The following guest column is by Larry Stiner Jr., the eldest son of Watani Stiner, the author of the O.G. column.
There’s a celebration going on in my imagination. The house is filled with the sound of good soul music and the aroma of good soul food. Conversation among the many family members and friends evokes memories of fun times past. Laughter and more than a few tears of happiness highlight the joyfulness felt throughout the residence.
Taking it all in, I count four generations of our family tree as cellphone cameras capture the excitement. What is the special occasion? It’s my father’s homecoming. After five years in prison, an escape, two decades as a fugitive, a voluntary surrender and another 20 years of incarceration, my father is home. Yes, after a 45-year absence from true freedom, he is finally home. Well, at least that’s what I am imagining just before his 10th hearing before the Board of Parole Hearings..
For the past five years, I have waited for the summer of 2014 to arrive. At last, it is here. Sixty months have crawled by since my father’s last parole consideration hearing. And over that period of time, I have planned and prayed. I have strategized and wished. I have fought to hold on to the faith that now allows me to be cautiously optimistic that the results of this hearing will be different. On most days, I truly feel that my father’s freedom is soon to come. But then there are those days when that dreaded voice of pessimism whispers words I struggle to ignore: “Don’t be foolish. You know how this always turns out. He’s not coming home.”
Shaking my head in disagreement and blocking out memories of the prior nine hearings that all resulted in denials, I remind myself that the climate is different this time around. There are new laws in place favoring more releases. The court has ordered a major reduction in the severely overcrowded prison population. “Lifers” in the state of California are leaving prison at a pace never before seen. Trusting the spirit of positivity, I ride the wave of supportive reasoning until I succeed in drowning out that negative voice. My thoughts race back to the celebration in my imagination…
Seated on the sofa, my father displays a heartwarming smile as he nods his head to an uplifting hit song from the 1960s. Dressed in a stylish tan-colored button-down shirt and a comfortable pair of brown slacks, he looks different in a good way. Wearing something other than the prison blues I’d become accustomed to seeing him in, he looks free. Next to him, my mother sits with her hand resting inside of his. I see love. I also see joy on the faces of my much younger siblings who, since February 1994, have not spent a second with our father outside of San Quentin’s walls. They were all so young when he surrendered and returned to prison. But he’s home now and all is right. Well, at least that’s what I am imagining just before he sees the parole board for the 10th time.
All is in order as the hearing day approaches. My father has multiple housing options, employment offers and letters of support. His attorney has diligently prepared to show him worthy of parole. Guardedly, I am hopeful. On the eve of the big day, I receive numerous requests from family and friends wanting to be contacted as soon as I hear the results. I cannot fathom having to relay a negative message to anyone so I focus on the likelihood of a positive decision. Yes, this time will be different, I tell myself.
After one last sleepless night, the hearing day arrives with the brightness of a strong morning sun. The clock-watching begins as I try to go about my day as I normally would. It is not possible. I feel more anxious with each passing minute. Time ticks and I wait. The clock moves and I anticipate. Finally, I hear the news: The hearing has been postponed. It has been pushed back for at least a few months due to a hearing panel member declaring a conflict of interest. The member says he was on the University of California, Los Angeles, campus as a student in 1969 when a shootout between rival Black Power organizations erupted, leaving two people dead and my father wounded and facing a conspiracy charge. Against my father’s wishes, the hearing is delayed. The disappointment shortens my breath as I wonder why this conflict wasn’t discovered until just before the hearing. Could not that person have excused himself before today? That whispering voice of pessimism tries to speak out but I quickly silence it. Though frustrated and saddened, I remind myself that a postponement is not a denial. Therefore, I reason, the celebration in my imagination hasn’t been cancelled … it’s only been postponed. Unfortunately, a few months will seem like a lifetime to a family that’s already been separated for what seems like a lifetime.