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A man paddles in a kayak on a river, surrounded by prison bars
Photo illustration by Sarah Rogers

This article was first published by Mule Creek Post, a newspaper at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

It was a gloomy day in October 1983 when I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The walk from the courthouse to jail was through a dark tunnel about a quarter-mile long. Those serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) called it “The Long Walk Home,” where the silence of cold walls is broken only by the rattle of leg chains across a concrete floor. Visions of the past flashed through my mind; visions of a life left behind and the life I had to face.

LWOP inmates are met with a choice on that long walk home. With nothing to lose, they could self-destruct, or use their lives to make amends and take a turn for the better.

Johnny Reyes, serving an LWOP sentence for 29 years already, remembers the day when he faced such a choice.

“It felt like I had come to the end of my life, as though there was nowhere left for me to go,” Reyes said. “I took a long look at my jail cell and concluded that this is where I would die. But I decided right then and there that I was not ready to give up. I had a family to think about who were suffering, and victims whose lives were destroyed because of me. There was a lot more that I wanted to do and I knew it started with facing my past and attempting to compensate for the destruction I had caused.”

Reyes wasted no time finding light at the end of the tunnel, earning his GED certificate and working through the ranks of the California Prison Industry Authority, which employs incarcerated people, to become lead man in the fabric products mill.

He specialized in making CalFire protective clothing for the men and women fighting California wildfires. Yet, perhaps his greatest achievement has been remaining disciplinary-free these past 29 years.

“I’m committed to pursuing peace in my life,” Reyes said. “I owe that to my family and to the family of my victim. My conscience won’t have it any other way.”

Omar Coyotzin faced perhaps his most formidable foe when dealing with his LWOP sentence: himself. Refusing to accept the fact that he would never see freedom again, he allowed anger, alcohol and violence to rule his life.

“Prison gangs became my way of dealing with the anger that was brewing inside me,” Coyotzin explained. “I was angry at the world because I felt like I deserved a second chance. But it was my God-fearing parents who helped me realize that it was not the world I was mad at; it was myself. That was the turning point for me. They helped me see that I had to face the consequences of my actions in order to be at peace with myself. When I began that process through Alcoholics Anonymous, I gradually learned to value inner peace and to refrain from the hate that once corrupted my heart.”

Coyotzin pursued insight through groups like victim awareness and GRIP (Guiding Rage Into Power), where he discovered the value of comprehending the pain he once inflicted upon others.

“For the first time, I started to regret what I did and stopped justifying my reasons for doing it,” Coyotzin said. “I’ll always be grateful to my parents for helping me see life through their eyes. I like the person I am now and I look at each day as an opportunity to pursue peace, whether I’m given a second chance or not.”

For LWOP inmates, life behind bars is not just a prison sentence where they are punished for their crimes. For most, it’s a place where they face the consequences of their choices and become aware of the changes they need to make. Yes, the long walk home has proven to be a road; one not leading to the shadows of confinement, but to the light of recovery and self-awareness. It’s where they have met up with their conscience and are doing something about it.

Perhaps, the old adage is true: “Too little, too late.” But consider the prison system was once a breeding ground for hardened criminals. The problem with this is those criminals were being released into society, only to reoffend and create more crime and violence on the streets.

But now, instead of opening more lockup units, prisons are opening more classrooms for education, for learning new trades and for self-help groups. Offenders are returning to the streets more equipped to be mentors and students prepared for the future, instead of destructive criminals. This creates fewer victims.

LWOP inmates like Reyes and Coyotzin are taking the lead and setting the example for the next generation. Those with LWOP sentences can’t change their past; nevertheless, if given the chance, perhaps they can help change the future.

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.

Ricky A. Ortega is a writer for the The Mule Creek Post, a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.