A journey to freedom filled with pain and survival

By Arnulfo T. Garcia

After serving nearly 30 years behind bars, Duane Holt was a changed man who convinced a parole board that he was no longer a danger to public safety.

Holt’s journey to freedom was not easy. He was diagnosed with cancer in January. The possibility of dying in prison was a reality check, he said. He thought about how his family would be affected by his death.

At the beginning of his incarceration, he felt he’d never make it out of such a violent place. Later he wanted to show his mother that he was not the same person who was arrested for murder nearly three decades ago. However, in 2014, his mother died. He said thinking about his feelings after losing his mother and facing death himself connected him to the pain of the victims of his crime.

The experience also made him reach out to his daughters, Sibyl and Megan. He wants to be a good grandparent to their five children.

Having his own family concerned about his fate made him realize how devastated his victim’s family felt about losing their loved one because of his wrongdoing. He said it was during that time, that he was able to take full responsibility for the life he took.

“That gave me a revelation and deeper understanding on how every life matters,” Holt said. “When I was told that I could go home to my family, I felt grateful and guilty at the same time. My victim’s family will never see their loved one again, because of what I did.”

Holt said he thinks about the victim’s family every day and that one day he hopes to get the opportunity to answer any questions they might want to ask him. 

“They could have appeared before the board and ask that I don’t get released,” Holt said. “But they didn’t do that. They didn’t come. I hope that my release doesn’t bring them any painful memories.”

Rehabilitation and Giving Back:

Holt spent most of his time in prison learning green construction technology and volunteering with a diversion program geared to mentor at-risk youth.

“These are two things I’d like to keep doing,” Holt said. “One day I’d like to own a construction company and also give back to the community by mentoring at-risk youth.”

Holt said what got him interested in giving back to the community was when about 10 years ago someone commented that people respect him for all of the positive things he was doing in the prison.

“When I was told that people listen to me, I thought about being an asset to the community, instead of a liability,” Holt said.

That idea got Holt involved with the SQUIRES program at San Quentin. He said working with the youngsters has taught him how the world has changed and how intelligent kids are today. He said he was able to understand how peer pressure puts the youth on misguided paths.

“With the proper guidance, coming from positive role models, they can achieve anything in life they want,” Holt said.

Holt’s battle against cancer also made him aware of the lack of funding for cancer research. He said he’s open to participating in the cancer walks, just like he did when he supported the Walk Against Breast Cancer while incarcerated at San Quentin.

Message to Prisoners:

“Of course, I don’t look at prisoners like the rest of society,” Holt said. “It took me many years to change my criminal thinking. But when I realized that I didn’t want to be defined by the worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life — the horrible decision that cost the life of another human being — did I begin to change and want to make amends.”

He added, “I was punished for my crime, and I had to prove that I was a changed man, so my message to all prisoners is: ‘Stay in the programs, because there is light at the other end of the tunnel.’”

Holt said the various self-help programs gave him insight as to why he held on to negative thinking. After learning about himself, he was able to talk openly to the commissioners on the parole board and answer all of their questions with confidence.

“I felt good when the commissioners quizzed me a lot about the GRIP (Guiding Rage Into Power) program.” Holt said. “I did the work and was able to respond naturally.”

GRIP is a 52-week comprehensive self-awareness program geared toward teaching inmates how to respond to various life-stressors, instead of reacting to them.

Message to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation:

“All prisoners should learn work ethics, because many people come to prison that never held a job,” Holt said. “Rehabilitative programs ought to be offered to everyone, especially these young men before they go back into society.”

He said he noticed that with all the technology in the world today, a lot of kids don’t know how to work with their hands. But he’s seen men in the prison workplace, where there is a lack of technology, but they are good with their hands, “but they lack the intellect or patience to comprehend reading material. So, it’s important for education opportunities to be available while someone is doing time.”

Holt walked out of San Quentin State Prison on Oct. 26, 2016.

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