KidCAT Chairman and Co-founder Charlie Spence committed serious crimes as a teenager, but he transformed his life during almost 22 years in prison.
“I know I can’t change the effects that I’ve had in the past, but I can change the effect I will have in the future,” Spence told the San Quentin News. “I believe life only matters in the effect it has on another life.”
Spence started his incarceration as a confused 16-year-old who called 911 in an attempt to save the man his friend killed during a botched robbery. He would face trial as an adult and be convicted of a felony murder.
He paroled out of San Quentin on Jan. 11, leaving behind a legacy of true leadership and inspiring thousands.
“It’s nice to see Charlie become a man—really become a man,” said Nou Phang Thao, who met Spence in 2007. They and seven other young men started the youth offenders group KidCAT at San Quentin. “Eleven years ago I would’ve never imagined seeing him mentor so many young guys and help them find themselves.”
Volunteer Phil Towle works as a life coach on the outside and has known Spence since KidCAT’s early days. “I don’t know anyone I’ve met inside or out of San Quentin that has given more of his soul to the people around him,” said Towle. “He truly epitomizes placing others above ourselves.
“I saw early on that Charlie was committed to transforming his life. The fact that he’s done that is no surprise…He’s constantly touching everyone around him to be better. Those kinds of people are rare.”
Phillipe Kelly came to SQ in 2016 because of KidCAT’s message of hope. He became involved in the youth community and received a commutation of his sentence from Gov. Jerry Brown last year.
“I owe you my freedom,” Kelly told Spence at their final KidCAT meeting together on Jan. 3. “The impact you had getting SB 260…I remember being on a Level 4 and thinking, ‘I ain’t ever getting out.’
”I wanted to meet whoever put this together. When I got here and saw you was the one, I was blown away. You was on me since the first day.”
That’s how Kelly recalled Spence pushing him to be accountable for his own life choices. “Normally when people do that, you know that they care,” Kelly added.
Spence went before the parole board for the first time in early 2018 and received a three-year denial, but Gov. Brown intervened, aware of all the positive things Spence accomplished in prison.
“I think that’s only the second time that’s ever happened. I was really moved when the governor laid out everything good I’ve done in his letter to the board,” Spence explained.
John Lam, writer for KidCAT Speaks, also received a commutation last year from Brown. “There’s not one young person at this prison that you have not touched,” Lam told Spence at that last meeting. “You stepped in and saved this group at a time when we were losing direction and had no leadership.”
Long-time volunteer Beverly Shelby said, “There’s no greater gift in my mind than to touch people—be a mentor. I’ve seen KidCAT from the beginning, and you really did step in and save it.”
New KidCAT Chairman Si Dang understands Spence set a high standard for leadership. “I’ve met so many people in prison—so few resonate like Charlie,” Dang said. “He just has this overwhelming humanity. He takes this interest in people, and you can literally see him bring them back to life.”
“Charlie’s one of those role models you don’t want to disappoint,” said recent KidCAT member Rodney Rederford. “At first, I used to try and hide from him before he could notice me out on the yard. Now, I always try and catch up with him.
“I didn’t think there was change in me. A lot of us real hardened criminals need someone like Charlie to just reach out to us.”
Miguel Sifuentes referred to Spence as “The Genius” and commented, “Before I met Charlie, I didn’t think it was possible for guys in blue to talk like that. He made me feel everything’s possible. I really want to thank him for that.”
Spence gets squeamish when he hears guys speak of him as a role model. “I know I’m on a path to do a lot of things that can touch and change people’s lives,” he said. “That’s a gift God gave me, so to be praised for that gift is awkward.
“Especially coming from my background as a ‘special ed’ kid, it’s still hard for me to see myself as someone worthy of being praised.” Spence used his time behind bars to attain a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He is currently preparing to take the Legal Scholastic Aptitude Test (LSAT) in order to be accepted into law school. His dream is to attend the UC Berkeley’s School of Law and then to advocate for criminal and social justice reforms.
Spence acknowledges Phil Towle as his own primary role model. “I really respect all the work he does,” Spence said.
“Phil makes you feel cared about when he’s around—no matter what.”
“It’s tough not to cry a little when I hear that,” Towle said. “There’s no greater tribute from someone I respect as much as Charlie. His words humble me.”
Spence also cites Dwayne Betts as a role model he’d like to meet and work with one day. Betts spent nine years in prison before eventually graduating from Yale Law School and being accepted into the Connecticut Bar Association as a practicing attorney.
Spence’s first employment upon release will be counseling veterans at San Francisco’s Community Partnership Housing, an organization providing supportive housing for veterans.
He will begin his reentry at Seventh Step, a transitional house in Hayward. Then he plans to start a new life with his best friend and wife, a woman he met, became devoted to, and married while incarcerated.
Volunteer Gail Towle fought back tears, not wanting to smear her makeup, at Spence’s last KidCAT meeting. “You’re going to be a great force in the community, a powerful force,” she said. “You know that saying, ‘Behind every great man…,’ well, he’s married to a wonderful woman. They’ll be great together.”
Reflecting on his time at SQ, Spence said, “I’m never going to stop thinking about all the young guys who came behind me.”