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Graffiti of the word "freedom" on a gray stone wall
Photo by Hanna Zhyhar on Unsplash

If freedom is a road, it is paved with the stories of these men. It is a road that I walk on and hope to be a part of someday. That road is the path from prison to being granted parole.

This interview with Charles Pritchett II is the third in a series highlighting the stories of those on Freedom Road and to understand the fears and hopes of lifers and those without a release date. 

Q: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Up until recently, you were serving 36 to life and after 16 years, on Feb. 23, you were afforded an opportunity to be resentenced due to your past service in the Army. The judge ordered you released within 90 days. How does it feel to not be sentenced to life in prison anymore?

Charles Pritchett III: It feels like a backpack full of bricks has been taken off my chest. It’s as if I can breathe again without that life sentence over my head. It also feels like, for the first time, the justice system got it right; it might be about five years late, but they got it right. And I say five years because my base term was 11 years. 

Q: When you were serving in the military, did you ever think you’d end up with a life sentence?

CP: No, I never ever thought I would be in prison let alone have a life sentence. It’s not like I was out there causing trouble or committing crimes. I was volunteering to defend my country with my life, doing tours in Iraq and trying to build a future for myself. All of a sudden, one mistake, literally wrong place, wrong time, and bam, life sentence for a crime that has a minimum of like 11 years. 

Q: What do you have to say to all the people out there fighting to create pathways to freedom for us all?

CP: First and foremost, thank you so very much for creating a way for the criminal justice system to correct some of its wrongs. Without you, people like myself would be doing a lot of time that’s not helping to improve them in any way. 

The one thing that I can see with my own eyes that would help more than anything would be to fight to make these [resentencing] bills and laws retroactive. Nothing is more discouraging than reading a bill that has passed and getting to the end and seeing that you have to find a way to get back in to count — because it’s not retroactive. Especially when it would have freed you.

Q: What are your dreams for the future?

CP: I’ve got big dreams but I believe the most important one is starting my non-profit with my wife: The Pritchett Foundation. It is going to focus on three different things. First and most important, it is going to focus on giving at-risk youth a pathway to free college or trade school through community service. I figure if we can educate and show these kids [who] don’t see many options in their lives that community service is a great thing and is important to building up our communities, then we can change the outcome of many, many future generations. 

Second, we are going to have transitional housing for my brothers and sisters coming out of prison. We will give them a positive place where they can continue to grow and better themselves as they transition back into the community. We will also provide all the programs and job training they will need to become productive citizens of this country.

Third, we will be providing free housing and assistance to veterans. Being a veteran myself, I know and understand how important this can be, because it’s not always easy to ask for help when you feel like the only people who understand what you’re going through are those who have been through it themselves. All three of these things are a part of me, and I feel like this is where God is leading me to be of service.

Q: When returning from deployment in the military, it must have been bittersweet leaving all your brothers behind. Do you think you’ll feel some of the same emotions leaving your prison brothers behind?

CP: Absolutely! I know most people wouldn’t understand that we find connections with others in a place like this, but we do. I have made lifelong friends and guys who I consider my brothers since I’ve been down. It is absolutely going to pull on my heart strings when I leave [them] behind. However, it’s bittersweet because you know how they say no one will fight for you like you will, but I know I will fight for my brothers when I’m out there. And I won’t stop fighting until we’re all home with our families, enjoying our lives. 

Q: You’re going back into the world at a time when images of Ukraine getting invaded are grabbing the world’s attention. Do you feel drawn to help?

CP: It’s funny that you ask that question. I had this conversation with my wife. I expressed my urge to go and fight for the people of Ukraine and how so many of my veteran brothers in here want to do the same. However, just receiving my freedom after all these years, and my wife doing all this time with me, she would probably kill me before I got my bags packed. I think as a soldier you have a mindset that wants to defend those who are being hurt that never leaves you, and if I were single or had been on the streets this whole time, I would again volunteer myself to go and fight for freedom. Also, you know me, I loved serving my country, and I only wish I hadn’t been prevented from serving. 

Q: Here at Freedom Road we look forward to hearing about your successes in the future. Be safe out there, brother. You will be missed. But take solace in the fact that each time one of us is freed, he takes a piece of the others with him. Congratulations, brother. 

CP: I would like to let my wife Mrs. Leslie Pritchett know that I am such a blessed man to have had you by my side through this whole sentence. You didn’t have to do these past 16 years with me. You were always my hope through this. God broke the mold when he made you. Thank you for your loyalty and for being the exact example of what a wife is, through thick and thin. I’m so proud of you for all of your accomplishments. I hope that I can just be the husband that you deserve, and I will gladly spend the rest of my life showing you how special you are to me.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jessie Milo is a writer, artist and poet incarcerated in California. He is a volunteer for and an advocate for mental health.