San Quentin resident Philippe “Kellz” Kelly, 39, walked through the prison’s front gates with his newly granted freedom on February 8.
Kelly, a youth offender from Los Angeles, served 23 years behind the wall. In December 2018 he received a commutation from then Gov. Jerry Brown, and after three tries at the Board of Parole Hearings, he was finally granted his parole.
“I was shocked. Happy. Excited. I had a new sense of possibility, like I just may be able to get out of here and live a life on the street,” said Kelly about receiving a date.
Kelly’s journey through the prison system is one of strife and triumph.
He was given up as a young child by his mother to his aunt. Throughout his life, Kelly says he always felt a lack of acceptance and love.
“I couldn’t understand why my mother didn’t want me,” Kelly said.
This internal conflict led him to the streets, searching for a sense of belonging. That search led him into a life of crime.
Kelly’s experiences in prisons such as High Desert and Old Folsom were challenging. However, during his time at Centinela he was forced to “learn how to jail.”
“The dudes on that yard was about no-nonsense because anything could get you killed,” he said.
It was there where he began to understand the seriousness of his situation and how to discipline himself.
Kelly said he learned quickly how to not put himself in situations that would get him caught up.
Although Kelly learned to navigate the land mines of a prison yard, his rehabilitative efforts at that point were nonexistent.
Being sentenced to life for the murder of Tony Cox, Kelly believed that prison was where he would die.
“When I found out that the point system [which determines an incarcerated person’s security level] was about to change, I started making a plan to escape,” he said.
Kelly said he stayed discipline-free long enough to be transferred to California Men’s Colony-West (the Colony) — a level-two yard. Since he thought that he was never going to get out, Kelly thought that the Colony would be his chance to make his plan of escape a reality.
However, a major turning point took place in his life that changed Kelly’s thought process.
“In a victim’s impact group a Hispanic lady told a story about how her son was murdered … She was crying … and it made me think of Mr. Cox’s family. I realized in that moment that this is the way I made them feel when I murdered Tony,” said Kelly.
He became a peer mentor. Kelly started making progress with his rehabilitative efforts and later wrote a letter to Heather Hart, who was the program coordinator for the Prison University Project, asking her to help him transfer to San Quentin.
Once Kelly transferred, he joined groups like Addiction Recovery Center Counseling, SQUIRES (youth diversion program), Criminal and Gangs Anonymous, and Computer Literacy, during which his perspective on getting out began to change.
Shortly before his release, Kelly graduated from The Last Mile: Audio Engineering program.
“It has given me a chance to improve my skills and [gain] hope that I will succeed once I … [go home]. It’s a great program and I encourage everyone to sign up,” Kelly said.
Kelly said he has numerous people to thank for his success, rehabilitation, and freedom.
“But, if I would pick one I would have to give all props to Lilliana Paratore [of Uncommon Law],” he said. “She pushed me to see my life issues on a deeper level …”
Kelly was asked what message he would give to the brothers he’s leaving behind.
“So, I would say that I’m not leaving brothers behind. It’s more like see you later. And my message would be: if you want to get out of here you have to do the work … Do not give up,” he said.
He encourages incarcerated people to just “keep programming … because there’s so much available to us. And lastly, get into anything that you can use as a trade that can get you paid.”
Kelly continues to inspire his community with his story.