This Is What It's Like To Leave Behind A Life Sentence In Prison And Start Over
“I basically went from living in a fishbowl, which is the prison yard, to swimming in an ocean.”
In 2016, after California passed laws making more incarcerated people eligible for parole, some people who had faced life in prison suddenly found themselves with a chance at a future outside prison walls.
Pendarvis Harshaw, a podcast host and producer at KQED who grew up in Oakland, partnered with photographer Brandon Tauszik on a visual project, Facing Life, to follow eight people once sentenced to life in prison and their reentry into civilian life in California. In many cases, the people faced a completely different world than the one they left at the time they were incarcerated.
“They are dealing with a workplace lapse, friendship and family lapse, 20- to 40-year technology lapse, from getting a job to a new license at the DMV,” Tauszik told Buzzfeed News. “Everything has changed.”
People released after facing life sentences generally don’t go on to commit other crimes, one report found. “They often didn't expect to have this opportunity, and so they want to relish it and hit the ground running,” Harshaw said.
Harshaw, who said he first considered the intersection between prisons and journalism after working with the newspaper at San Quentin State Prison, has worked in prisons on and off since 2013. California’s state prison system, described by one writer as “the golden gulag,” has long been overcrowded — former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared the prison system to be in a state of emergency in 2003. In recent years, legislation has aimed to reduce the incarcerated population by offering parole to more people convicted of nonviolent crimes and people who committed crimes while they were children or young adults. The pandemic, and the risk of catching COVID-19 in crowded facilities, has also resulted in some people being released early.
For Facing Life, Tauszik said they wanted to show what a typical person released from prison might face.
“We reached out to organizations, and they want to share with you the superstar individuals,” Tauszik said. “But we wanted to profile people who had middle-of-the-road stories, just your average experience. Robin had been in the longest, 38 years, in the Central Valley. She was a clear example of mental health issues not being checked from a young age and made some unfortunate choices.”
At its heart, the series is not a prison story. “It's about housing, it's about communities, it's about people being replaced in their jobs by machines,” Harshaw said.
“One thing we're realizing is that it's also a story of sentencing, before we get to how the prisons are overcrowded,” Harshaw added. “Talk about the sentencing beforehand, and even before that — education, redlining. It's a people and society story.”
We’re sharing their project, made with funding from the Pulitzer Center.
Travielle Pope, incarcerated for 26 years and released in 2018
“I basically went from living in a fishbowl, which is the prison yard, to swimming in an ocean.”
On April 29, 1992, four LAPD officers were acquitted of all charges related to the beating of Rodney King. Travielle watched the news that Wednesday afternoon in his bedroom. And then, like thousands of other Black Americans who felt no justice was served, he took to the streets. After accosting a Latino man with a group of friends, Travielle attacked him with a wooden board. The man later died from his injuries. Travielle, 17 years old at the time, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Travielle devoted his life to Christ in 2000, after just over eight years of being incarcerated. In August 2017, his sentence was commuted, and he became eligible to go before the parole board.
His first day out was hectic. He was pulled in a lot of different directions by friends and family eager to see him. “I was overwhelmed, because in prison, if someone walks up close to you, that means they’re trying to harm you,” Travielle said.
He soon found that others were willing to help him. “I went to the DMV to get my ID and I didn’t know how to fill out the application,” Travielle said. The woman behind the counter gave him a hard time for fumbling around. He explained that he didn’t mean to be difficult, but that he’d been incarcerated for 26 years, and it was all new to him.“I haven't even been out of prison a week yet, so I don't know the process,” Travielle admitted to her. “Will you please be patient with me and help me?” he asked the lady. “She looked at me and said, ‘Baby, I’m so sorry. Welcome home.’”
Lynn Acosta, incarcerated for 20 years and released in 2018
Lynn was born to a two-parent household that quickly dissolved. Soon after entering the Navy at 19, she met her future husband. Lynn said the relationship quickly devolved into something that was unhealthy. Along with verbal and physical abuse, there were instances of spousal rape and infidelity. In fall 1997, an old friend of Lynn’s called with a message that would change their lives. “Lynn, you know your husband is cheating on you?” Lynn recalled him saying. “Do you want me to kill him?”
Lynn eventually called off the plan, but Lynn’s former friend from California had murdered his wife. Because Lynn had knowledge of the plot, she was also arrested in June 1998 on charges of conspiracy of first-degree murder and extradited to California. She ended up serving 20 years, five months, and 22 days.
“It’s hard to put into words that feeling of going from ‘you’re never going home, you’re going out in a pine box’ to having a panel of two commissioners saying, ‘We do not feel you pose a risk to public safety,’” Lynn said through tears. Once she was granted parole, Lynn’s only question was: “Now what? What is life going to look like?” After getting situated in a transitional home, Lynn found community in a circle of other former “lifers.” “There is a distinct difference,” Lynn said, “between people that come and go in the system like it’s a McDonald’s drive-thru, and a lifer.”
Since being released, Lynn has found stable employment at a Marriott and has taken strides toward entrepreneurship as a licensed physical trainer. Now Lynn is newly married and living with her husband Chris, who is also both a formerly incarcerated person and a veteran.
Gary Vong, incarcerated for 18 years and released in 2018
“I was born in Vietnam, I don’t remember much,” said Phuoc Vong, who goes by Gary. When Gary arrived in the US at 12 years old, he quickly found that overcoming the language barrier was no easy task. “School was fun, I met people like myself who just came to the United States — we had something in common,” Gary said. As a teen living in San José, California, in the 1980s, he searched for community and found it in gangs.
Gary received a manslaughter charge for the stabbing of a teenage rival gang member, as well as an additional gang enhancement charge, and was sentenced to 28 years in state prison.
He eventually developed a fruitful connection with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, a group he still works with to this day. “I was released on Feb. 28, 2018,” Gary said. While he was on his way out of San Quentin’s gates, an officer told him that immigration might pick him up. He became a “stranded deportee.” His birth country of Vietnam won’t recognize his citizenship, and America won’t grant him a green card as a felon. He’s in permanent limbo.
Without citizenship or a green card, Gary is having a hard time finding stable employment. He’s been working at a homeless shelter, juggling odd jobs in the gig economy, and living with someone he met through mutual friends.
The most recent months have brought about significant changes: Gary’s father died, and Gary got married.
Since being released, he’s also become a member of the 19th Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco. Gary met the church’s pastor, Tom Pham, while in San Quentin.
Robin Marlow, incarcerated for 38 years and released in 2018
Robin was born in Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley. Her father’s untimely death left Robin and the rest of the family in a tailspin. Robin, the oldest child, was soon caring for her siblings as well as her mother, who had lupus and alcoholism.
At age 17, Robin got pregnant with her first daughter. When she told her mother, she was kicked out of the house, only to return under her mother’s strict stipulation that Robin and the child’s father get married. The union was rough and lasted four years. The end of the relationship led to a messy custody battle which Robin lost. Her lawyer advised her to get a job, an apartment, and stability, but warned that Robin still might not get her kids back. That’s when she reached a breaking point. Robin was looking to kill herself when she grabbed a knife from the kitchen, stuck it in her underwear, and said goodnight to the older woman she was caring for.
But as Robin passed the woman’s bed, she says, she envisioned the sleeping woman as her husband. “I went into a rage and I wound up stabbing her 40 times,” Robin said. “Screaming, ‘Give me back my baby!’”
The judge refused to give Robin a sanity hearing, and she was sentenced to 25 years to life without the possibility of parole. She was 21 years old.
Robin was paroled 38 years later, in 2017. She got a ride from her parole agent to West Care, the transitional housing facility she’d call home for the next six months.
Robin had the $200 people receive from the state when they leave prison, plus another $40 that her former cellmate Nancy had sent her. She stopped in a 7-Eleven and bought a bag of chips. “I remember when I handed the cashier my credit card, and she told me how much it was,” Robin said, explaining that her jaw dropped in shock at the price tag. As Robin struggled with the transaction, the cashier asked, “Well, how does it feel being out of prison?” Robin said, “I was so embarrassed that he could tell. I just wanted to crawl underneath the rocks somewhere.”
You can read more on these stories and more at Facing Life.