They’re not the young men they were when they went to prison decades ago.
Some have grown children and several have lost some hair. They tease each other about the weight they’ve gained since moving on from prison cuisine.
The men were among seven former residents of San Quentin State Prison attending a picnic at Golden Gate Park earlier this month. The picnic was organized by the Alliance for CHANGE, or Creating Hope And New Goals Ethically, a rehabilitation and re-entry program at the prison started by a small group of inmates, academics and volunteers.
Most of the men were lifers who were paroled within the past two years. Although they earned degrees, wrote court appeals and worked with at-risk youth inside the prison, outside, some are still living in group homes or struggling to buy computers and find meaningful work. The gathering served as an opportunity to lend each other support.
“We’ve taken lives, kidnapped people, we have done a lot of different things” said the program’s co-founder Ernest Morgan, who served 24 years for killing his stepsister during a botched burglary. “But some of us have done a lot of work on ourselves and want to be productive.”
Henry Montgomery, out of prison less than a month, stood near a tree-lined slope and listened to the sounds of children playing across the meadow.
“That fills my heart,” he said. “Kids at a picnic – that’s life.”
For Montgomery – who lives in a transitional housing program in Oakland – life is a word with multiple meanings. One is the sentence he received for murder 24 years ago. Like others at the picnic, he thought he might never get out of prison.
For years, Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the vast majority of parole board decisions to release lifers.
But Gov. Jerry Brown has taken a hands-off approach to such cases after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that California’s prisons were dangerously overcrowded and ordered the state to reduce the system’s population by more than 30,000 inmates.
Montgomery, 45, who used to perform Shakespeare in prison, left his cell last time two weeks earlier and was driven to San Quentin’s East Gate.
“They told me to step out of the van, and I didn’t have handcuffs on,” he said. “I started to cry.”
The first thing he wanted to do was eat. Some friends, including Shahid Rouse, one of the program’s co-founders, drove him to an International House of Pancakes in Marin. He ordered eggs – sunny-side up – hash browns, bacon, blueberry pancakes with whipped cream and a large orange juice.
“It’s not a matter of what I’m allowed to eat,” he said. “It’s having a choice. Every time I go to McDonalds now, everyone goes, ‘Hurry and order your food.’ I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m looking around.’ ”
Near the grill, David Cowan, another Alliance co-founder, talked about the crime he committed at 21 that sent him to prison for 22 years, the murder of his wife.
“I did a revenge killing,” he said.
The product of a suburban childhood and a private school education, Cowan, 44, said he spent years trying to understand how he could have killed another person.
“I was fine if they gave me the death penalty, because I didn’t want to live anymore,” he said. “I’m not the first man that had problems to deal with, so what happened with me that I could do that? I had to figure that out.”
As the group members shared their stories, one name kept coming up: Hector Oropeza, a lifer paroled last year. Oropeza began studying law during his first weeks of incarceration and wrote appeals for many of his fellow inmates, including some of the men at the picnic.
His arrival triggered a hug fest around the picnic table.
“This is my first time seeing him,” Montgomery said, a tear running down his cheek. “He helped a lot of people in there.
Jailhouse lawyers – inmates who earn law degrees – usually charge money for their services, but Oropeza worked for free. His clients would compensate him with modest treats, such as ice cream and juice. Oropeza always insisted, however, that they enroll in reading and writing classes so that they could participate in their own legal battles.
“What would I want someone to do for my son if he was in trouble?” Oropeza said, manning a grill full of shrimp and chicken skewers. “I know these guys pump me up a little bit, but I was just doing what I thought was right.”
Oropeza, now 48, was convicted of murder in 1991. He had been drinking the night he stabbed a stranger during a road rage dispute in San Jose. He served 20 years and one day.
His wife, Maria, is the sister of his accomplice, who is still locked up. The couple fell in love five years ago, during her visits to San Quentin. Two years later, they were married inside the prison.
For Maria, the wedding was a leap of faith. The parole board denied her husband’s release four times in two years, she said, but after each denial he would begin writing his appeal the same day.
“I was totally sure Hector was going to fight his way out,” she said. “And that’s exactly how he got home.”
All of the men said they’re still adjusting to their freedom.
Rouse, who spent 32 of his 56 years in prison for murder, said he gets lost when he’s driving, because he’s so amazed by how the world has changed that he can’t stop looking around.
Montgomery hopes to start a music career but said his age and the conditions of his parole could make that difficult.
“I wanted to get out before I was 50, because that’s what I consider to be old, and I’m trying to project a young image,” he said. “I want to get my music out there, but I have a 7 o’clock curfew so I can’t go to any open mics.”
Morgan, who in addition to working for the Alliance has two jobs and attends San Francisco State University, said he’s still not sure when its appropriate to tell people that before he was a student he was a convicted killer.
“Inside, we all know what we’re in there for, but here nobody knows my past,” he said. “I’ve been rushing to tell everybody that I was in prison, but maybe that hasn’t been necessary.”
Close to 5 p.m., Morgan made his last rounds, hugging friends goodbye before heading off to work as a doorman at a yacht club in Sausalito. As bees hovered around a spread of leftovers and the sun peaked through the fog on its way to the beach, Rouse surveyed the meadow.
“Anything that could send me back to prison,” he said, “that’s my kryptonite. We fought hard to get out here, not to go back.”
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