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Imprisoned for Life: A three-part series

Under CC license from madamepsychosis. http://www.flickr.com/photos/belljar/6358519/

When you look at the numbers, many long held truths about crime crumble. Like this one: who do you think is more likely to become a life-long criminal: a rapist or a car thief?

It turns out those who commit the most serious crimes actually re-offend at lower rates. Murderers have the lowest recidivism rate out of any California prisoner. Why is that?  Over the next couple days, we’ll spend time talking about a population called “Lifers.” They’re inmates, usually convicted of murder, who’ve been sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. In the first part, KALW’s Joaquin Palomino explores why lifers are so different than other inmates.

Since the age of 13, Tony Cyprien hadn't seen a solid year of freedom. A year spent in county camp, two years in the California Youth Authority. When he was 16, his mother suddenly died and he met his father for the first time at the funeral. He was in essence on his own, but he found solace in the notorious Crips gang. His gang mates became his brothers, and the most common way he showed his love was through violence.

“If anything happened to one of my homies, I would damn sure feel anger on their behalf,” says Cyprien. “I felt like, ‘Oh we gotta get them back, we gotta go ride.’”

At 17 Cyprien shot and killed a rival gang member. It was a harsh crime and he got a harsh sentence: 25 years to life. “I didn't think about the concept of freedom,” Cyprien remembers. “I just accepted that this could be the rest of my life – walking yards, talking to other men.”

The same year that Cyprien was sent to prison, Lindsey Bolar was a short order cook raising two children. The strains of being a single father, paired with a long time heroin addiction, put him in a financial bind, so he rented out a room in his condo. His new roommate skipped rent one month, so Bolar forced him into his car and took him to the bank.

“I told my roommate, “If you don’t get me my rent money, I’m going to beat your ass. I’m going to break your jaw,’” says Bolar. It was a strong-handed way of collecting his money, which the courts called “kidnap for ransom,” and Bolar was sentenced to seven years to life. He ended up spending far longer than seven years in prison, leaving after a solid 23 years.

Inmates like Bolar and Cyprien are called “lifers,” referring to their sentence of life with the chance of parole. They could stay in prison indefinitely or, after a minimum number of years, the parole board could decide to let them out. What’s interesting is how unique their prison experience is. A lot of this has to do with California sentencing laws.

Most California prisoners have a determinate sentence, meaning they serve a fixed amount of time. So if sentenced to two years, a criminal spends two years in prison. Time can be shaved off for good behavior, but the idea is, once their term is up they’re free to go home.

“The basic logic of determinate sentencing is, do the crime, do the time,” says Barry Krisberg, the research and policy director of the Earl Warren Institute at UC Berkeley. “There’s no role for rehabilitation under determinate sentencing.”

Bolar says determinate sentencing turns prisons into warehouses. “There’s no therapeutics, no education, no nothing. [Inmates] just walk in circles, do flips on a bar like a monkey, run around like a wild dog, and then when it is time to go home they go home,” he says.

Lifers, on the other hand, have an indeterminate sentence. Meaning they have to convince a 12-person parole board to let them out of prison. “You have to go to a parole board, see the psych's, do all of these things which will make you focus and want to work your program,” says Cyprien.

Bolar was one of them. He went into prison angry, dealing drugs inside to pay a lawyer to fight his case. He also had two children and a regular heroin habit to support. After 10 years of dealing drugs and partaking in what Bolar calls “bad prison behavior,” he was tired. “When your family start dying, when your kid starts growing up, when you start missing stuff, then reality hits you,” he says. “When you in that cell sometime by yourself, reality hits you, and you want to go home.”

To go home, Bolar enrolled in the Offender Mentor Certification Program. He and 50 other inmates, mostly lifers, were certified as drug rehabilitation counselors. Bolar gave up visits and says he studied courses 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for a full year. Once the year was up, Bolar and 77% of his class passed their exit exam and received a CCADAC drug counseling certifications. Bolar says the future looked bright, “…if I came out, and Kaiser was hiring a drug counselor, I would be qualified for that job.”

He was released last winter, 17 years after his first parole hearing and 62 years old. He had no job and no money, but thanks to that counseling certification, he’s now working for Options Recovery in Berkeley. “This training makes me feel like I can do just anything I want,” Bolar says. “Even though I’m 60 years old, even though I’ve got 42 years documented of criminal thinking and behavior, the possible thing is a man can change.”

Tony Cyprien was also at CSP Solano, and like Bolar, also became a model inmate. In the 26 years he served, he was never written up for a violent infraction. He learned a trade in prison, becoming a certified welder. He went through anger management programs, and was baptized. He was even married. “They call them tools to work with,” says Cyprien, “and I picked up as many tools as I could possibly fit in my tool box to survive in this free world.”

The parole board recognized all of this and found him suitable for release in 2009. Just weeks before his release date, Governor Schwarzenegger overturned the board’s decision, thereby keeping him in prison. It was a heartbreaking moment for Cyprien. In 2010 he applied again for parole. Again, the parole board granted him release, and again governor Schwarzenegger reversed the decision.

In 2011, Cyprien’s filed a discrimination lawsuit, which finally freed him on a day with far different significance for most Americans. “For me, September 11th has so much freedom attached to it,” says Cyprien. “It’s the first day I walked out of prison in 26 years. I just wanted to hurry up and get away from there before somebody said, ‘Nah, we made a mistake.’”

Today, he and Bolar live together in an Oakland group home, supporting one another’s re-entry into free society. But most lifers aren’t as lucky. Criminal justice expert Barry Krisberg says that life with parole in California has come to mean life – meaning you die in prison.

In 2011, 450 of the 4,000 eligible lifers in California were released, and that’s a high count. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, less than 1% made it out.

“There’s been all of these prisoners who are dying in California jails,” says Krisberg. “They can’t even get out of their beds, they are in the last stages of life. And even those prisoners, we don’t want to release them. It’s hard to imagine what they are going to do, but we are not going to release them.”

Tomorrow, reporter Joaquin Palomino will look at some of the reasons why lifers have become stuck in limbo. Audio for this story will be available after 5pm PST, January 31, 2012.