In the last 15 years, almost 100,000 people have been released from the California prison system after a court ruling that the state’s overcrowded institutions constituted cruel and unusual punishment. As of 2022, the California prison system is still at 108% of capacity.
Brandon Tauszik and Pendarvis Harshaw’s new project Facing Life, profiles eight people adjusting to life on the outside after decades locked up. In the words of Harshaw, “It’s time to not only rectify the harsh penalties of the past, but to prepare for a society where mass incarceration is no longer a thing—but mass integration is” (Facing Life).
Travis Pope fatally struck a man during the 1992 L.A. Uprising. Seventeen years old, he was sentenced to life in prison. He served 26 years before his sentence was commuted.
“I basically went from living in a fishbowl, which is the prison yard, to swimming in an ocean. Everything was moving so fast,” said Pope. “I was overwhelmed, because in prison, if someone walks up close to you, that means they’re trying to harm you.”
During his first dinner at a restaurant, he instinctively clutched his steak knife until his wife patted his hand and reassured him that he was OK. An employee became frustrated when he struggled to fill out the application at the DMV before he told her it was his first week out of prison.
“Baby, I’m so sorry,” she told him. “Welcome home.”
“I grew up thinking I was a mistake,” said Lynn Acosta, who was “abused in every way a child could be.” When her husband had an affair, she connected with the woman’s husband. He told her of plans to murder his wife. She was convicted of conspiracy of first-degree murder. She was encouraged to accept a plea bargain, one that she “regretted every single day.”
Acosta was heavily medicated with psychiatric drugs like many incarcerated people. “It’s very sad to see people walking around like zombies.” After 20 years, she was granted parole.
Released from an “oppressively de-feminizing” environment, Acosta now wears dresses and brightly colored clothes. She works as a life coach for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition in the same prison she spent two decades.
Gary Vong arrived to California from a Hong Kong refugee camp as a Vietnamese refugee. “Coming to America, I felt like I was out of place,” said Vong, until a gang accepted him. As he was applying for college as a high school senior, he fatally stabbed a rival gang member. He was sentenced to 28 years.
“The strange part is, I felt at home” in San Quentin, he said. “Because of when I was in the refugee camp, that’s all I’d see: barbed wire.” The Asian Prisoner Support Committee supported him as he went into his parole board hearing. He was released but immediately picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He’s now a “stranded deportee.” As a felon, he can’t become a U.S. citizen and lost his green card, but Vietnam won’t recognize his citizenship either. Now a husband and a father, he’s still unable to secure stable employment.
Two days after he found out he was going to become a father, Fahim Reese was arrested for a lethal encounter with a rival gang member. “I’m leaving,” he thought, “and my daughter is out here.” He was sentenced to 42 years to life. Buoyed by music and his faith, he was paroled in 2018.
On the day of his release, he was leaving prison but turned around when he realized he’d forgotten his Koran. “What’re you doing back?” asked bemused staff as he retrieved it.
Reese had to readjust to using metal instead of plastic cutlery and learn how to use self-checkout terminals and debit card machines. A graduate of an apprenticeship program for metal workers, he runs a fitness program, Motivated 2 Help Others, that meets twice a week.
When her family lost their business and house after her devout mother donated all their money to their church, Myra Burns ran away. She started stealing food to eat and later worked for an escort agency. A prospective client, a former police officer, murdered a woman working for the agency. Burns received 25 to life for aiding and abetting. Her mother died while she was incarcerated.
“To get out of prison and have to do all this again is mind-boggling,” says Burns. There’s no assistance for single women who don’t have children. I’m a part of a small group of individuals, and we’ve fallen through the cracks for many resources.” Today, she works as a recovery coach at a medical clinic.
The son of farmworkers, José Espinoza grew up in a public housing project. “We protected each other” in gangs, he said. “And I became a product of that.” Counselors at the juvenile hall where he ended up repeatedly told him that “this is going to be your home for the rest of your life.”
After killing a man in a “senseless murder,” Espinoza received 19 to life. “This is going to be the rest of my life. This is the bed I made and now I’ve got to lay in it,” he thought during his first night. In 2009, his daughter came to visit him in prison just after her birthday. He gave her a jewelry box of paper and Saran Wrap. “I wish that when I blew out the candles and opened my eyes it was you on the other side of that cake,” she told him. “That’s when I realized that I need to change,” said Espinoza. He was paroled after attending AA, self-help, and restorative justice programs but was plagued by health problems and trouble finding a job.
“He was always locked up,” says his fiancé, Sabrina. “He didn’t think he was coming home, so he was doing whatever he wanted in there. When he got out, his body reacted differently.” José Espinoza passed away from COVID last year.
Robin Marlow found herself caring for her sick mother and siblings after her father’s death left the family in a “tailspin.” Pregnant at 17, she was forced into an unhappy marriage. While working as live-in help for an elderly woman, she was told she might not get custody of her children. She snapped. Grabbing a knife to end her life, she suddenly envisioned the elderly woman as her husband. She stabbed her, yelling, “Give me back my baby!”
Refusing to consider her mental health, a judge sentenced her to 25 years to life without the possibility of parole. Marlow was prescribed psychiatric drugs that made her aggressive, but she found her best friend while incarcerated, someone she considered family. When Marlow was paroled, “The guards said ‘Bye! Good luck! And just drove off.” Her friend, Nancy, had been released before her and was crucial in supporting her reentry. Nancy passed away two years ago.
“I miss her,” said Marlow. At the same time, “I have a beautiful 41-year-old daughter, a son-in-law. I have her daughter who is 22, and I have a great-grandson now—all four generations living under one roof.”
Growing up in Watts’ Nickerson Garden Projects, Melvin Smith was a good student until he began committing petty crimes in high school. One day, his father used Melvin’s gun to kill a man while Melvin was coming out of a store. His public defender encouraged him to plead guilty to accessory to murder, telling him he could be released in seven years. In reality, Smith served 31.
After years of fighting other inmates with the belief he’d never be released, he started a program for alternatives to violence and was paroled on his eleventh attempt. Shocked by the prevalence of cell phones, he searched for work until stopped by chronic health problems.
“The hardest part about transitioning back is not being able to do things for yourself,” says Smith. “Not being able to have your own money, your own car, your own everything, you know what I mean?” He recently got married to his wife, Lynn.