At his first prison, Tehachapi Max, in the Golden State’s Cummings Valley, Francisco Colon had an experience that would turn his sorry life of drugs, gangs and craziness in a whole different direction.
An aging inmate was drawing Geronimo, the outlaw Native American, with a pencil, meticulously smearing the lead with toilet paper. He went up to the guy and saw details that just blew him away. There in the Apache’s eyes were the reflection of scalps.
“I told this old man, ‘Hey, I want to draw. Teach me how to draw.’”
The prisoner obliged, giving him little patterns to trace.
But Frankie, as he likes to be called, couldn’t give away the cards he drew, they were so bad.
He kept at it, however, getting better through pure repetition. Over 25 years inside prison after prison, he started using colored pencils, acrylics and some other paints he scraped up. He went to art classes and workshops. He read everything he could on the subject.
To be able to put on paper all those feelings, emotions and thoughts churning inside. He wanted to be better.
nBar fight killing
Last September, some 15 months after getting out, the “lifer” was sitting on the weathered front porch of a craftsman-like former mansion. It housed PREP, the Partnership for Re-entry Program. The dirt front yards told that gentrification had largely passed by this neighborhood on the edge of South Los Angeles.
Frankie, however, looked SoCal cool in his vertical-striped, loose shirt and tan slacks. His shaved head accented deep brown eyes along with a graying mustache. Tattoos ran up and down his arms. Occasionally, he sipped bottled water, which only added to the California aura.
But when he spoke, the graveled-voiced words sounded way more like actor Al Pacino than some L.A. post-yuppie. The cadence and tone were pure New York, specifically, the city’s borough of Brooklyn.
“I strongly believe that the Lord Jesus Christ prepared me for this journey way before I got here today,” he said. “In 1988, I committed an offense, and I killed somebody in a bar fight. I was 27 years old, right in San Diego, out here to help my sister. I spent over 25 years in prison: San Quentin, Old Folsom and New Folsom. I went to Corcoran. I went to Tehachapi Max. I went to Avenal State Prison.
“I didn’t know what God had prepared for me.”
Then he explained: “In other words, I went through such a rough upbringing in New York, with my father being abusive and etcetera, etcetera, that it prepared me for what was ahead when I went to prison.
“I mean, as crazy as it sounds, I went to prison to be a better man. And through PREP we redeemed ourselves,” he said with emotion. “I believe in redemption. I believe very strongly in redemption. Everybody needs a second opportunity to be forgiven. While incarcerated, I did what normally prisoners do until I got tired. And then I started going to the Christian side, the Catholic Christian side.”
Frankie says he wasn’t really prepared when he accepted a plea bargain of 15-years-to-life on a second-degree murder charge instead of copping to a first-degree murder charge with a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
While he grew up Puerto Rican and Catholic in Spanish Harlem and Brooklyn, religion wasn’t a big thing in his early life. His real conversion happened well into his life sentence when he met a “great lady” named Shirley, who was doing RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.
Up until then, he believed he would die in prison. But she told him Jesus was walking alongside him, even though he was a murderer. And she said he shouldn’t worry, because someday he would get out. The tough guy from Brooklyn broke down and cried.
Later came Sister Mary Sean Hodges from the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s PREP ministry. He learned about the re-entry program through a chaplain and embraced it. He participated in “Turning Point,” which had multiple self-help, self-development modules focusing on the skills long-term inmates needed to make it successfully back into society.
He kept up a relationship with the Dominican Sister of Mission San Jose, and others in the archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice through letters and prison visits for almost the last 15 years of his incarceration.
“Great people, and we became a family,” he observed. “That was one of the things that made me escape the pain, the misery and the problems that I had in prison. Going to church, serving the Lord and my artwork.
“I discovered through art that I could be free. That nobody could take this from me, that whatever I feel, whatever I see, whatever I do is my creation. That I am somebody. That I could be somebody. And I could feel good about something that I did right, not something I did wrong. Before, I didn’t understand that.”
When Frankie went in for his sixth parole hearing, he says he felt like the Holy Spirit was with him. Still, five times he’d been denied. It crushed him, like nails being hammered in deeper.
But not this time. A date was set for his release. Francisco Colon would be a free man again after a quarter century behind real and imagined walls.
Sister Mary Sean drove up from Los Angeles to Avenal, near Fresno, to pick him up. They went out to eat at a Denny’s. She brought him back to one of the Francisco Homes that she’d founded as halfway transition residences that house mostly “lifers” like himself. Sister Teresa
Groth is the current director of the Catholic halfway houses.
nTaking a shower
“It was hard ‘cause all this stuff that you’ve been blocking out of your mind comes in: responsibility, school, rent, home, clothes. Where am I’m going to eat? How am I going to get around? Technology? You know, people are going to stigmatize me. What am I going to do? I’ve been locked up for over 25 years,” he mused.
“Just getting an ID, a Social Security card. Or to have a key to your house, your room. To take a shower whenever you want or use the bathroom by yourself. Or just to go out and eat a hamburger if you have $3. I’d never seen a cell phone and didn’t know how to use it. Or people saying, ‘Text me,’ ‘Google it.’ I didn’t know nothing about the Internet or how to even turn on a computer. What’s an email account? What’s a pin number? What’s an ATM?”
The first time Frankie got on a city bus in Los Angeles, he panicked. He saw people swiping plastic cards and didn’t understand. He just wanted to buy a token and drop it down the slot. The driver said he should get a TAP card and put money on it. He hadn’t a clue.
And when he finally got on a bus and sat down, it was so strange. People around him were having conversations about their work and pets and kids, instead of their homies or the new bull in the yard.
The lifer knew he had some time, up to a year or two, at Francisco Homes. But as the weeks and months when by, reality, on the outside, kept boring in.
“The hardest adjustment was looking for a place to stay beside Francisco Homes,” he confided on the porch. “Looking for your own place, you know, it’s hard. Because you have to have a job. You have to have credit. It has to be close to your job or your school.
“And you don’t want it to be in an environment that could get you in trouble, ‘cause I’m on parole. I can go to 39th Street and get an apartment right now. But I’m going to be surrounded by gangbangers and people who are doing bad things. I can’t put myself in that position.”
Saving for the deposit on a place, along with first and last month’s rent, was the other big problem. His earnings were from GR (General Relief welfare), which was $220-something a month, $180 in Food Stamps and money left over from Pell grants for community college at Los Angeles Trade Tech and El Camino. And maybe some handyman job when he got lucky.
With that, he had to pay $300-a-month rent at Francisco Homes. “So it’s hard to support myself,” he noted with a shrug.
Fast forward: 2015.
Jan. 5, Frankie started a job as a maintenance worker at a 10-story parking garage in an upscale Westside community, making $9.25 an hour. Barely over minimum wage. But to him, it’s pretty sweet.
He cleans up oil spills from Mercedes and BMWs, picks up empty Starbucks’ latte cups and other trash, empties garbage cans designed not to look like garbage cans, clears out an occasional clogged drainage line and even does a little painting — the non-artsy kind — in the structure.
“I don’t go in the restrooms,” he said, the Al Pacino voice hoarser than ever. “It’s cool. Yesterday, I got my second check. I’ve got a 90-day probation period. But I’m doing great with my boss. He’s a very good guy. And I worked overtime last week. It’s great. It’s a great job.”
And that very weekend this month, Frankie moved into a room with a little kitchen not far from PREP and Francisco Homes. He admits the whole thing is “kind of scary,” after being totally taken care of in state prisons all those years. Even washing his own clothes is a mind-blowing experience.
He’s still going full-time at Los Angeles Trade Tech, taking classes in the morning and working the evening shift at the parking garage. In two semesters, he’ll have his associate degree, and then wants to run the table — getting a bachelor’s and master’s, then finishing off his education blitzkrieg with a doctorate, all in art and graphics.
“Art or PREP is not about only art or having a place to stay when you get out of prison,” said Frankie. “They’re about redemption. We all need a second chance to be somebody. So we can fit into this society. So we can be somebody productive and start over again. Be a good neighbor or good father or good brother.
“PREP and Sister Mary Sean gave me all the tools I needed to reenter into society, you know. But like everything in life, you have to make an effort. She shows you how to get these tools, and sometimes she’s a little hard on you.”
After a good chuckle, he said, “But she does it because she was a math teacher. You know how math teachers are.”