County Parole Re-entry Court, which operates under the fatherly eye of Judge Richard Vlavianos of State Superior Court. Judge Vlavianos and his colleague Brett H. Morgan, who is also a Superior Court judge, and a team of case managers convene once a week in the downtown Stockton courthouse. In a three-hour session that can include tears and applause, they offer a safety net of drug treatment, accountability, housing and individual and family counseling that keeps most of the parolees who come before them out of prison as well as off the streets.
“You’re trying to develop trust,” explained Judge Vlavianos, who routinely descends from the bench to dispense handshakes, hugs and the occasional skeptical raised eyebrow. “If they think it’s us against them, we’ll never get anywhere.”
Results are typically measured in terms of recidivism, defined as a return to prison within the first three years out. Those who manage to stay free past this milestone — roughly half — are considered success stories.
There is some logic to this form of accounting: The longer you are out, the more likely you are to stay out. Mr. Rodriguez’s portraits reveal a deeper measure. Prison leaves a lasting mark.
Joseph Rodriguez is a photojournalist whose latest book is “Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the ’80s.”
Nell Bernstein is the author, most recently, of “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.”
Co-published with The New York Times.