Given a second chance, Philip Melendez took the opportunity and turned his criminal life around and became the latest Kid CAT member to be found suitable for parole.
“I have known Phil 19 years since we were both teenagers starting out at Corcoran State Prison,” said Nicanor Lopez, now an inmate at San Quentin. “The Phil I knew had no direction and was heavily involved in prison politics.”
“Today, Phil has made a complete change of his life. He mentors youths and helps them avoid the same mistakes he made when he was young. He is an example of what can happen when hope and opportunity is given.”
In response, Melendez said, “I am compelled to do what I can to change and help others so that nobody has to endure what I put my victims and their families through.”
Melendez, 39, has served 19 years for two counts of second-degree murder. His original sentence was 41 years-to-life. Due to his youth offender status, he became eligible for early parole.
Melendez was born in Sacramento, and his biological father denied his paternity. His teenage mother left him in the care of his maternal grandmother for the first five years of his life.
“Growing up I thought that my grandma was my real mother,” said Melendez.
Melendez’s childhood consisted of multiple moves; each new neighborhood was riddled with crime and gangs.
Despite being surrounded by negative influences, Melendez showed an aptitude in school and skipped two grades and began high school at the age of 12.
“I was smaller than most kids in high school due to my age, so being bullied became a problem,” said Melendez.
In an attempt to find belonging and protection, Melendez joined a gang and began getting into fights, breaking into homes, and selling drugs in school.
Melendez explains that his decision to join a gang was partly an attempt to create a bond with his father.
“My dad was in and out of prison most of my life. I heard stories about him being a gangster, so I figured if I emulated him, then maybe I can finally have a dad who cared about me,” said Melendez.
His deep hunger for a connection with his father would ultimately lead him to commit his life crime.
“On the day of my crime, my step-mom called me to tell me that my dad had been stabbed,” said Melendez.
“I felt that something had to be done, and I tried to look for the people responsible, and ended up murdering two innocent people who had nothing to do with what happened to my dad.”
He was arrested on Oct. 25, 1997, and faced the possibility of the death penalty.
“Having the death penalty hanging over my head was one of the most stressful times in my life,” said Melendez. “It was sickening to know I messed up in the worst possible way and that there was no undoing it.”
Melendez avoided the death penalty and after spending three years in the Sacramento County jail, he was convicted and sent to prison.
“I felt hopeless when I came to prison,” said Melendez. “I became involved with politics and gang activity.”
His hopeless mindset resulted in 19 disciplinary infractions, including multiple assaults on inmates.
After 12 years in prison, Melendez’s outlook on life changed. “When I came to San Quentin in 2012, I saw the possibilities of going home and that helped spark my rehabilitation.”
In San Quentin, Melendez took advantage of the rehabilitative culture that was available and often took public roles to promote restorative justice. He appeared as a host or speaker at multiple events, including symposiums, graduations, appearances on documentaries and a few segments on PBS.
“The rehabilitative culture here helped me to develop many pro-social skills,” said Melendez. “The Kid CAT First Step Curriculum and VOEG (Victim Offender Education Group) taught me about empathy, and understanding victim impact.”
Melendez’s dedication to change is evident in his work with youth offenders, as exemplified by the words of Charlie Srey, 18, incarcerated since the age of 15.
“Since I came to San Quentin, Phil has been a great mentor to me,” said Srey. “He taught me how to be open-minded and how to communicate with others. Because of him, I’m on the right path.”
Reflecting back on his journey, Melendez said, “For years I told myself lies about my crime to help me deal with the fact I murdered people. With the understanding I have today, I look back in disbelief at the extreme level of violence I used to resolve conflicts.”
On his initial hearing on May 24, he was found suitable for release.
Upon a successful parole, Melendez hopes to use what he has learned to help build a restorative justice model to be taught in public schools.
Melendez paroled on Sept. 27 and has joined his new bride and family.