Released from San Quentin, Rebuilding Their Lives

Jonathan Chiu (top left), Stephen Wilson (top right), Sumit Lal (bottom left) and Philip Melendez (bottom right) share their perspectives on reentry.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After years inside prison, the transition to life outside isn't always easy. For many, the task of getting a job after being out of the workforce for several years is challenging. For others, catching up on how to use the latest smartphones or understanding social media is a difficult adjustment.

Ongoing discussions about releasing incarcerated people early to help curb the spread of the coronavirus inside prisons — and the politics behind those discussions — have shined a recent spotlight on the question of what happens when people leave prison.

We talked to four men who paroled from San Quentin State Prison about their experiences.

Philip Melendez has been out a few years and has a steady job. Sumit Lal came home last year and is teaching martial arts. More recently, Jonathan Chiu paroled in May, while Stephen Wilson paroled last month.

These perspectives are not meant to be comprehensive, but aim to provide a closer look at some of the faces of reentry, mostly in their own words.

Philip Melendez in a walk-in closet in his home, which he says is larger than the cell he occupied at San Quentin State Prison. Often those cells house two people.
Philip Melendez in a walk-in closet in his home, which he says is larger than the cell he occupied at San Quentin State Prison. Often those cells house two people. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Philip Melendez: Transformative Justice

For Philip Melendez, 42, who was serving a life sentence, the parole board mandated that he stay in a transitional home for the first six months after getting out. The home was run by The Geo Group and located in a rough neighborhood in San Francisco, where he said syringes often littered the ground.

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It was "not conducive to the reentry," Melendez said.

He's now a program manager for Re:Store Justice, an organization working toward what they call restorative policy change. The group brings together those who have been convicted of homicide to meet with family members of homicide victims.

"When survivors of crime or people who lost loved ones to violence want to talk to the person who did it — we facilitate the actual dialogue," Melendez said.

Artwork made by Philip Melendez at his home on July 25, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The dialogues are difficult, but Melendez says it can help people take steps toward healing — a process that's often called transformative justice.

"It's very, very rewarding for folks inside [prison] to see the actual harm," he said. "For me personally, it broke me down and sent me on a completely different path."

Philip Melendez at his home computer, where he hosts Facebook Live shows including the Parole Show and Re:Store Survivors Live, on July 25, 2020. These shows help inform formerly incarcerated people on a variety of topics.
Philip Melendez at his home computer, where he hosts Facebook Live shows including the Parole Show and Re:Store Survivors Live, on July 25, 2020. These shows help inform formerly incarcerated people on a variety of topics. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Re:Store Justice also works with formerly incarcerated people and their family members to have a voice in policy discussions in the state Legislature on issues such as bail and parole.

Some of the skills he learned inside, like tattoo art and being able to cut his own hair, have allowed Melendez to adapt to life during the pandemic, since he doesn't need to leave his house to get a haircut.

Philip Melendez touches up a haircut that he gave to himself at his home on July 25, 2020. He learned to cut his own hair while in prison. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For Melendez, his work is a chance to make up for his past.

"We also have remorse and shame, and we want to show up in a world in a way that is restorative versus the way that we showed up harmfully in the community," he said. "It becomes motivation."

Sumit Lal at the home he shares with his family in Sacramento on July 25, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Sumit Lal: Education in Prison

Sumit Lal, 24, paroled from San Quentin in 2019.

"All they give you is $200 and you’re pretty much on your own," he said.

Despite the fact that he had his freedom back, he said he had to ask permission from the parole board to go back to school and continue his education.

"I had a job in San Francisco and [the parole board was] really hesitant about letting me work there," Lal said.

Sumit Lal practices taekwondo in his backyard on July 25, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Still, he said he feels fortunate he was at San Quentin, where he had access to programs like The Last Mile and could attend college classes through the Prison University Project as part of a program for youth offenders at San Quentin.

"There are prisons all over California and some of them are out in the middle of the desert. These people, they’re coming home and they don't have the same resources as San Quentin does," Lal said, emphasizing that reentry is not always the same for everyone.

Sumit Lal works at his home office in Sacramento on July 25, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Lal was released last year, but he said he still talks to people in San Quentin nearly every day, where one major worry has been how to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

"The hardest thing for me was that people were asking me if I could send a package — they weren’t getting the soap that they were issued," he said. "For me, it was just pretty sad to think about that unsanitary environment that they are living in."

Lal recently started working for the messaging platform Slack and works from home due to COVID-19.

Jonathan Chiu holds crossword puzzles that he created. While in San Quentin State Prison, he did design work for the San Quentin News and also created crosswords — without the help of the internet to look up answers.
Jonathan Chiu holds crossword puzzles that he created. While in San Quentin State Prison, he did design work for the San Quentin News and also created crosswords — without the help of the internet to look up answers. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Jonathan Chiu: Best and Worst Things

Jonathan Chiu paroled from San Quentin in May.

"I really felt guilty when I left, because a lot of guys didn't get the same luck that I got," said Chiu, 37, of his release.

He said the reality of his release didn’t kick in until he saw his friends.

"I’ve been away for about 15 years now. I was glad I missed the whole social media thing ... and the whole financial crisis," he said.

He's been volunteering at a food pantry and advocating for others inside, in addition to experimenting with stand-up comedy reflecting on his life — that he is now doing via Zoom open mics.

"We need to get everybody out — I left my family back there," he said, referring to his many friends who are still incarcerated at San Quentin. The COVID-19 case rate there rose steadily from June to August.

For Chiu, who said he is trying to relearn how to do many things like ride a bike and take public transit, the transition hasn't been too rough. In some ways, he said prison prepared him for sheltering in place.

"Shelter-in-place kind of worked well for me, we're kind of trained [in prison] to be very vigilant about where we are and who is walking behind us," he said.

Jonathan Chiu in Oakland on Aug. 4, 2020. He's happy to be out and spends a lot of time thinking about his friends who are still inside and working on ways to help get them out. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Chiu sees the COVID-19 outbreak in San Quentin as both the best and worst thing that could happen there, because people are "shining a light on mass incarceration" and advocating with renewed effort to improve conditions inside prisons.

The age of San Quentin and its design — with poor ventilation and even windows that are welded shut — make the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak particularly high.

"Basically, whatever your neighbor is cooking — you are smelling, because all that air is circulating throughout the prison. Once one person gets [COVID-19] there’s no way you can stop that," he said.

Jonathan Chiu rides his bike near Lake Merritt in Oakland on Aug. 4, 2020. Chiu has family in Los Angeles but chose to stay in the Bay Area to be closer to the friends and community he made in San Quentin. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

These days, most of what Chiu is doing is trying to advocate for others inside. He sees it as a matter of life and death.

"When we look back on this, like 10 years from now, are we going to say, 'Did we make the right choice by not doing anything and letting people die inside San Quentin?" he asked. "By not acting, the fact is that people in prison right now are basically being sentenced to death."

Stephen Wilson said he feels more comfortable using a flip phone than an iPhone. Some technologies have been a hurdle for Wilson since his release from prison.
Stephen Wilson said he feels more comfortable using a flip phone than an iPhone. Some technologies have been a hurdle for Wilson since his release from prison. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Stephen Wilson: COVID-19 Inside, Smartphones Outside

Stephen Wilson, 75, is a veteran and was paroled from San Quentin in July.

"It was very difficult to transition. I thought I was going to die in prison and other people thought the same thing," Wilson said.

Wilson, who was serving a life sentence, said that when COVID-19 cases began climbing at San Quentin, social distancing was impossible, especially because of the size of the cells.

"They’re so small that you can lay in your bunk and put your elbow against the wall — and reach out and touch the other bunk," he said.

He got sick, but "weathered the storm in my cell," he said of his own battle with COVID-19. "Because when you get sick in prison they punish you. A lot of us that got sick didn’t say anything, we just weathered the storm."

Wilson said that when a doctor came to check on his shoulder from a previous surgery, Wilson told the doctor his symptoms — splitting headaches for two days, lost appetite, chills.

The doctor told him, "You had the COVID-19."

Wilson estimated he got it around June 20 and had it for roughly the next two weeks.

Despite several shoulder surgeries, Stephen Wilson rides his bicycle from the Veterans Transition Center to his transitional home located nearby in Marina, California on August 5, 2020. The center offers transportation but Wilson likes to maintain his independence by riding his bicycle.
Despite several shoulder surgeries, Stephen Wilson rides his bicycle from the Veterans Transition Center to his transitional home located nearby in Marina, California on Aug. 5, 2020. The center offers transportation but Wilson likes to maintain his independence by riding his bicycle. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Wilson added that most of the staff at San Quentin was courteous and respectful and "doing time there was way better than some of the other places — but it is just so filthy."

Now that he's out, Wilson attributes a cough he acquired during his time at San Quentin to the mold there. He said his new doctor even asked him if was a smoker.

Stephen Wilson (L) talks with his friend Dennis Barnes (R), who is also a formerly incarcerated veteran, outside of the transitional home where they're currently staying. The two met 38 years ago and were reunited at the Veterans Transition Center. They often go to one another's house for dinner, ride their bikes or take the bus to nearby towns.
Stephen Wilson (L) talks with his friend Dennis Barnes (R), who is also a formerly incarcerated veteran, outside of the transitional home where they're currently staying. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Wilson has been riding his bicycle, getting acquainted with the bus schedule and adjusting to new methods of communication. The Veterans Transition Center, which helps formerly incarcerated veterans adjust after leaving prison, gave him a smart phone, but, for now, he prefers his flip phone, because it is easier to use.

"I’m still a little bit overwhelmed," he said, but added that VTC case managers have helped him tremendously. "Today I was out most of the day with a friend of mine, who I have known for 38 years."

The two were recently reunited at the VTC and now often go to one another's houses for dinner, ride their bikes together or take the bus to nearby towns.

Resources

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Here are a few organizations that offer reentry services and support: