For decades, California inmates serving sentences like 25-years-to-life had very little chance of being released. Parole was routinely denied by the Board of Parole Hearings, or blocked by the governor.
But in the past few years, there's been a dramatic change. Since a key Supreme Court ruling in 2008, the number of so-called "lifers" winning parole has steadily climbed. Since then, more than 1,700 lifers have been released
The change is being felt on both sides of the prison walls. At a recent graduation day at San Quentin State Prison, about 50 inmates — most of them lifers — collected their diplomas from a course in leadership.
After the ceremony, Associate Warden Jeff Lawson said that as more and more lifers are granted parole and leave prison, the inmates are taking notice.
“Most of these guys understand there is light at the end of the tunnel now,” Lawson says. “So it just helps improve the overall environment for them. And it gets the ones who were maybe straddling the fence to get off the fence and get on the right side.”
Inmate Duane Reynolds just completed the leadership course. On the way back to his cellblock, he describes the crime that sent him away more than 25 years ago.
“As a matter of fact, what I did was, I murdered my uh, my supervisor,” Reynolds says. “High on drugs. So my life was out of control.”
Reynolds was 30 at the time. His sentence: 26 years to life. He's now 54. Despite being denied parole three times, Reynolds is hopeful. Next month, he says, the parole board will decide — once again — if he's suitable for parole and no longer a risk to society. I ask him if he thinks he's suitable?
“That's a very difficult question for me,” he answers. “I will say this: I'm a changed individual. But the fact that I took another human being's life, that's a hard question for me.”
Reynolds says he and his fellow San Quentin inmates are very aware that after years of routine denials of parole, word is out: If you do the work, complete the programs and stay in line, release is a very real possibility.
“The fact that people are going home is really encouraging to a lot of individuals,” he notes.
Since 2009, more than twice as many lifers have been paroled than in the previous two decades combined. There are several reasons for that. State Supreme Court rulings that made it tougher to deny parole to inmates who are no longer a threat to public safety.
Also Gov. Jerry Brown's 12 appointees on the parole board are granting parole at a much higher rate than previous commissioners.
And unlike his predecessors, who usually blocked parole for murderers, Brown is allowing 80 percent of the parole recommendations to go forward.
While you might think that freedom after decades in prison is all upside, the reality is more complicated.
Gregory Rivers was just released from Solano State Prison after serving more than three decades for a murder. The former gang member was 17 at the time. Now 55, he recalls that first full day on the outside.
“That morning when I woke up, got dressed — it's about 6 in the morning — I was scared to open the door,” Rivers remembers. “Because while I’m free physically, mentally I still have some work to do.”
Just-released lifers can find housing, counseling, and help getting a driver's license at Options Recovery in Berkeley.
He worries that somehow his newfound freedom will lead to trouble — and back to prison.
“I do plan to walk a straight and narrow path and give back to society,” he says, adding, “You know, it's remarkable that I was given a second chance when I didn't give my victims a second chance."
Rivers is standing inside a Chinese restaurant in Berkeley. He is, in a sense, the guest of honor, joining a dozen other former lifers recently released from prison.
The gathering is part celebration, part reunion. All the men were trained to be drug and alcohol counselors while they were still in prison. Some will continue that work now.
Sitting around a larger corner table in the restaurant, the men share their feelings — and their fears. One of them, Vandrick Towns, remembers entering prison at the age of 17, thinking, he says, he was "the biggest, baddest person alive."
As the others reach for more food and clean their plates, Towns says he's learned to be vulnerable — how to cry and how to give his pain a voice.
“That’s something I never did during my childhood,” Towns says. “Never talked about things, whether they was good or bad. I never talked. I stayed isolated. Today I’m comfortable with talking because I’m comfortable in my own skin.”
Out of prison less than a year now, Towns works at Options Recovery Services in Berkeley, a nonprofit group that works with inmates and parolees. But, he remembers, finding that first job wasn't easy.
“For my first six months nobody wanted to touch me,” he recalls. “When it got to the job interview — ‘Oh, you’re very articulate, you’re very educated. Oh, you’re a parolee? Sorry. Next.’ ”
Another former lifer, Greg Jones, was also released from the Solano prison just over a week ago. On this day, he's celebrating something most of us take for granted.
“I got my ID today and I was elated,” Jones says to bellows of laughter. “That was a big deal. And I got my driver’s license today, also.”
The men laugh and warn him not to text and drive.
But there are plenty of serious moments. They talk about getting reacquainted with their children — and grandchildren. One of them, David Hillary, stresses the importance of keeping a positive attitude.
“Every day I have to go to bed, and knowing this is an opportunity I was given ... I will never squander it like I did before in the past,” he says.
The philosopher in the group seems to be James Thomas. Crisply dressed in blue jeans and a white, button-down shirt, Thomas talks about humility and resisting disappointment when he's turned down for jobs. The key, he says, is patience.
“And everything good will come to you if you just wait for it,” Thomas says to a hushed room. “I’ve tried to chase it and I guarantee you it’s an uphill battle trying to catch it. Because no matter how close you get, it’s always gonna be one step ahead of you. “
There are more than 26,000 California inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. Many will never get out. Those who do will need the kind of support these men have found to make the most of their second chance.
This story is part of our series, "Second Chance: Lifers and Parole in California."