Charlie Spence dreams of going home after two decades in prison, but he may never go home because of decisions he made as a teenager.
Spence gave up on school when teachers humiliated him; he started using drugs so other kids would accept him, and when he was 16 years old, he committed his first robbery.
“My earliest memory was of my father trying to urinate on my baby brother in his crib,” Spence said, retelling the moments in his life that he believes led him to a place where he was able to commit violence against another human being. “My mother tried to stop him, and he just beat her.”
Spence said that two abusive father figures damaged his ability to form relationships with other males. Mistrust led to isolation that was exacerbated by placement in Special Education at school.
He eventually started hanging out with drug users, and communal drug use eased his sense of alienation. “It didn’t matter that I was stupid; it didn’t matter that I was worthless. These guys accepted me.”
According to Spence, court records reflect that Spence’s friend Thomas tried to rob a victim while Spence was using the bathroom. The victim grabbed the gun, and Thomas shot him.
“I ran back into the room, and he was …” Spence paused, unable to speak for a moment. His muscular jaw flexed beneath a blond beard that doesn’t quite cover a thick scar that curves from his eye to cheek. “He was dead. I don’t have words for that moment. I was devastated. I called for an ambulance. We were arrested.”
The robbery in which Spence participated resulted in the victim’s death. Under California’s felony-murder rule, Spence would be found guilty of murder if the district attorney proved that he had intended to commit a robbery.
“It’s how I make meaning out of my past”
Spence was a juvenile then, and the law places the burden on the juvenile’s defense to prove in a special hearing that the child is eligible to be considered as a juvenile by the court. (California’s Proposition 57 is trying to change this practice, which is called direct filing.)
In court, a Sacramento County sheriff escorted Spence to what is called a 707(b) hearing to determine whether a 16-year-old kid was eligible to be treated like a 16-year-old kid. The court, according to Spence, can consider a juvenile an adult if it finds any of the following: the crime is too severe, the juvenile can’t be rehabilitated by the time he or she is 25 years old, the juvenile’s crime shows an adult amount of sophistication, or the juvenile has a past record.
Spence had never been arrested, but the district attorney argued that because Spence used drugs, that meant he was a criminal living a criminal lifestyle. According to Spence, this was enough by law to try Spence as an adult, but the district attorney also argued that Spence showed adult sophistication because he used a butter knife to jimmy the door to his mother’s bedroom to retrieve the gun with which Thomas eventually killed the victim.
The court tried Spence as an adult and sentenced him to 25 years to life.
“The moment after I committed my crime, I was committed to change my life,” Spence said, responding to the court’s idea that he couldn’t be rehabilitated. “After the court sentenced me, I eventually arrived at High Desert State Prison in 1998. It was a violent, maximum security prison, and thoughts of changing my life went out the window. Life became about surviving.”
High Desert didn’t offer the rehabilitative programs Spence needed to address his traumas and turn his life onto a positive course. Just as he’d done in school when he became involved with communal drug use, he found acceptance in the prison drug culture.
Though he was still making irresponsible decisions, Spence still managed to make gradual changes in his life.
“I was a programmer,” he said. Programmer is a term that designates an incarcerated person who practices self-improvement and doesn’t cause problems for correctional officers. “But I still had one foot in and one foot out of the right kind of lifestyle. I was still seeking acceptance in ways that devalued my worth. It took me 15 years to realize that I was behaving in the same way that had caused me to commit my crime when I was 16.”
Today, Spence works with youth offenders, people who committed their crimes before their rational facilities have fully developed. He teaches them to locate the human values inside them and allow these values to inform their emotions and actions. He said he wants to empower them to constructively contribute to their environments and to themselves.
“It’s how I make meaning out of my past,” Spence said. He’s a peer counselor in VOEG (Victim Offenders Education Group), where he helps men process their traumatic histories. He hopes to bring them healing, so that one day, they’ll be able to pay that healing forward to others.
Spence has a lot of plans for the future. He’s a few classes away from a bachelor’s degree in specialized studies, psychology and leadership. He’s also studying the LSAT, so he can attend law school upon his release.
“I have the experience of a young man coming into the system, and with a law degree I’ll have the credibility with the audience I want to address.”
He also wants to return to Agate Beach, a special place for him on the coast of the California-Oregon border. His grandfather used to fish there from the shoreline into the surf for perch.
“I used to watch him from a little plateau on the beach. I could sit there for hours, absorbing the sounds and sights and him. I dream of going back there.”