By Michael Montgomery, Lisa Pickoff-White and Suzie Racho
A little more than a year ago, Californians voted to allow the release of third strikers convicted of non-violent, non-serious crimes. Since then, about 1,000 people have been released. KQED followed three men from prison to their new lives outside.
Richard Brown, 61, was sentenced to 25 years to life in 1995 after he was arrested while stealing two car alarms from a Walgreens store in Stockton. Brown, a former heroin addict, served prison time for assault in the 1970s.
Most three strikers who are released have served so much extra time that they’re not placed on parole or probation. Often that means they don’t have access to substance abuse, mental health and other re-entry programs as well as housing. Brown, who served 17 years for a 5-year sentence, finds the lack of assistance insulting:
“We just get the regular $200 that everyone else gets, with no transitional programs. No type of assistance, no consideration of families being lost, families being separated, people dying, things happening in our lives over the years, or getting older.
“They don’t have any type of transitional programs for people that are getting released that have served a lot of extra time for the crimes that were committed. So it is unfair, the way we’re being treated. I’m… blessed because of the support system that I have and the people that’s been right there for me throughout the course of these 18 years that I was in prison. Everyone doesn’t have this.”
Brown met Minard and Vivian Roorda in 1995 after his conviction. They became friends, and the Roordas visited Brown regularly in prison. They visited Brown one night after church. Brown saw their visit as a sign:
“I went back to my cell and cried like a baby and thanked the Lord because he answered a prayer that I asked. I said, ‘Lord, I’m going to prison with 25 years to life for this petty theft offense and I don’t want to go in there with an attitude, rambunctious. I want to go in there to serve you. So let me know if you’re real in my life and that you hear this prayer.'”
After Brown’s release, the Roordas helped him settle in Ripon, where they own a farm.
A longtime singer, Brown formed a gospel group, Neu Dae, while serving time in San Quentin.
“I got together with two other prisoners, Rico and Shorty, and we formed this gospel group. …All we had, basically, was a keyboard that we operated with, that had a drum machine set in and all, but for the most part our voices would complement one another when we sang, and we knew that it had to be a gift, which it was a gift, and is a gift, from God.”
Robert Watts, 41, was sentenced to life under California’s Three Strikes law for possession of stolen property. He had been in and out of prison on assault and robbery charges. He was released from San Quentin and currently is enrolled in a re-entry program in Berkeley.
Prosecutors can challenge Prop. 36 petitions, arguing that the inmates pose an unacceptable public-safety risk. Watts felt his hearing had gone poorly, and was shocked when a parole officer took him to the bus station instead of San Quentin.
“[They took me to the] Greyhound bus station, and the cop asked me when he opened the door, he goes ‘You’re from Kern County?’ and I said ‘Yeah.’ He goes ‘You just walk.’ He walked off. I just went to the phone and called my dad and my dad freaked out. It was kind of weird.
“I didn’t know if it was real or not. They dropped me off, but I’m standing there, and he walks away.”
Watts’ parents have been raising his 13-year-old son, Nicky, in Bakersfield. Since his release, Watts has moved to Berkeley and into a re-entry program, but he is still having a hard time readjusting.
“I don’t think anybody owes me anything. I don’t want to put that off on anybody, but I wish there was some kind of structure. … Like ‘Here, just get out. Here’s $200, leave.’ If you’re on parole, you have somebody looking over you, and if you don’t have no place to stay, parole is going to find you an address because they need an address for you to stay, so you’ve got some place to stay. Right now, you’re done. You’re over it. So in the back of my mind, if I could get a 16-month term, half-time, I’d probably go back real quick so I could be on parole. Just so I could come back and be on parole and I’d have all this funding. Eight months wouldn’t be anything in prison, and I’d be on parole then, and then I’d have this funding to help me through basic needs, I guess, without trying to bother my family for other things that I don’t really want to bother them for.”
Pete Marin, 52, served 18 years for petty theft under Three Strikes.
Marin says that some inmates feel that their Three Strikes sentences helped them live.
“What would happen to us if we didn’t get this life sentence? There’s a saying that God rescued us. He sent a black-and-white, and that’s how God rescued us… A police car. I probably would have either OD’d or maybe died, got killed… The lifestyle that we had, I used to do drugs. If I had more money, I’d do more drugs, and keep doing it and doing it.
“When you’re facing a life sentence, that really is a rude awakening. It awakens you, and it’s for real. When I got busted, and I was in jail, and they told me that I was a Three Strike candidate, it really shook me. It broke me; it really broke me. A lot of things developed that night that I got busted, in my life. It was part of my testimony, how God revealed himself to me.”
Since his release, Marin spends time helping other former third strikers.
“When I got out, my mind was running so fast. It was kind of hard to explain. When I was trying to read, I couldn’t read. I caught myself thinking; my mind was running, and it was hard for me to concentrate, because there were so many things happening. I was a little shy and reserved, being amazed at a lot of things.
“For instance, when we got off the freeway, the area where I grew up at, I didn’t even recognize it. They did sidewalks and trees; I couldn’t believe where I was at.
“The cell phone thing; I would be in my cell, and we would see TV, and we would see people, everyone texting and using the cell phone. I would think in my mind, ‘I would never do that. I’ll be out there, and I’ll be talking to people, and have conversations one-on-one with people.'”
Now, Marin’s nieces and nephews are teaching him how to text. While Marin’s family is supportive, he says his prison time makes many people uncomfortable.
“I was talking to a gentleman the other day, and he realized that I was in prison. His demeanor changed. I knew what it was. He was uncomfortable. It kind of hurt a little bit. I could understand his not feeling comfortable. I could understand it. I know, every time I was in prison, I realized that a lot of people who are on the streets, they believe that we’re the scum of the earth. That’s one of the reasons why I am sitting here in this interview. There are a lot of good people that had addictions, and that have come out; that have changed their life, and the system did do its job. There’s men that have changed, that have came out, and they’ve changed their life. I would like to be a representative, so to speak, to let them know that there are men that have changed their life.”