By Ruby Wilks
At age 63 and during a pandemic, Paul Redd begins to build his life outside of prison after 44 years of incarceration.
A succinct but impassioned summary of Redd’s experience in the system can be found on his lawyer Danielle Harris’ Twitter feed.
But the gist is: back in 1975, a San Francisco jury found then 19-year-old Oakland resident Redd guilty of first-degree murder of a local drug dealer, and he was subsequently sentenced to seven years to life in prison.
One of the two other men arrested for the same crime pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and testified at trial that Redd committed the murder. For this deal, he served no time in jail or prison whatsoever.
This man’s testimony was the only evidence against Redd, who has maintained his innocence since the beginning.
Redd spent more than 30 of his 44 years of incarceration in solitary confinement. He was kept alone in a concrete, windowless, poorly-ventilated cell for between 22 and 24 hours a day.
“Paul lived in conditions that were at the time the worst prison conditions in the United States,” said Charles Carbone, a prisoner rights attorney who represented Paul and other inmates in a class action lawsuit.
Paul, said the attorney, was forced to live in an environment “designed to maximize sensory deprivation, designed to basically maximize mental suffering, pain, and anguish, and for individuals to mentally decompensate as a consequence.”
Prison officials claimed to place Paul in the SHU because, despite a lack of any real evidence, they deemed him a Black Guerilla Family affiliate.
More likely, Redd was subjected to the SHU because of his prison reform work and because of his possession of political writings and materials, not because of any prison gang-related activity.
This all-too-common practice, termed at the time “gang validations,” gave CDCR the legal license to place people in solitary confinement for decades on end, not based on any overt criminal or unlawful activity, but because of a supposed gang association.
And “association” could be as simple as “having artwork or a book that supposedly had gang connotations associated with it, talking in a law library, [or] communicating through mail with people who supposedly had gang connections, even if you’re talking about the most innocuous, ordinary incident,” pointed out Carbone.
During his time in Pelican Bay’s Secured Housing Unit, Redd participated in the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes making national news and demanding attention to the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement.
He later became a plaintiff in a prisoner-led class action lawsuit, Ashker v. Newsom (2015), that, among other reforms, ended indeterminate solitary confinement and the practice of “gang validations” in California prisons.
Despite serious weaknesses in the case against him, his impressive prison record and resume, his serious health conditions, and his solid re-entry plan, he was denied parole more than 18 times before he lost count.
Through this writer’s work with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office’s Post-Conviction Unit, I had the opportunity to speak with Redd about his experience with release through PC § 1170(d)—a new pathway to resentencing and release outside of parole boards—and with re-entry into society.
When Redd first heard that his lawyers would not be pursuing a Franklin hearing—where an attorney asks for a recall to present youth-related mitigating factors that were not introduced at the original sentencing—he was disappointed.
However, a few days later, when San Francisco Public Defender Danielle Harris came to visit him and explained that they were, instead, pursuing release through 1170(d), he cried tears of joy.
Redd was hopeful about this new path to freedom, but he was also skeptical. As the COVID-19 pandemic widely delayed court hearings, he feared that his 1170(d) would get pushed back.
Harris, however, was undeterred. She quickly began to assemble a package, strengthened by supporting letters from nurses, psychologists, and others who worked in a prison hospice center with Redd. Harris then submitted the package to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin recommended the court recall Redd’s sentence.
“I want people out now,” said Harris. “I feel like every day is a miracle that all our clients who are in prison survive.”
By mid-May of 2020, Redd said, “we had a conference call with the judge, and everything else is history. The judge vacated my murder conviction, gave me manslaughter credit for time served, and ordered I be released immediately. Within four or five days, I walked out of Vacaville.”
Stressing the importance of legislation and progressive district attorneys, Harris explained: “There are two things that made Paul’s release possible. Number one, 1170(d) was amended in 2018 to give the District Attorney in the county of conviction power to recommend resentencing to the court, whereas, previously, the only actor with power was CDCR and, until recently, they weren’t really using that power at all.
“The second thing that happened is that San Francisco voters elected Chesa Boudin,” Harris added.
Prison guards only allowed Redd’s lawyer, Harris, to meet him at the CMF prison gate, so Paul’s family and the rest of his legal support team, along with several camera crews, welcomed him home at a nearby park.
After Redd’s release, Harris helped him connect with the Five Keys Re-Entry Program in Oakland, California. The program staff is helping Redd get his Social Security, Medical, medication, and driver’s license in order.
Redd speaks highly of his experience with the Five Keys Re-Entry Program thus far. As he put it, “The program seems to be geared towards helping people re-enter society and get back into the community.”
During our phone conversation, Redd briefly transferred to a different line to take an incoming call from the Five Keys Program, who were calling to check in on him.
In addition to programmatic support, Redd has a strong family network and has developed meaningful personal and professional relationships inside and outside of prison.
Redd’s niece and nephew have helped him get a picture ID, look for housing, fill out a variety of applications, navigate unfamiliar technology, and get from place to place with their car.
While in the process of securing his own apartment, Redd has been living with his nephew. Redd recently met with the manager of an apartment building. He told me the meeting went well and that the manager provided him with an application. The problem is, the application requires one to have a good credit score.
“I don’t have any credit. I don’t have bad credit, nor good credit—which, I guess, that, in that sense, is good,” Redd explained. He continued, “My nephew is going to help me get a secured card, so I can start working on establishing credit.”
Redd’s criminal justice reform work and reputation as a jailhouse lawyer resulted in multiple job offers upon his release. He ultimately decided to accept an offer from American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Oakland, a social justice and activism organization.
Redd intimated a sense of loyalty towards AFSC since, for years, staff members have been letting him know that he could work there upon his release.
Although COVID-19 complications have made starting his job tricky, Redd plans to begin his work at AFSC soon and is looking forward to learning about the technological world he has been excluded from during his decades in prison.
Since his release, Redd has also received an invitation to help create a cancer support group at the San Francisco Transitional Clinic.
In 2015, Redd found out he had a tumor on the top of his right lung and was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Battling cancer inspired Redd to create a cancer support group in California Medical Facility in Vacaville, where he was quickly beloved by the patients, nurses, and staff.
As Redd explained, “It took me two and a half years to get the Vacaville cancer support group started. But once it got started, a lot of the cancer patients that joined the group were glad that it happened because now they finally had someone to talk to who experienced what they experienced going through chemo. So, I would like to continue that out here if possible.”
The group at the Transitional Clinic will likely begin via Zoom.
Since his release, Redd has been focusing on his health. His age and medical history place him in the high-risk group for COVID-19. His lengthy prison sentence has weighed heavy on his health. While at the California Medical Facility, for instance, Redd’s CPAP machine, which he uses for his sleep apnea, was taken because prison officials claimed that it can spread the virus around in the cells.
“Right now,” said Redd, “I’m just trying to feel my way around and make sure I’m getting everything in order, so I can take care of my diabetes. Since I’ve been out, it’s been out of whack. I used to have to be on a schedule. Now that I’m out of prison, I don’t have that schedule because I don’t have my own place, so hopefully I can get my own place and get my schedule back into place and then get my sugar levels back down to normal. I want to enroll in a gym, so I start working out again.”
Redd was given a 30-day supply of his medication when he was released. Now that his Medi-Cal application went through, he informed me that he will be able to start chemotherapy sessions out of custody.
When I asked Redd if he received mental health support during his incarceration, he responded, “none, none at all.”
When Redd re-entered the general prison population after spending 30 plus years in the SHU, he was not provided with any mental health services.
Redd is still baffled that he, and many others, can do 30 to 40 years in the SHU and come back into the general prison population without ever speaking with a mental health expert or even having someone “just ask how you’re doing,” as Redd said.
When he later sought out mental health support at CMF, he was told that since he was not on psych medication—“what they call triple CMS,” he told me—he wouldn’t be provided with mental health assistance.
So, Redd was forced to rely on his own devices. He used his “ability to socialize and to communicate with people” to aid his transition into the general population. On the outside, Redd continues to rely on the skills and mental strength he developed to survive in the SHU.
When asked how Paul managed to remain hopeful after decades of injustice, rejection, and denials, Carbone stated, “Paul’s humanity expanded as a consequence of being treated like an animal. And that’s a rare individual, who’s put in a cage in isolation who can come out and be even more kind, more approachable, more engaging—and that’s the rarity of Paul Redd.”
In Harris’ words, “He’s a really special person. Paul’s story writes itself. His resume is incredible.”
“As to how Paul survived and managed to thrive in the way that he did,” continued Harris, “I have no idea. I’m sure I wouldn’t have fared as well as he did under those conditions. One thing our systems of torture have proven is that human begins are so incredibly adaptable, and I’m constantly amazed by it.
“We did not find a broken person. We did not find a person who is uncomfortable with human connection. We found a warm and kind and generous person who loves life and people,” Harris explained, referencing the first time she met Redd in prison.
Redd’s prison reform work will continue now that he is out. He hopes to help others find a way to freedom through 1170(d). Additionally, he has some organizing in the works.
“One, I want to see if I can put together a team to work with me to file a class action lawsuit for money damages for all those decades they kept us in solitary confinement, like they did. It contributed to a lot of our health problems today—the sleep apnea, the cancer, etc.”
“The second thing I want to do,” continued Redd, “is to talk to a couple oncologists because I want to file another class action lawsuit on behalf of cancer patients that I believe developed cancer from asbestos exposure.” Redd has reason to believe that his cancer could have been caused by asbestos in the prisons.
As San Francisco Public Defender Danielle Harris wrote so perfectly in a Tweet about Redd, “Despite every effort made to break this man, he would not break.”
Redd’s resilience, his determination to advocate for justice on behalf of himself and similarly-situated others, and the strong support system inside and outside of prison walls that he has built and maintained can teach us a lot about how re-entry can work.
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