Eric Warner Improved His Life—Then San Quentin's COVID-19 Outbreak Took It

Eric William Warner. (Kelly Heigert and Vida Kuang)

Eric William Warner was a lot of things—a boxer, a barber and a Bible thumper—but nothing speaks to his character more than the fact that people knew him as a person who simply loved jumping rope, even though his left leg was amputated.

As a youngster, he lived on the wild side. In his older years, he found comfort in routinely reading his scripture. And all throughout his life, he valued family.    

On July 25, Eric died of complications related to COVID-19. He was 57 years old. 

At the time of his passing, Eric was at California’s San Quentin State Prison, where he served 22 years of what initially was a life sentence. (After an appeal, it was reduced to 55 years to life.)

It’s behind those walls that Eric forged friendships with people who spoke at his memorial service. Their testimonies gave his family full insight into the human being Eric evolved into—far from the young man he once was. Yet even with his growth, the system that aided his rehabilitation process ultimately failed him.

Friends and family gathered in honor of Eric William Warner at Candlestick Point in San Francisco.
Friends and family gathered in honor of Eric William Warner at Candlestick Point in San Francisco. (Hank Warner)

A rough beginning

The second son of two Filipino immigrants, Eric was born in San Francisco and raised in the Excelsior District. Eric’s brother Hank, two years his senior, describes him as someone who had a rough childhood and grew into a bit of a thrill-seeker as a young adult.

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In 1971, when the San Francisco School District started bussing students across neighborhoods in an effort to integrate schools, Hank says Eric was picked on, bullied and robbed by the kids at Bret Harte Elementary School in Bayview-Hunters Point. 

Eric’s demoralizing experience was coupled with his father’s absence. The boys’ dad worked on a cruise ship and would be gone for multiple weeks each month. That caused Eric to lash out, Hank recalls. Eric’s mom eventually took up a job at their school. Later, his father—who by then had retired—took up a gig as a crossing guard at the school as well. Hank says the neighborhood was so rough that his father once got robbed.   

Through his teenage years, Eric and his father butted heads, says Hank. Eric dropped out of Balboa High School in 1979, and cascaded into a lifestyle that brought about multiple run-ins with the law, landing him in detention centers, camps and juvenile hall.  

But aside from the trouble he was having, everyone loved my brother,” says Hank, noting that he saw his “nice personality” as separate from his other issues. “His trouble was, sort of, his own trouble... He wasn’t a troublesome person in relationships.”

Hank says Eric was independent and adventurous, and it showed. He loved riding dirt bikes and motorcycles.

“He was always on the edge of thrill,” says Hank.

In 1986, Eric caught his first major offense—he served three years in prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping and robbery.

In 1992, Eric was in a vehicle collision that required his left leg to be amputated up to the knee. But that didn’t slow him down.   

At the time of his death, Eric was serving a sentence for a crime committed more than a decade after his first major offense. In 1999, he was charged with second-degree murder (the offense was later reclassified as voluntary manslaughter), as well as possession of a firearm as a felon. It stemmed from an incident where Eric shot and killed a man over a $10 dispute, according to news reports.

Hank says that at the time, Eric had fallen deep into a crack cocaine addiction.   

According to a legal brief from the case, Eric was sentenced under California’s former Three Strikes law and given a sentence of 100 years to life. Of the two decades he served in California’s prisons, he spent 10 years at San Quentin.

Working hard to turn his life around

While in the facility, Eric took up the trade of dry cleaning. He got into ethnic studies and gave cultural presentations as a part of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee’s group, R.O.O.T.S (Restoring Our Original True Selves).

A former Golden Gloves boxer, Eric constantly trained. Despite his love of fighting, people who knew him while incarcerated say he was mild-mannered. One friend says the only time he saw him lose his cool was when his beloved San Francisco 49ers lost the Super Bowl. 

Eric was in love. In a video filmed by activist Adnan Khan, Eric talks about how the death of his fiancée, Amanda Parrish, filled him with loneliness and despair. “It taught me insight about how I was living under my circumstances, and gave me the strength to live above my circumstances,” says Eric in the video, concluding that Amanda’s love gave him hope. The couple is survived by Amanda’s daughter, Shanti, whom Eric considered his stepdaughter. 

Eric took Christianity seriously; not just in study, but in practice as well. 

His former cellmate, Chanton Bun, credits Eric with saving his life. “I got into a fight with my first celly,” says Bun. “And Eric said, ‘You’re not going to survive like that. You’re going to make matters worse.’”

Bun says Eric asked him to look past the conflict and rationalize the situation. “You're going to go to [the Parole] Board one day, so you don't want anything else on your record,” Bun recalls Eric telling him. Reflecting on that interaction, Bun says, “He helped me start my journey to rehabilitation.”

And then Eric invited Bun to take over an empty bunk in Eric’s cell, beginning a close friendship that would last the final two years of Eric’s life. During that time, Bun took note of Eric’s discipline: how he read his Bible daily, stayed committed to working out and always managed to find time to assist others.

“He was a ‘legal beagle,’” says Bun, describing how Eric helped people research arguments to appeal their cases. “In the whole unit, if you didn’t understand what the court was telling you, you’d come to E, like, ‘I got this letter from the court,’ and he’d help you understand it.”

A memorial for Eric William Warner at Lincoln Elementary School in Oakland.
A memorial for Eric William Warner at Lincoln Elementary School in Oakland. (Hank Warner)

Eric was also a barber, complete with a CDCR-issued station and clippers (no scissors). “People came to the cell for either legal work or a haircut, and he never turned anyone down,” says Bun.

While juggling all of these things, Eric still had his own struggles—mostly with finding a good fit for his prosthetic leg. Bun says he never complained about his disability, even when navigating the three-story stairway between his bunk and the prison yard. But Eric did make it a point to voice his frustrations to doctors, and ultimately tried to fix the prosthetic leg himself. 

Bun says when news of COVID-19 hit, Eric was worried. “It’s going to hit me hard, but I'm going to survive it,” Bun recalls Eric telling him. Eric also told Bun that if he did die, “Sue the shit out of CDCR. They knew I was high-risk, but they didn't check on me.”  

When Bun found out Eric passed, Bun had been released for just under a month. He says he has survivor’s remorse. 

The first thing Bun thought was to have a memorial for Eric, and then he got overwhelmed. But with the support of others who knew him, they held two memorials—one in Oakland’s Lincoln Square Park and another at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, where the 49ers used to play.

There was also a fundraiser to help Eric’s family. It was set up by Danny Thongsy, another formerly incarcerated friend of Eric’s. They raised over $7,000 in his honor.  

No opportunity for a second chance

Until the memorial service, Hank, Eric’s older brother, says he didn’t fully understand Eric’s impact. He witnessed his growth and transition from afar. When Eric was first incarcerated, the two didn’t talk much. But as the years went by, the brothers had weekly conversations every Sunday for ten years.

At the time of Eric’s passing, Hank says his brother had progressed to a point that he was ready to come home; he often talked of traveling with his brother, niece and nephew.      

“I have two children, 22 and 18, and they never got to meet their uncle,” says Hank. He’s frustrated with the damage caused by the Three Strikes law and lengthy sentences, emphasizing the pain the prison system causes family members, not just the incarcerated person.

“The person that Eric came to be is someone I would’ve been proud to let my kids know is their uncle,” Hank says.  

Hank feels that the story that should be told about Eric is how the Three Strikes law left him with an extensive sentence and no real chance at being released. “That’s really the foundation to the coronavirus problem—or the overcrowded prisons problem,” says Hank. “People like Eric are just getting piled upon in prisons.”

Hank says that leaves a lingering question to be asked. Namely, “What kind of society are we if we’re not rehabilitating those who need help, releasing them and making this a more productive society?”

The answer lies in the fate of his brother, Eric William Warner: a person who worked hard to change, but was never released. 


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