Paroled lifers Linda Candelaria (L) and Alisha Nolan Taplett are coming to terms with life on the outside after spending decades in prison for murder. (Scott Shafer/KQED)
Getting a job and finding housing you can afford in a new city is hard enough. Imagine doing that as an ex-felon, someone out on parole after decades in prison. After committing murder.
Throughout California there are now nearly 2,100 ex-lifers, as they're called when they're out on parole. The good news is that an extremely low percentage of them return to prison for committing a new felony.
Still, they face a daunting gauntlet of challenges. Now the state Division of Adult Parole Operations is operating four pilot projects in which ex-lifers are helping each other make a successful transition to the outside.
I attended one of their monthly meetings this week in San Francisco. It was held in a cramped windowless room at the parole office in the city's Mission District. Dozens of ex-lifers were there; the vast majority had committed one or more murders.
They began with a check-in, going around the room saying their names and how long they've been out of prison. The theme for this day was crime victims and how what these people did affected the lives of so many.
The most emotional moment involved 62-year-old Linda Candelaria. After 40 years in prison, she expressed her regrets as if her crime had happened yesterday.
"Why did I do it? Why?" she shrieked, tears streaming from her eyes. "You know ’cuz they didn't even know me. And yet I went into their home and killed them. For what?"
At the start of this meeting, Candelaria was joking with her fellow parolees. But she soon turned deeply serious.
"My victims had a family and I destroyed their family and I destroyed their lives as well," she said. "You can't make up for that, and I could never make up for what I did."
Candelaria got out on parole three years ago. She still wonders if she really deserves to be out.
"You know, what do we do to get past that grief?" she said. "Not the grief I feel for myself. For them, especially because I took two older people's lives. And for what? For nothing."
This meeting is a support group, an experimental peer mentoring program. It's voluntary and those who come share practical advice, like tips on looking for work and dealing with one "no" after another from employers who just aren't willing to take a chance on hiring an ex-felon.
One of the men, Steve Monger, said the last thing he wanted to do was work in a fast-food joint. But the rejections kept piling up.
"So me and another lifer, we just went in, we was honest with the guy," Monger said. "We said we recently got out of prison. I was in 27, he was in 25, and we want a job. We'll be here on time, we'll work hard for ya. We don't steal from ya. We don't do drugs. You ain't gotta worry about us. You call us, we'll be here."
Taco Bell hired them both. They've been working there five months.
Now let's be clear here -- there are plenty of inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole who will never, or should never, get out. It's just too risky. They're sociopaths, or they don't show any remorse for what they did.
But over the past few years I've interviewed quite a few lifers -- in and outside prison. And I'm always surprised at how thoughtful and reflective they are -- especially given what they did to land them in prison.
Like Alisha Nolan Taplett. She was living in Sacramento when she got behind the wheel of a car with some friends out to settle a score.
"I was just looking at myself as the driver in the beginning," she admitted. "Well, I didn't kill anybody. But at the end of the day and every day, I still have to remind myself if it hadn't been for me driving that vehicle, that young woman could still be alive."
I asked Taplett what she'd say to a young person today who finds himself or herself in a situation where they're being asked to drive a getaway car.
"If someone asks you to drive a car and you know that a homicide is going to take place, maybe you should pick up the phone and call 911," she said without hesitation. "But that's one of the things that we fail to do in our communities as well, because we don't want to be labeled as that snitch. If I don't save that person's life by dialing 911, at least I know I tried."
These are lessons learned the hard way after more than 23 years in prison.
Another ex-lifer I met -- Clinton Thomas -- has been out almost four months. He was very involved in gang culture in Oakland and was convicted of murder in 1991. Behind bars, he said, he turned his life around and now he tries every day to make amends for what he did.
He helps other former lifers understand how crime victims and their families feel about them getting out.
"There are victims who are still opposed to the fact that so many of us are being paroled," he tells the group. "And there are people who hold onto the belief -- as is their right -- that if you murder my loved one, you don't have a right to live outside a prison."
Thomas urged the former lifers to put themselves in the shoes of their victims to understand how they feel.
"You get over the bitterness because you have to become accountable and take full ownership for your conduct and understand that you created the circumstances under which you live," Thomas said.
After 23 years in prison, Thomas said he knew when he got out that no one would owe him anything. He had to earn his way back.
"I knew that my life wouldn't become a beer commercial just because I exited the prison gates," Thomas told me. "Women, party, money -- you know? When you look at a beer commercial, there's never any responsibility in it. I was committed to not chasing that aspect of freedom once I came home."
Right after we talked, Thomas was heading to interview for a job as a cook.
Parole Agent Martin Figueroa oversees all the ex-lifers in San Francisco County. There are more than 50 now, with a few more being paroled every month. Figueroa helped launch this program in San Francisco. You can tell he really wants these men and women to do well.
"We don’t get any satisfaction in sending anybody back to prison because they failed," Figueroa said. "So we do everything we possibly can to keep them out and keep 'em successful and keep 'em on the right track."
Right now this mentor program for lifers is happening only in San Francisco, Sacramento, Pomona and Los Angeles. The state hopes to expand it soon.