Man, it was cold in this stinking holding tank, right off a yard. Barely 9 a.m., and it already reeked of urine. Goosebumps were popping up through the tattoos running down his arms. Still, Ironwood in 2012 was nothing like the 15 freakin’ years he spent in solitary in the secure housing unit hellhole, that damn SHU, at Pelican Bay.
David Amaya was telling himself stay focused. This was his third parole hearing after serving 20-plus of his 15-to-life for what the news people called “gang-related” crimes. He had to calm down, and fast, waiting for another turn before the parole board. Which wasn’t no board by any definition. Just one commissioner and his deputy. OK, those two’s recommendation had to be approved by the 12-member full board in Sacramento, and then the governor, right? But still, it was in their hands whether he went home to his wife and three daughters or stayed behind bars.
Editor's note: This piece is part of Angelus News' "Prison on Parole" edition. Read more about the issue from our editor-in-chief, JD Long-Garcia.
Jerry Brown and his people liked to point out on TV how they were trying like hell to meet that federal mandate of reducing California’s prison population. Although, they also scoffed at the notion that triple-bunking in hallways constituted cruel and unusual punishment. These were state prisons, they liked to point out, not Holiday Inns!
Yeah, OK, so they didn’t have guys, you know, sleeping in shifts anymore. At least not at Ironwood.
But what those restorative justice folks and civil rights lawyers referred to as “mass incarceration” was still happening. Guys like him serving hard time were being denied parole every time it came up. And juvenile halls were still serving as bush leagues, you know, to places like Folsom, San Quentin and Pelican Bay. Pipelines to the bigtime.
Damn! The corrections officer was opening the door now and his palms were sweating. Not like at the first two hearings, but …
He told himself man up. But don’t show no body language that could be misinterpreted. At least he wasn’t wearing shackles or hand-ties like they made some of those poor bastards do. Walk in there straight and tall. Show them you were a changed person like you knew you were. And, man, watch your mouth. Don’t say nothin’ wrong.
A wood table and chairs. Can’t-see-through mirror there on the wall, with more guards behind it checking out every time you picked your nose. Don’t stare into it! Stay focused, man. Tell them what you’ve told yourself a hundred times. You weren’t the same person who did all that violence. Hadn’t you found God? Wasn’t that changing everything?
He sat down beside his lawyer, half-smiling, not overdoing it, shaking hands. The commissioner and his deputy right across from them, practically face to face. They wanted to see into your eyes, right down to your very soul. Was that possible?
Also just like before, no victim families’ members here this morning. Ironwood was so freakin’ isolated out here in the Sonoran Desert, no wonder.
Made him wonder how they were doing. Years before he’d seen 9/11 on television, the stupid newsmen interviewing families after the towers fell. Kinda got to him, seeing how deep, they were hurting. But, hey, hadn’t he caused the same pain to families? Something he never gave any thought to before.
After stating for the record, and recorder, who was present and their titles, they listed his crimes: manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and great bodily harm.
Right off, they wanted to know if he killed those three guys. Did he intend to? Why? What were the reasons behind his actions?
He said he did two members of his own gang for doing stuff they shouldn’t have been doing. The other guy was a whole different thing. He’d been giving him a look right on the street while he was driving by with his homies. So he jumped out, got in his face.
“Are you sorry? What does remorse mean to you? How do you show remorse? And what would you say to the victims if you had the opportunity to talk to them or their families?” the commissioners asked, coming at him pretty hard, like always.
“Yes, I’m very sorry, especially for that guy on the street. He didn’t deserve that. I was just a coward back then. I couldn’t accept the fact that somebody was standing up to me. And I was more concerned about what everybody was gonna think, my homies. I felt, you know, disrespected.
Because in my mind, at the time, you’re gonna fear me and you’re gonna respect me. But he was just a regular guy.”
After catching his breath, he said, “What would I tell victims and their families? I’d tell them, you know, I really regretted what happened. They didn’t deserve to die that way. Nobody does.”
Amaya was sent back to the foul-smelling holding tank while they deliberated.
“Of course I wanted to come home, you know, and I thought I did a good job,” he told me late last month at the Southern California transitional house he’d been living at for a year, working steady at a flooring warehouse. “But in all honesty, I realized I still needed more work in myself. I just needed a little more time.”
When he was called back into the hearing room after 30 minutes, the commissioner and his deputy agreed. Yet, at the same time, they seemed supportive, which really caught him off guard.
“They saw it was still too early, but they were actually good to me,” he said. “Where before they’d called me a monster, which I was. I looked at it like I became that person that was very violent when I started [gang]bangin’. I was terrorizing the street, you know. And my interpretation of respect was ‘fear me!’
“And now they were actually saying, ‘You know what? We see the change in you. We know you’re not the same person. But we need to know you’re not blowing smoke. We need to understand and see that when we release you, you’re not going to go out there and get involved in the same kind of activity.’
“I took it as constructive criticism; I wasn’t really mad,” he recalled. “No, I was more concerned for my family — my wife, my kids. What was it gonna do to them? How would it impact them? The denial.”
After a moment, Amaya added, “I knew I had ruined so many lives. I knew I had hurt a lot of people. And I looked at it as, ‘OK, this is something I have to go through right now.’ And I couldn’t allow myself to get pissed or turn it into anything else. I had my daughters to think about. Our visits were always behind glass. And I remember it was specifically October of 2005. Adriana was 15 and she asked, ‘Dad, are your ever gonna hold me?’
“So that was the fork in the road where I had to make a decision,” said the 47-year-old with the Mr. Clean shaved head and shoulder muscles. “But it didn’t happen overnight.”
In August 2009, a three-judge court addressed the triple-bunking overcrowding David Amaya was referring to. That’s when the federal jurists ordered the California prison system to reduce the inmate population of 150,000 by 40,000 within two years.
On May 23, 2011, in Brown v. Plata, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that decision to cut the state prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity — what the institutions were built to hold.
Michael Bien was co-lead counsel in lawsuits to force the state to lessen overcrowding in its prisons. Not only did he describe in court a chaotic system where prisoners were sleeping in gyms, hallways and day rooms with single guards trying to monitor them. He also pointed out cases where sick inmates had died when they didn’t get proper medical treatment. Along with the lack of psychological help mentally ill inmates were receiving.
“In these overcrowded conditions, inmate-on-inmate violence is almost impossible to prevent, infectious diseases spread more easily and lockdowns are sometimes the only means by which to maintain control,” the panel had concluded. “In short, California’s prisons are busting at the seams and are impossible to manage.”
The original ruling had legs all the way to the highest court in the land. And last year on Jan. 29, a local newspaper headline proclaimed, “California prisons dip below court-ordered population cap.” The story’s lead sentence reported that the Golden State’s beleaguered penal system fell under the federal courts’ mandatory inmate count for the first time. But the last 15 words contained the real rub: “a benchmark the state will have to be maintained to satisfy judges overseeing the agency.”
And 17 prisons, including most of the Level IV maximum security facilities, were still overcrowded to the point of causing cruel and unusual punishment.
“It was a big milestone,” Bien, the San Francisco lawyer, acknowledged about reaching the cap. “But it doesn’t mean everything is fixed. What’s important is to realize that they’re barely there. [137.2 percent then vs 137.5 percent mandated]
“Moreover, many individual institutions are still way above that average. [see California’s 10 Most Crowded Prisons chart, page 14]. And the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has ‘population projections’ showing prison populations are starting to go up again.”
When the federal court granted its last extension to the state, it also called for a “durable remedy.” This could be an automatic release of prisoners or some other mechanism in place to keep the inmate count under the 137.5 percent benchmark. And by the way, he cautions, that figure didn’t fall from heaven. It wasn’t even a real compromise.
It was just the appellate court’s best guess of how much overcrowding constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” according to the eighth amendment.
“We argued that it should be less,” Bien reported. “We had experts who argued it should be 130 percent. Best, of course, would be 100 percent because that’s what the prisons were built for. But 137.5 percent is good. I’m not complaining that they got there. It’s great that they got there.”
He says the biggest factor bringing down the prison population was Prop. 47, passed by California voters in 2014. It reclassified some crimes — notably certain drug possession and petty theft charges — from felonies to misdemeanors. And it allowed those serving for these crimes to petition for reduced sentences. Moreoever, fewer convicts would be sent to prison in the first place.
Bien points out another factor was Gov. Brown’s much touted realignment policy started in October 2011. Certain nonviolent, non-sexual, non-serious offenders were sent to county jails instead of state prisons. And then there was Prop. 36, which reduced some of the harsh life-sentencing measures of the Three Strikes Law.
All of these lowered California’s prison population to 113,483 men and women, or 134.6 percent of design capacity for its prisons as of July 27.
“So that’s where they are now, a little below their goal,” he said. “Now we have to evaluate it: Is it enough and is it durable? But that still hasn’t really been done.”
The attorney says there’s one elephant in the room still driving mass incarceration in California, an issue that hasn’t been talked about much — mentally ill prisoners. In 2013, he was lead counsel in three federal court class action trials that exposed “cruel and unusual” mistreatment of individuals with mental illness. Three abuses that had gone on for years were brought to light: denial of psychiatric hospital services; use-of-force, including pepper spray; and overuse of solitary confinement.
The clients of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP of San Francisco prevailed in all three trials. Reforms are currently being carried out, including the obvious —reducing the mentally ill population in state prisons.
“Now we’re finding out it’s not working as we expected. There’s a problem. The problem is the population of prisoners with mental illness has not gone down,” reported Bien. “So there’s actually right now more prisoners with mental illness than there were at the time that the three-judge court gave their order. And the percent has gone way up, from the 20s to now it’s over 30 percent. So you need a higher level of care, more hospital beds, more mental health workers.”
He believes “something is going on” that isn’t necessarily intentional. Prosecutors and judges are well aware that inmates suffering from mental illness do really poorly in prison. Staff and other inmates perceive them as being dangerous by definition. They can also just be harder to handle.
“Are DAs and judges making sure that someone who’s mentally ill is going to CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] — prison — rather that stay in county jail? Cause they’re a pain in the butt to have in county jail. And they’re expensive,” he noted. “It’s not necessarily wrong that they’re doing this. It’s within their discretion. They can perceive them as more dangerous.”
He says once in prison they stay their longer. It’s a big circle. They get into trouble and wind up in maximum security institutions where there’s very little activities and self-help programs.
“And that tends to make people who are mentally ill worse,” Bien pointed out, “because of isolation and exclusion, you know. And they have even more behavior problems. So they literally serve longer sentences. So this is a real challenge. Their numbers are not dropping. This, and not having a durable remedy to make sure the prison population stays below the federal mandate, are the reasons we think the case isn’t over. And overcrowding makes everything impossible for everybody in prison.”
In the holding tank this time at Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County, March 2015, it wasn’t as cold. David Amaya was praying this morning for God to comfort his family and to allow him to show the commissioner and his deputy who he really was, you know, inside. He walked into the parole hearing room way more calm, feeling peace in his heart. Yeah, he still wanted to come home. But it was more about being able to right the wrongs he’d done. Be a good father, a good friend. Somebody that people would trust. Hurt no one else.
“Amaya, we spent all night in your file, and we have never seen anybody with as many victims or who was as violent as you were,” scolded the commissioner. “You were a monster. Do you agree?”
It was a simple point the man was making, of course, so he had to concede. If God hadn’t come into his life, it would have been different. He’d have tried to defend his gang behavior, all the violence he did to others. He’d have tried to minimize or make excuses or justify it. But, yeah, in his heart, absolutely, he had been a monster.
And they kept coming at him about his past. “Did you do this?” “Why?” “We’re you a follower or a leader?”
“I was a leader. I was striving to be that leader. I was doing the things for my own selfish gain.” He was never a shot caller, yeah, but he’d desperately wanted to be.
It went on like this, back and forth, for 5 1/2 straight hours.
During deliberations this time, they let him sit with his lawyer in the attorney room. She said if it was quick, they’d be back in 15 minutes with a release date. So when a half-hour went by, no way he was getting one. So he asked her to do him a favor. Call his wife and explain what happened. If he called, they’d just get into another argument.
After 45 minutes, a guard finally came to get them.
Again, the commissioner started with, “Amaya, you were a very violent … You were, in fact, a monster. You had no feelings for anyone. You …”
He put his head down on the table, stopped listening. Going on 25 years behind bars. Would he ever be free again?
After a while, he thought he was having one of those freakin’ out of body experiences: “But the man in front of us today isn’t that person. We believe you’re a changed man. And we are going to grant you parole.”
“I couldn’t believe it hearing these words,” he told me. “And it was just like everything I needed to hear from my father and my God. They were saying, ‘You know, you’re compassionate, you’re caring, you’re insightful. We believe you’re going to succeed out there in society.’ They were telling me this. It was like a long confession.
“Even before I went into that room I was following God, but my past was still, like, picking at me,” he confided. “And when I walked out of that room, it was like, ‘OK, I’m no longer that person. I see it. I get it. I understand. My past is my past.’ It was like a clearing. Just hearing them words, it just gave me another sense: ‘This is who I am now.’”