Once he leaves a California state prison, a man gets (at max) 200 bucks “gate money,” a set of “dress outs” (post-prison clothes), and his freedom. An unmarked white van drops him and a handful of other former prisoners off at a bus depot or public-transportation hub and, from then on, he’s on his own.
The total number of current parolees is unknown, as this year’s statistics on prisoners and parolees have not been calculated. But figures for 2007 are available. According to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 121,286 parolees were male.
In San Diego County alone, there were 8145 total males on parole; that’s 6.7 percent of the total number of males on parole in California in 2007.
These men, known as “parolees,” generally fall into one of two categories once they are released from prison: those who return home to a supportive network of family and friends, a good meal, and a spot to lay their heads…and those that return to little or nothing at all.
S.N., 60, is a tall and stately army veteran originally from New York City. He was a decorated staff sergeant when he discharged, having served three tours in the Vietnam War. Seated at his favorite bar in San Diego, the name of which has been withheld at his request for privacy reasons, he speaks about the seemingly insurmountable loss he faced after returning from his last stint in prison.
“I had a beautiful place,” he says, eyes wistful behind his glasses. “I lost my brand new car, everything. They repo’ed [it]. After three months of nonpayment, they came and picked it up.”
“I lost a great deal. My big thing was clothes. I love clothes. I had thousands of dollars’ worth of wardrobe. And I lost all of that. TV set, furniture…And then, most importantly, mail and pictures that I can never get back again. They threw it all away. But they didn’t throw away my clothes, trust me. [They kept them.] And they didn’t throw my TV and DVD player away…”
S.N. says he contemplated suicide.
“[I’ve] never been without money like that and without a ride, and I always used to dress nice,” he says. Then he smiles. “I’m old, I’m ugly, so I like to look nice. And I don’t have any of that.”
S.N.’s most recent sentence, for parole violation, was five months long. He served it at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. His original offense was for “getting into a little scrape,” as he describes it, with someone in El Cajon, an incident that ended, ultimately, in a shooting. S.N. held the gun. The result was a 24-year sentence.
The catalyst for the parole violation was, according to S.N., murky, until he spoke with his parole officer.
“When I did get out, I [told him], ‘You didn’t have to violate me. I had 29 days to go.’ Then he told me, ‘I violated you because you didn’t open the door when I’d been knocking.’ He said, ‘You pissed me off, so that’s why I violated you.’ With that violation, I was not only out of work, but I lost everything I owned. Everything. My daughter, I reunited with [her] in 2006, hadn’t seen her since she was five, she finally gave me pictures of my son and her growing up and we connected again, and now I have none of those pictures.”
In contrast to S.N.’s experience, T.C., 46, who did his most recent time at the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison — also on a parole violation — has had an easier time post-release.
“For me,” T.C. says, “it’s always just a relief to get out of there. I just can’t stand being in there. My friends came to pick me up. It was a good thing. Saved me a lot of money, and we went to the tramway [in] Idyllwild and had a good time. It was nice. So, for me, I had a good release this time.”
T.C. is a lanky guy in a white shirt; he is quick to smile and just as fast with a quip or joke. Glasses on his nose, he furrows his brow in concentration as he dips the tip of his needle in a small puddle of ink and, delicately, applies it to the back of the woman he is tattooing.
For T.C., prison was a familiar landscape; he’s been in three times prior to his parole violation, booked for his first offense in 1994, which landed him two years in the Level Two (Level Five is the most dangerous) section of the California Correctional Institute (known simply as ‘Tehachapi’) in Tehachapi, California, for the transportation of methamphetamine. His second time in was in 1998; he served one year in the Avenal State Prison in Avenal, California, for possession of stolen property. His third incarceration, in 2002, was, T.C. says, technically for trespassing — according to him, a case of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“They ended up getting me on that one for three years,” he says ruefully. “Because that’s what they do. Once you have a prison record, it really doesn’t matter. What they did is they gave me 16 (extra) months for prison priors. Every time you’ve been to prison, they can give you an extra year on top of it.”
While each of his offenses have been different, and each time he has been at a different facility, the process of being released, T.C. says, is fairly uniform everywhere he’s been.
“On your release date, you go to [the] Receiving and Releasing [department], and they check you out, ask you a bunch of questions [to make] sure you’re the right person,” he says. “Because there are people who have escaped that way. And then they give you 200 dollars” gate money “to get yourself home and to live on while you’re out there.”
It takes about four hours in total to be released, according to S.N.