For most of her three decades in prison, Joyce Largo told herself she didn’t commit murder. She was only the driver, while other teenagers she was with kidnapped and killed a paraplegic man whose van they stole. But now she’s graduating from a program that made her spend months really mapping out all the people affected by her crime.
“We had to write an impact letter, an impact statement, and it really opened my eyes to my crime. Before, I only saw it in a shallow way,” says Largo. “After I wrote it all out, I was shocked that I had more involvement than I thought I did.”
She has been incarcerated since she was 16. Now she's 48. But she says that, until now, there were no in-depth rehabilitation programs for “lifers” in prison like herself.
Largo is one of about 150 women graduating from a new program at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, the largest women's prison in the nation. It's a months-long course designed to help prisoners tackle drug and alcohol addiction, anger management and family relationships. They also have to take an intensive class to help them understand the impact of their crimes on victims and others.
“Denial is real. It’s very difficult to look at yourself, especially if you’ve done horrible things,” says inmate Candace MacDonald, who is serving a life sentence for breaking into a 73-year-old man’s home in Eureka and beating and smothering him to death in 1980.
She says she was high on methamphetamine when she committed the crime.
“Because of my addiction, I did things that I would never do. Then I hated the things I was doing, so I would do more drugs because I hated the things I was doing,” she adds. “It’s just a horrible cycle.”
MacDonald is now 64 years old, and one of a number of senior citizen inmates who’ve spent most of their adult lives in prison. Some now use walkers or wheelchairs. She says in all her years here, this is the first program that’s truly pushed her to work deeply on herself. It held a mirror to her, made her dig into painful truths.
“To be able to peel that away, and look deep down inside, and gain an understanding of what you have done, and how it affected all of the people around you,” she says. “The ripple effect is incredible.”
MacDonald has unsuccessfully presented her case before the parole board a number of times over the years, repeating the same testimony she gave at her trial. But after doing this program, she says, she was able to speak from her heart and truly admit her regret. Last week, the board recommended that she be released on parole.
Although prisons like the Central California Women's Facility have offered some substance abuse support groups in the past, the state has never really invested in this kind of rehab for lifers before.
The California Report’s Scott Shafer has reported on the impact of some of those changes for male prisoners, including this powerful video about lifer James Houston, released on parole in Richmond.
The new program at Chowchilla is the first rehab program for women lifers that's officially recognized by the Board of Parole Hearings.
“It really signals something very powerful happening inside of California’s prisons,” says Dana Simas. a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
She says nearly 800 California inmates serving life sentences have been released on parole this year, compared with just 25 in 2006.
The shift comes as California is under a U.S. Supreme Court order to relieve prison overcrowding. But Simas says that’s not why lifers are getting paroled. It has more to do with a 2008 state Supreme Court hearing that made it harder to deny parole to inmates no longer considered dangerous.
“They’ve been given an opportunity for redemption. And we hope they take advantage of that, because it’s something that didn’t happen before,” adds Simas.
Graduating from the rehab program at Chowchilla by no means guarantees parole. Inmates still have to go before the parole board and make their case, and the governor can block their release with a veto. Gov. Jerry Brown, though, is allowing around 80 percent of parole recommendations to move forward, far more than previous governors.
But Simas underscores that the women have to follow through with changing their lives and behavior if they’re paroled. Otherwise, they’ll go back to prison.
The idea of increasing parole rates for lifers who have committed crimes like murder is controversial. It raises concerns from family members and victims rights groups. But one group that generally opposes paroling more inmates says this kind of program might work because it’s for women.
It may sound macho, says Michael Rushford of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, but he thinks women in prison for life are less likely to reoffend if they’re paroled.
“I think the chances of success are higher,” he says. “Especially if they’re well supervised. Everybody behaves differently when they’re watched, I’m afraid. These ladies need to be kept an eye on and to be given skills, so they cannot hook up with another gangbanger and go down the bad road again.”
At a recent graduation at the prison, a visiting room with cinderblock walls is dressed up in purple tablecloths and paper flowers. There is cake, and plenty of cheering and tears.
Largo, a Kumeyaay tribal member, steps up to a podium to sing a Native American song to her fellow prisoners. Most of them haven’t been outside prison walls for decades. But they’re more hopeful now than ever that they may soon be paroled.
“If you guys can imagine sitting on top of a cliff, and you’re looking around you, you could see the river flowing, the rocks, the mountains, the trees. Just for the few minutes I sing this song, you guys turn into that eagle and you fly.”