John, Sha, Emile, 2018 was a really good year. Tim, Earlonne, Muhhamed, Corey…

I remember, when I first arrived on a maximum security prison yard in 2005, I never saw one person go home during the fours years I was there.

Danny, Al, Phil, Tran, Mike…

13 years later I finally see people going home.

Interestingly, each of the people who are going home today started changing, working on their rehabilitation, and growing long before release seemed like a realistic goal.

There is something jarring about society going through the rituals and ceremonies that banish a person from their ranks, for life. Receiving a life sentence produces many varied emotions for the people receiving them, and people process those emotions in different ways, but one aspect of the experience is universal. Being sentenced to prison for life strips away any delusion that what we are doing works for us, that we are somehow on the right path, that we have things figured out.

To a person, we must each come to term with the ways we’ve disappointed our families, and the shame we feel for being banished. As we start to search for ways to be better, and to have peace with ourselves, we inevitably change. Of course, many people in prison change for the worse. Prison is a harsh environment that can reinforce people’s most negative views about themselves and the world. But if somehow a person remains unaffected by that harshness and negativity, and finds opportunity to explore their own compassion and empathy for themselves and others, we consider it a rare thing, which sometimes gets rewarded with a parole board finding that person suitable for parole.

Things seem to be changing though. Our criminal justice system was built upon the principle that bad people do bad things. As we become more aware that no one is born bad, but instead we are born into circumstances where harm occurs and if not given the support and resources to process that harm, we will learn to harm others, I’m optimistic that our sentencing laws and even the prisons themselves will transform into places where people get the help they, and by “they” I mean we, need.

Charlie, David, Willie, Michael, Adnan…

Written by James King

James recently had his sentence commuted by Governor Brown and will go before the parole board as early as this spring, to be considered for release. He is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

You may write to him at the following address:

James King CDCR # V-69030 2–W–10 
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974

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