By Ricky A. Ortega
Originally Published in the Mule Creek Post
Convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances, LWOPs entered the penalty phase of their trials where it was determined by a jury of their peers that their lives were worth living, albeit, locked away behind prison walls with little hope of ever getting out.
Yet, like a tiny seed of self-worth planted in the hot desert soil of prison life, LWOPs’ hope takes root by digging deep within and embracing change. This series of articles will take a closer look at those LWOPs who roll up their sleeves to reinvent themselves from the inside out.
Vern Barker, 23 years into LWOP, made a crucial adjustment when he began to attend self-awareness groups. “I saw my first holding cell when I was ten,” said Barker. “Young and misguided, my influences were not positive. I was looking to get what I wanted, no matter the cost. As I got older, the rolls of money got bigger. But thanks to the self-help groups and the awesome people who sponsor them, I got me back. I’m more humble and have come to the realization I don’t want to hurt people anymore.”
Barker’s list of groups include SAR, AA, NA, REALIZE, Lifers Support Group, and the American Bible Academy. His disciplinary history speaks volumes about the success of these groups — not a single write-up since 2007. “I’m most proud of this fact because I really want to better myself,” said Barker. “I think the most rewarding experience is in the Amends Project where my amends letter to John Simpson, his family, and his students was certified and processed through the correct channels.”
Barker is doing more than attending groups; he’s rebuilding life around them and reaping the rewards of rehabilitation. “I want to lead by example so that maybe the next person who isn’t on the right track can follow my lead,” he said. Barker has chosen the path of self-awareness over violence, despite the fact he may never be released from prison. Barker said, “I want to be accepted within my community, in prison or out. I didn’t like who I was, but I like who I am now and that is the most important thing, whether I’m in prison or not.”
Ivan Charles, an LWOP for 38 years, is no stranger to the “Insight” curriculum. He has been a part of self-recovery since 2003 and a facilitator for CGA, AA, Victim Awareness, Power Source, Houses of Healing, and Anger Management. “I never felt like I was held accountable until I got into these groups,” stated Charles. “I came into prison with a chip on my shoulder; I was hurt and real angry. But I learned quickly how that was not going to change my sentence. The groups I was taking helped me think about the victims I created along my path of destruction.”
Charles reminisced about the turning point that changed his outlook on life. “It was the day in 1998 when I was able to make an amends video to the Mitchell family,” he said. “I was able to see firsthand what I had done to Darnell’s family. I’ll never forget the look in his daughter’s eyes when she told me that she has no memory of her father because of what I did, but that she forgave me. I will never forget those words. They have inspired me to this day to become a better person and to never bring harm to another human being. Although I can’t give that little girl her father back, I know that now I can give goodness to others in his memory.”
Thanks to the efforts of CDCR officials, their commitment to restorative justice, and for their illumination of offenders to the effects of their crimes, LWOPs are no longer condemned to die in a prison cell.
Once shackled to the other death sentence, they now choose to own up to their crimes and acknowledge the impact on their victims. Any loss of life can never be compensated, but through renewal and transformation, perhaps emotional healing can begin, for victim and offender.