By Chris Schuhmacher
San Quentin State Prison
Serving a life sentence in prison feels like a long and arduous journey towards a freedom that is not guaranteed to be there once you arrive.
In 2001, I went to my sentencing hearing and received a 16 year to life sentence for the crime of second degree murder. This was an extremely harsh reality for someone who had never been to prison before. I had almost no idea of what to expect and would be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little bit nervous. I remember several of the men in the county jail warning me not to take a deal with ‘Life’ on the end of it, because whether it was 7 to Life, 15 to Life, or 25 to Life, the governor was not letting lifers go and ‘Life’ would mean my whole life. In the end, I chose to go against their advice and accepted the district attorney’s plea bargain offer for 16 to Life. This was an excruciating decision, but it came down to the fact that no matter how badly I wanted to avoid prison, I was guilty and knew it. If I had taken it to trial and lost, I might have wound up with 25 to Life or even worse, Life Without the Possibility of Parole. There is no coming back from that one.
My 16 year to life sentence means that I must serve 16 years first, and then I will start going in front of the Board of Prison Terms to try to exhibit my suitability for parole. The board looks at things like psychiatric evaluations, disciplinary records, supervisor reports, vocational training, education certificates, self-help participation, parole plans, and letters of support. They will also ask questions to determine if I have gained insight into the causative factors that led to my crime, what I’ve done to address those issues, and my plans for making sure it never happens again. I learned very early on what an uphill climb lay in front of me from the other lifers who had already received several denials from the board. For the most part, the guys in the county had been right. Only a handful of lifers were being found suitable for release, and even some of them had their dates taken back by a reversal of decision from the governor. There was almost no light at the end of the tunnel, but I made the decision to put my fate in God ‘s hands and committed myself to doing everything in my power to prepare myself for a hearing that was still 16 years down the road.
For a lifer who is trying to earn his freedom, and not all are, because many are still caught up in their addictions and criminal thinking, the margin for error is razor thin. Any rules violations from a fistfight to a dirty urinalysis test could be grounds for a parole board denial and add several years to your sentence. I’ve even seen guys get written up for things like smoking or other minor things. These infractions are documented in a lifer’s C-file and usually result in them receiving a denial. Currently, the board is looking for a 5 to 10 year span of disciplinary free behavior before finding a lifer suitable for parole. It’s definitely something to think about the next time your craving that cigarette.
When I first came into the system, the parole board was issuing 1 to 5 year denials. If you were close to being found suitable, maybe you’d receive a 1-year denial, which meant you’d go back to the board and try again in a year. If you were still screwing up, see you in 5 years or somewhere in between. Then in 2008, California passed Marsy’s Law, which extended denials to 3, 5, 7, 10, and 15 years… crazy. A 1 year became a 3 year…a 2 became a 5, and so on. Imagine serving a 15 to Life sentence and then going to the board and receiving a 15-year denial that’s equal to your time in. The constitutionality of this law is being challenged in the courts, because it essentially lengthens prison sentences ex post facto. I certainly don’t understand it, but nevertheless, it has become just another hurdle a lifer must overcome.
I think the hardest part about serving a life sentence is not being able to tell your loved ones when you’re coming home. Going in front of the parole board is a highly subjective process and as yet, there is no magic formula for being found suitable. I’ve seen lifers seemingly do everything right and still be denied for things like the nature of their crime. This has also been ruled unconstitutional, because the commitment of the crime is the one thing that a lifer doesn’t have the power to change. Technically, the parole board is supposed to base a lifer’s suitability on his time in and his current threat to society. I know lifers with more than 30 years in on their sentences and I often wonder why they’re still here.
I was seven years into my own life sentence, before I saw my first lifer go home. His name was Irish and it happened right here at San Quentin. Honestly, it was like witnessing a miracle, because it made me believe that maybe all my hard work could result in me getting out one day. Since that time, I’ve seen a multitude of lifers who have served their time and done the work go home. I’m still surrounded by darkness, but now I know that if I remain vigilant, there is the light of freedom waiting for me at the end of the journey.
All communications between inmates and external channels are facilitated by approved volunteers since inmates do not have access to the internet. This program with Quora is part of The Last Mile San Quentin. Twitter: @TLM