Late last month, the day before the interview, Pete got his first regular barber shop haircut in 42 years — a $7 special at a place on Vermont past 40th Street in South L.A.
“Oh, that was a lot different,” he says with a growing grin. “That was my first haircut on the outside. I mean, I had a female cutting it, too, which was kind of nice.
“She did a good job,” he notes, stretching his neck around to show well-trimmed dark-greying locks ending above the collar of his blue short-sleeve shirt. “I had to wait a little while. But it was a real pleasure. I’m really happy with it.”
Before the early afternoon trim, the 64-year-old man had gotten up early, washed and fixed his own breakfast. Then he mailed in a correspondence English assignment due at Coastline Community College in Orange County and ran some other errands. That evening he split a pizza he had in the oven with a homeless gal he’d met, topping off a glorious day with chocolate mint ice cream.
“I just killed it,” he reports today, sitting outside on the wraparound porch of an old craftsman manor being restored to house PREP, the Partnership for Re-entry Program in-prison, life-skills correspondence course for long-term inmates. “I’ll have to buy some more now.”
Three months earlier, Pete --- who prefers to only go by his first name --- rode a Greyhound bus some 250 miles from Valley State Prison in Chowchilla to Los Angeles, after being locked up 42 years there and other state facilities for a real killing.
His crime was first degree murder — a botched home invasion burglary with a partner out in the countryside of south Sacramento County. They were surprised by the family returning home on June 16, 1971. Pete shot the husband in the leg, knocking him down to the ground, while his partner got him in the abdomen. The man died later of an infection. His wife had driven off and wasn’t harmed.
Pete was arrested shortly after the violent crime at his parents’ home in nearby Citrus Heights. “I didn’t have any shoes on and was walking around barefoot,” he recalls.
He got seven years to life, with the actual average term served being about a dozen years at that time. But the 21-year-old wound up spending more than four decades at Folsom State Prison, California State Prison Solano, Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, Mule Creek State Prison in lone, California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, Duel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Tracy and other institutions.
‘Hard to survive’
Life behind bars didn’t go well for Pete. In 1974 at DVI, he lost an eye to a bullet from an inmate’s homemade zip gun. Four years later at Atascadero, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity of a battery charge on a guard. And during this first decade doing hard time, he was involved in the middle of gang warfare, with different prison gangs trying to recruit him. “Those were hard times back in the ’70s,” he says.
With each “write-up,” his prison time only lengthened. Still, when his partner was paroled in 1985, he was sure the system would do the right thing by him. But the ’80s passed to the ’90s and then into the 21st century.
He stayed out of serious trouble by being hyper-vigilant to his surroundings and, at the same time, overlooking a lot of stuff. “Well, it’s certainly hard to survive if somebody wants to insult you or something,” he observes. “It’s very hard to survive in prison. It’s harder for younger people because they’re combative with one another. So they hurt each other. But with older people, the younger people single them out to challenge you very frequently.
“Most of my prison sentence, I never had problems like that. But when I finally got cut up by a cell partner in 2006, that was the reason. I was older and he was fresh from the Youth Authority. He wanted to hurt somebody real bad. He told me, if he wasn’t going to hit me he had to hit somebody else.
The ex-con says, “I had 18 stiches and six butterflies [stiches]. He cut my chest wide open,” lifting up his shirt to show a hairy chest with an ugly scar. “But he was aiming for my face. So I put my hand up like that, and he just cut me wide open with a single blade razor.”
The next year, another inmate told Pete about PREP. The innovative effort for some 10 years has prisoners examine themselves and develop life skills through a correspondence course called “Turning Point.” In addition, the program — developed by Dominican Sister of Mission San Jose Mary Sean Hodges — is connected to a nearby halfway housing program for ex-convicts currently run by Daughter of Mary and Joseph Sister Teresa Groth.
“I had 22 ‘complete’ parole hearings where I was turned down,” reports Pete. “So it was the letters from Sister Mary Sean and Sister Teresa and their program that changed things for me. They were a big deal, especially having a place to go to outside of Sacramento, because I had opposition from the district attorney up there. And this year my own family fell out. My mother has Alzheimer’s and was too disabled, and my brother wasn’t doing anything. Those letters from the Sisters made the difference.”
Plus, something happened at the March 26 hearing this year that the parolee calls “serendipitous for sure.” In semi-desperation, he had placed water packs on his eyes so his dry-out eyelids wouldn’t look so wrinkled and he wouldn’t look so old. And at the point in the hearing where he was talking about his crime, the eyeball with the prothesis suddenly started streaming tears.
At a number of hearings — especially those in the last decade or so — the hardened lifter had never teared up, although he says he always felt both deep contrition for his crime and compassion for the victim and his family. Now he was weeping, at least from one eye, uncontrollably. He swears it wasn’t planned, but also admits it had a “big impact” on the parole board.
“I might not be here if it wasn’t for that and the letters,” he says. “It’s not easy to get parole today. Not easy.”
Losing the ‘numbness’
When he’s asked the obvious, “So how’s it been being out after 42 years?” Pete sits back as far as he can in the straight-back chair. He wrinkles his brow, titling the cowboy hat he bought at the 99 Cents Only store 10 degrees downward.
“I was stuck in the bus station with four boxes of property here because I didn’t know how to work the cell phone to call Sister Mary Sean. But the next day I didn’t really think about prison at all. That’s how it was. And it was no effort at all, not thinking about prison,” he says right off to a visitor who shows disbelief.
The parolee explains by pointing out how it’s been a “little easier” for him to adjust. While in prison, he earned an AA (Associate) degree from Lassen Community College, along with vocations certificates in office services, electronics and landscaping. And he’s tried hard to keep up with current events, so he wouldn’t become some recluse.
“I’ve been using my mouth and I get positive feedback usually,” he says. “But, occasionally, people are suspicious of me. Or, occasionally, I feel like people are cheating me or something. So I back off from them. But I usually make good acquaintances. I can’t say they’re friendships. But I’m working in that direction.”
Pete has been amazed by two things on the outside: the skimpy shorts and revealing blouses girls and women wear, and how cheap food is compared to the prices of items in the vending machines of visitors’ rooms in state prisons.
But as the interview on the porch winds down after nearly two hours, his upbeat tone changes. He talks about the lasting stigma of being in prison, especially coming out into the real world at his age, a month shy of 65. And then he brings up the “numbness” one develops living for decades behind bars, and its possible lingering effects.
“While you’re in prison, it’s like having a part of your flesh where you might have some pain, but it’s numb all the time. So you can’t really feel it. You’re like a robot. You’re automatically doing things,” he says.
“And when you’re not in prison, you’re not in prison. I don’t know how long it takes to completely lose that numbness. But I’ve been feeling the breeze or talking to people on the street. I’ve been using my five senses, which I’ve never used to that extent.
“I mean, there are some things like the old Johnny Cash song: ‘You come out a wiser, weaker man.’ And I’m sure there’s a weaker part that’s kind of difficult to put your finger on. And whether that has something to do with post-traumatic stress in some cases, maybe it does. But none the less, you try to recover and walk straight, you know. To be a better man, even if you are weaker.”