A familiar lifer story




Regrets, Reflections, and Wishes  by Gustavo Aguilar

Nearly fifteen years of imprisonment have in no way diminished the tormenting nightmares, nor the tumultuous emotions I feel each and every time I think about what happened in January of 1986. Even writing about it is painful. I can still feel the way my entire body trembled and taste the vile taste in my mouth when I realized what I had done. I had grabbed a lead pipe to defend myself against my forty-two year old cousin, and before I knew what had happened, I had taken the life of my own relative. It was an accident, but the paralyzing terror and regret that overtook me was, and still is, beyond description. I was illegally in the United States; I was twenty years old, I couldn’t speak English, and I had done the worst thing that any man can do. The only thing I could think of was to run. I wanted desperately to get back home to Mexico. So I ran to my car and sped off. 

The police caught up with me in San Diego. The fear and horror I felt had been so great, that when I was arrested I was relieved. It was time to face the consequences of my actions. I was given a public defender, and after a brief trial, I had to rely on an interpreter to understand that I was given 15-years-to-life in prison. At the sentencing hearing, the judge told me that with good behavior I could expect to be granted a parole date after nine years. While that seemed like an eternity at the age of twenty, I was prepared to pay for what I had done. 

My twenty-first birthday found me still in the county jail. By my twenty-second, I was at the maximum-security prison at Folsom where I was trying to getting used to an atmosphere of violence, indifference to human suffering, and oppression that cannot be shown by even the most shocking movie version of prison life. I had been raised in relatively refined middle class circumstances by educated parents, and my life up until now had in no way prepared me for life in a California prison. 

Nine years finally passed, and I somehow managed to stay out of trouble (with more help from my fellow prisoners than from the staff, who all too often took on the role of self appointed avengers.) Meanwhile, I had been moved to the California Men’s’ Colony, and I had learned to adapt to the prison environment. Remembering the judges words, I was filled with the expectations and hopes of finally going home. 

For nine years I had done everything that was asked of me. The school list was years long, so I taught myself English. I passed the GED. I worked diligently on every job to which I was assigned, and I volunteered to teach others how to read. I kept myself out of trouble by reading, studying, working and learning to play the classical guitar. In preparation for my parole hearing, I prepared a cogent plan which included letters of support from my family, proof of education, job offers, and a place to stay. Other prisoners advised me not to get my hopes up to high. I ignored them. I still had faith in the fairness of the State’s judicial system. However, soon enough I, too, realized that what my fellow prisoners had told me had not been out of resentment just because their own particular situations seemed more hopeless. It was the sad and brutal truth that in the present criminal justice system politics prevails over justice. 

None of the panel members was the least interested in what my State appointed lawyer or I had to say. Nor did they pay any attention to the papers I had so carefully prepared. I instead, and even though this was just my first hearing, it immediately became clear to me that the whole purpose of the hearing was to comply with a formality that by law the BPT was required to fulfill. The purpose of the hearing was not to evaluate whether or not I was suitable for parole, but simply to find a reason, however trivial, to find me not suitable. The only thing they could dig up was that eight years earlier, when I was still new to the system, I had altered a pair of State shoes by having a friend weave a piece of the shoe lace through them in a vain attempt to assert my individuality. That minor infraction was sufficient reason to send me back with a two-year denial. 

Since then I have been moved to Soledad where I have had three more hearings, each a carbon copy of the previous ones. I can recite by memory the exact words the board members used to deny parole, not just to me, but to virtually every prisoner that comes before them. Rather than focusing on the attempts the prisoner has made to understand and come to terms with his crime, or whether or not the prisoner before them is truly ready for parole, they limit themselves to making unreasonable demands, such as asking for a college education knowing very well that college education is no longer available in most of the prisons. When they lack disciplinary problems on which to blame a denial, they focus instead onparticulars of the crime itself, for which the prisoner has already been given a sentence by the courts. Regardless how much we work to better ourselves, the particulars of our crimes, unless we are granted a writ of habeas corpus, will never change. This means that in the current state of affairs, in apparent accordance with the Governor’s wishes, parole will never be granted. 

Ostensibly, in a democracy, we should have an autonomous Parole Board, but this notion has become nothing more than an illusion. Anyone who is the least familiar with the Kafkaesque ways with which the BPT operates, knows that its proceedings are nothing more than meaningless charades. How can the BPT be autonomous if the Governor handpicks its members? How can the BPT claim any autonomy if the Governor consistently has the power to deny its recommendations, a Governor who has publicly stated that anyone in our situation could, to quote his words, “Forget it.”? It seems to me that in a democracy, no one person, not even the Governor, should have the tyrannical power to dictate the fate of thousands of people. Fifteen years is a long time. Fifteen years ago, Ronald Reagan was President, the Berlin Wall was still standing, the Challenger tragedy filled the newscasts, the Russians were just deploying the Mir Space Station, and the Iran-Contra scandal was more than a year way. All of these things are history now. I can only hope that the Legislators and judiciary, in whose hands rests the power to rectify this situation, will react. I can only hope that the public, who has been unduly influenced by the political posturing to be “tough on crime” despite the declining crime rates, will realize that it is in far greater danger of losing its democracy that it is from people who have recognized and regretted the error of the ways, served their time, and like any human being, wish to return to their families before they, too, become a part of American history


2 responses to “A familiar lifer story

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