BARRIOS UNIDOS: Daniel Alejandrez is an advocate for those 'lifers' who have changed their lives.
It's a sweltering day in Tracy. Summer behind bars at Deuel Vocational Institution smells like sweat, bleach and old orange peels. Clifford Bair, a white-haired, goateed first-degree murderer—a lifer—perches under a barred window's light and talks about the day 25 years ago in Bodega Bay when he tied up Theresa Aiken and Rose Fomasi with electrical wire and left them to die."I'd been up for three days drinking and doing speed," says the 64-year-old convict. Remembering his crime against Aiken specifically, he says, "After I tied her up, I couldn't believe it, but I found her keys in a bowl by the door. I took her car and I left. All I had wanted was to take her car. I remember the detective telling me Miss Aiken had died in the night. I wanted to die, too. I still do."
To hear him tell it, many decisions and circumstances led his younger self—strung-out, self-loathing and addicted to meth—to the front door of the 86-year-old Aiken, known warmly as the "Mother of Bodega Bay," that day in 1984. And since then, many more decisions have been made by inmate Bair and by the state institutions charged with "correcting and rehabilitating" him. Bair, according to Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) spokesman Lt. Gilbert Valenzuela, is like a majority of lifers over 40 years old, "one of the good ones." Enrolled in classes, active in a prison-based job, he's padded his résumé for 25 years in hopes of wresting freedom from California's Board of Parole Hearings (BPH). Yet despite his efforts at rehabilitation, he has little chance of becoming a free man. That's because the board grants parole to fewer than 1 percent of lifers who are eligible, and those that are paroled are usually denied later by the governor. Denying parole to eligible inmates without proving that they've shown continued signs of criminal behavior, however, is a direct violation of state law. And at a time when 2.3 million American adults are incarcerated and California is leading the way with 170,000 of them, the state's prison system is at a breaking point and many are pushing for major reforms to the parole process that's keeping lifers doing life.
The Rising Tide
In America, one in 10 prison inmates is serving a life sentence. In California, it's one in five. They've come for a handful of different reasons: they've killed, kidnapped or raped. They've committed treason or sponsored terrorism. They've robbed or they've dealt drugs more than twice and copped a "three strikes" life sentence. They've racked up additional charges while incarcerated. They are black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American, though in California, blacks and Latinos make up 68 percent of lifers. They're 90 years old or 14 years old, tried as adults. Though many are hardened criminals, for some the difference between a cell door and a white picket fence is nothing more than an angry moment and a weapon.
Santa Cruz County District Attorney Bob Lee has sought life sentences for dozens of criminals. He, like many law enforcement officials, believes "life is life," and that murderers like Bair should not be judged on their decisions in prison but on the ones that got them there."Crimes like murder are the most antisocial acts a person can commit," Lee says. "People shouldn't be thinking about the criminals who kill and kidnap, but about the victims that will never come back and their families who have to live without their loved ones forever." Lee is far from alone. Californians typically vote in favor of almost every proposed law that imposes tougher sentences for convicts. Just last year, voters passed Proposition 9, which allows the BPH to extend the time a lifer can go between hearings from one year to as many as 15 years. Many a politician has launched a career campaigning on a "tough on crime" platform. Many others have lost it when the public sensed softness. Former California governor Gray Davis famously said that the only way a murderer would leave prison on his watch was "in a pine box." He allowed parole for a mere eight convicts during his four years in office. Gov. Schwarzenegger tried to reverse this policy, and in his first year released 72 lifers. After a vicious backlash from victims rights groups, however, he scaled back the releases to about 30 per year. Today, with California's prisons operating at 200 percent capacity and a broken healthcare system killing an inmate a week, the state is facing orders from a federal panel of judges to cut down its inmate population by 4o,000 prisoners over the next two years; the state responded last week by offering to cut 23,000 inmates. The panel went so far as to label the prisons "unconstitutional" due to negligent healthcare that made conditions "cruel and unusual." It will be low-level violent, nonviolent and drug offenders who will likely benefit most from the orders to cut prison populations. Yet with California's nation-topping 70 percent recidivism rate, most, before long, will end up right back in prison. In contrast, the recidivism rate for lifers who are paroled drops to about 20 percent.
Government orders and statistics alone, however, won't fix the state's broken system. And there are few people, and very few important people, who are willing to go to bat for a convicted criminal, much less a lifer.
In Their Corner
Some, however, do stand up for lifers. Daniel "Nane" Alejandrez is one of them. A short, soft-spoken man, usually seen in his trademark dark beret and Locs-style sunglasses, he's best known for founding the Latino community outreach group Barrios Unidos. Born to a migrant farmworker family and drafted by the Army to fight in the Vietnam War, Alejandrez came back from combat in 1971 hooked on heroin and to a family deeply entrenched in gangs, drugs and violence. Yet even as he weaned himself from drugs, he began to speak out for peace—both on the streets and in the prisons.
Since Barrios Unidos launched in 1977, Alejandrez has been on hand for some of the most important moments in California's Latino story. Now, along with reaching out to troubled youth, he's made the plight of the lifers of DVI, Solano, Vacaville, Soledad, Pleasant Valley and Jamestown one of his causes.
"I just want people to see [lifers] as people—people who made mistakes, but people who can change as well," he says. "So many of them have done everything they can to help themselves and rehabilitate. But none of that seems to matter, because the parole boards just say, 'Great work, but your crime was too severe.'"On this blistering day at DVI, he joins a team of professors, activists, authors and social workers for a class on "transcommunal cooperation" and an organized debate among inmates on the parole priorities of nonviolent drug offenders vs. parole-eligible lifers.
"When the governor was given the power to review decisions made by the parole board, you can see that parole approvals essentially stopped," says inmate Michael DeVries, who, like many long-term inmates, has become a legal expert on issues surrounding his case. "This is a case of ex post facto, which means laws were passed after the fact that I, and a lot of other people I see in this room, committed their crimes. I liken it to a sports analogy of moving the goal post."The debate continues inside the DVI community room for another hour. The lifers, most sporting reading glasses, hold handwritten notes in their hands and speak in the slow, measured cadence of men in their 50s and 60s. The crude tattoos of Virgin Marys, tear drops and number 13s that adorn some of their exposed forearms have faded over time into cloudy blotches of black and navy blue.
The researchers jot endlessly in their notebooks, attention rapt on the real-life social experiment playing out before them. The discourse is civil, and no one interrupts or speaks out of turn. Time, as one lifer explains, is something each has in abundance, and patience, he says, "is something you can't help but learn on a life sentence."The class, nearing the end of its second year, was not an idea hatched in social academia, but by the inmates themselves, a fact that astounds many of the researchers, given the hardened racial lines that exist in every prison in America. As the class ends, however, any thoughts of freedom are dashed as the inmates are herded off, strip-searched and sent back to their cells.
"Single file," a guard says sternly. "You know the drill.
Then & Now
Nixon was president, disco was the new rage and gas was 40 cents a gallon when Paul Hyde came to prison in 1973. Having killed a shoe-store owner with a stray bullet during a gang-related gunfight in Los Angeles, he was handed a life sentence for first-degree murder. Hyde became eligible for parole in 1980. Since then, despite a relatively clean discipline record and an extensive rehabilitation résumé, he's been denied parole 22 times."I was 19 years old when they told me I was going to prison for life," says Hyde, a tall, clean-cut, 55-year-old African American with a shaky voice and watery eyes. "I'll never get over taking someone's life, and the man I killed will never come back. That's something I can't change. Now I have 14 trades, I have my [high school] diploma, I have 83 college units. I've put myself in every possible program I can, but every time, they just tell me, 'Sorry, but your crime was too bad.'"Denying a parole applicant solely on the basis of the original crime, however, is illegal under California law. As mandated by the Dannenberg California Supreme Court decision of 2005, aspects of rehabilitation must weigh into a parole board's decision. Though not limited to them, the five major factors involved in a parole decision are listed by the BPH as "counseling reports, behavior in prison, vocational and educational accomplishments, involvement in self-help therapy, and parole plans." The 2005 ruling also says that any lifer who is denied parole based on his or her original crime must be proven to have "aggravated facts" beyond the crime that makes him or her a continuing threat to society. Evidence suggests that the stingy approval rates handed down by the BPH are no accident. During Hyde's early days in the '70s, parole boards were made up of not only prison and law enforcement officials but teachers, doctors and others representing the "community at large." Then, almost every felon received an indeterminate sentence and was released when the parole board deemed he was ready. Now, California's 12-person BPH boasts a membership made up entirely of current and former law enforcement officials. All are registered Republicans.
"It's a fixed game," says Hyde. "I get told I'm doing all the right things, so why am I not suitable for parole?"Hyde says he gets by on one thing: hope. Hope that his classes and in-prison work efforts will catch the eye of BPH commissioners. Hope that, if he's released, someone will give him a job. And hope that both he and the family of the man he killed will find resolution in the price he's paid behind bars. But the hope that their parole hearings will end in any other way than a flat denial seems far-fetched. For lifers like Hyde, no matter how many steps they take toward rehabilitation, the heinousness of their original crime is always the bottom line in their denial reports.
Documents provided by inmates and by the California Department of Corrections show that lifers are often denied parole with none of the "aggravated facts" required under the Dannenberg legal precedent.
In Bair's case, one parole decision transcript thanks him for "a number of self-help programming . . . substance abuse, alternatives to violence, AA, anger management [classes] . . . and a plumbing [and welding] vocational work programs," before it goes on to deny him because "the prisoner committed the offense in an especially cruel manner."
Hyde's case is similar. Documents show dozens of classes taken, certificates earned and jobs maintained. Getting caught with a dagger 20 years ago is a stain on his in-custody record, but he hopes the board will overlook it on account of his two decades of good behavior and make his upcoming hearing lucky number 23.
"When I came to prison, I had a third-grade education. I couldn't even run a carwash," Hyde says. "Now I run millions of dollars' worth of machinery every day in the electrostatic powder coating shop. I'm totally employable. I'm a changed man, and I think I deserve a chance to show it."
A month after the organized debate at DVI over who deserves parole, the lifer class is together once again on a slightly cooler day—this time for a graduation celebration. Chuckles fill the air, smiles abound and hugs are the preferred greeting as the aging inmates receive certificates of completion and feast on cake and shrimp cocktail brought in by Alejandrez and other volunteers. For teachers like John Brown Childs, the completion of the course is a "living example of positive human potential.""I liken what I see in these men to a Zen riddle," Childs says. "It says, 'I saw a slave, but then I realized it was actually a person held in slavery.' It means you can look at someone and think you know exactly what they represent, but you have to look at them from a different point of view to really understand who they are and what's in their hearts."
Whether Californians consciously care about what's in the hearts of their convicts or not, there is no question that they are heavily invested in just that. With $9.8 billion in state funds set aside for the Department of Corrections in the next year, prison spending makes up 10 percent of California's budget, even after $1.2 billion in emergency cuts mandated in this year's slashed state budget.
The mood inside DVI suggests that the inmates feel the change coming as well. Most of them chatter about rumors that friends may be going home or that appeals may be accepted. Alejandrez feels it too. While agreeing with inmates that things may be looking up, he cautions them to stay vigilant.
"The state has got to do something," he says. "They've finally dug themselves so far down that they have to start climbing back out. I just hope they take a look at guys like these lifers, people who have earned a right to a second chance."
As the graduation ceremony ends and eager inmates dutifully collect the frosting dotted paper plates and soda cans into trash bags, prison spokesman Valenzuela takes the microphone to offer a test to the men.
"I have a challenge for you," says the career guard. "I want to see you take the lessons you learned about working together and use them out in the yard."
Most of the inmates agree that race relations in the prison yard will likely stay as segregated as they are now. Instead, each hopes he can use the skills in a more exotic location: outside the prison walls.