The path to freedom is narrow for the men and women incarcerated in California’s prisons, Stanford law professor Mike Romano told an audience of about 150 inmates, on Jan. 19, in San Quentin’s Catholic Chapel.
“I know it’s very difficult for Mike to come here and tell you these things,” said Kevin “Bilal” Chatman, who accompanied Romano with two of his staffers. “I had six life sentences and 150 years. I thought I’d never get out. I stayed in trouble. But then Prop. 36 passed in 2012, and I wanted to go home bad, so I changed my behavior to show that I wasn’t the same person as before.”
Romano said passing Prop. 36 was “historic.” He said that he believes it was “a first in the nation”—a voter-approved law, releasing people from prison.
The new law allowed Chatman’s release in 2013. He attained employment as an operations manager at a logistics company. He also works at Levi Stadium, where in 2014 he was employee of the year.
“There are jobs out there,” he told the audience as he spoke about ending the practice of employers asking job applicants if they’d been in prison.
“We are working on ban-the-box,” Chatman said. “We are returning citizens. We don’t call ourselves ex-cons.”
Romano took Chatman to the state capitol to meet with lawmakers and show them what a rehabilitated returned citizen looks like.
The legislators, intrigued by Chatman, listened carefully to his story.
Romano said that he was upset at the state leadership because they were the very people who created prison overcrowding.
“They were the same people who sent him to prison,” Romano said. “They acted like they met someone who survived a plane crash. They created the plane crash.”
Romano and his staff worked successfully with other prison reform groups to roll back mandatory sentencing guidelines. The team of prison reformers is seeking to expand time reduction credits for prisoners. They are also asking the California Supreme Court to force prison officials to consider early parole for nonviolent three-strikers.
“Even if the court accepts the case, it could be two years before they decide on it,” Romano said. “That gives you guys two years—stay out of trouble. Get programs. The best case is that a lot of you guys would go before the parole board.”
Many of the questions the inmates asked Romano concentrated on how the parole board operates. Romano responded to most of the questions by saying that Gov. Jerry Brown wants to let more people out of prison, but wants inmates to take more programs.
“I didn’t know how blessed I was to have all these programs at San Quentin,” Chatman said. “If you’re not getting into programs and getting in touch with yourself, you’re making a mistake.”
Romano added, “Keep getting prepared so when you come before a court, the board, or the governor, you are showing that you’re ready.”