July 25, 2019

Commutation Season

by Jack McFadden (author's profile)


Jack McFadden #D-34424

Commutation Season

It is 2018 and almost Christmas in the California State Prison-Los Angeles County. The prisoners are all excitedly calling it "Commutation Season." Approximately 22 months ago a man named Scott Budnick came into the building I live in to see some of the inmates. He wanted to show Rapper/Movie star "Common" the men of A-Facility, also known as the PPF (Progressive Programing Facility) and the Paws for Life (PFL) dog program. While most of the men were talking to "Common", a few of us were off to the side with the dogs assigned to us when Scott came over. I didn't know Scott at the time but I had seen first-hand all the work he had been doing with A.R.C. (Anti Recidivism Coalition) in changing laws for juveniles and others. I thanked him for all of his hard work and he asked me if any of those changing laws affected me. I told him now; I have LWOP (Life Without the Possibility of Parole), None of it would help me, but I knew he had been working on other bills that would help the guys with LWOP. He gave me a hug, like Scott always does and then told up, "all of you that have LWOP need to submit a request for "Commutation" to the Governor. He said that, "Governor Brown is going to be doing big things before he leaves office."

I have to admit, I didn't really believe his words, but I "wanted" to believe, so I promised to do just that. I was like a man hanging over a cliff who is willing to grab a small patch of grass just to keep from falling; knowing that it won't hold me, but I do it anyway, hoping for the best.

I was locked up, incarcerated at the age of 19. That was in 1983. I am now 54 years old. Like so many other men around me, I have lived most of my life knowing that I am going to die in prison. When California gives you a LWOP sentence you are sentenced to die a very long and slow death in prison. There is a good reason why it is called "The Other Death Penalty." I had accepted my life as it is. I had to, if I didn't I would have lost mind a long time ago. Of course I always hoped, you have to keep hoping, but you have to move on with your life. Like most men and women with LWOP I choose to try and live the best life that I can, doing what I feel was right. Like joining the Paws For Life Program. I didn't do it because I had to or because I would be recognized. I did it because it felt right in my heart, I was helping save animals and I was giving back to the community that I had hurt. I was making a difference and learning about myself just like all the other men who have LWOP. These men, along with PFL, continue to go to school and take self-help classes. It isn't because we have to but because it feels right. Then something unbelievable happens.

At first it was just a few men, they were being called to the Program Office and told that they were being interviewed for possible commutation by the Governor. Nobody was sure what to think about this It was something new, something unheard of. All the sudden there was a little tiny pin-prick of light down that long dark tunnel of LWOP. But, once again I have to admit, I still didn't believe it. For decades I had watched men with LWOP slowly die, and the reality was simple, the facts were clear, if you were sentenced to "Life Without the Possibility of Parole" you were never getting out. If you had life with the possibility of parole, and were lucky enough to go to the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) and they granted parole; for decades, the Governors at the time would just take away the parole for one reason or another. So, no, I still didn't believe it could be possible. THen someone I actually knew personally was called to the Program Office and handed a phone; it was the Governor's office informing them that Governor Jerry Brown had commuted his LWOP sentence to 25 years to life! He would be going home someday. Our world had changed, everything changed that day.

Commutation Season had started. Our hearts had these new, wonderful, and scary feelings for the very first time. More commutation interviews started to happen and rumors ran rampant, mostly about Governor Jerry Brown doing a whole lot of commutations before leaving office in two years. On August 7, 2017 I was interviewed for a possible commutation. It was without a doubt one of the hardest things I have ever done. My interviewer was a true professional, a parole agent III. That meant that he had been doing work for the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) for many years. He knew what he was about and understood the gravity of what he was assigned to do. This interviewer never once looked at his file while talking to me, but he knew absolutely everything about my case, and my prison record. When I would tell him that I wasn't sure about a date or the exact words of a transcript he would quote them to me, without even looking at his folder! We discussed my crime, my childhood, my time in prison, to the self-help courses that I had taken. It when on and on for three hours. I knew that this was it, this was going to be the only chance that I would ever have, so I let all my emotions, all of the truths, and everything that I was, out on the table that day.

I had lived in prison my whole life. In prison you admit to nothing and that is how I had always lived, but I stopped caring about prison etiquette and it's stupid politics years ago. During the interview I never once considered lying. When we discussed infractions in prison I made it clear that even the infraction that I had been found not guilty of, If I had really done them, then I told him the truth, "Yes, I beat the write-up but I did it." I discussed my childhood with him, about how I grew up, and I told him things that I had never told anyone before. I grew up with the belief that if it happened at home, it stayed there. That day I could feel how important that day was so I let it all out and held nothing back. When the interview was over and I walked out of the room, I felt lighter than I have ever felt in my life. I understood why all those questions had to be asked. They needed to understand how I became a person who committed murder, what happened to me in my past, that led me to murder another man; take away his life, take him from his family, friends, and his community? What happened to me so that I could do something so horrific? You see, if nothing happened to me and I committed my crime "just because" then I would be a sociopath and shouldn't ever be let out. I am not a sociopath, so I told them the truth. I not only told the truth, but I showed him that "I" understood what had happened to me: that I could "connect all of the dots" that led me to my crime. A few weeks later, lightning struck again and two men right here in my building, in the PFL program had their terms of LWOP commuted to life with!

Looking back now, I understand this is when "Commutation Season" really started. We had all wanted to believe, but we had spent our lives not just believing that we would di in prison, but knowing and living as if we would die in prison. I have spent months and months trying to find the words to this phenomenon hitting us all so hard. How can I explain what it is to feel and live with a sentence of "Life Without the Possibility of Parole"? Only the person with that sentence or their family members can understand it. Now all of a sudden everything had been turned upside down. The men and women with no hope now had some hope. It was good, it was scary, it was awesome, it was terrifying and wonderful all at the same time. The rumors were the hardest; nobody knew for sure what was going on, only Governor Brown knows what he is going to do and when, and he isn't sharing any details! For me, after being interviewed it just got harder. For the first time ever I am trying to look at things like letters of support, people who would be willing to write things on my behalf, and go on the record by sending those letters to the Governor.

The constant thoughts of "what if?". The interviews for commutation picked up. Now everyone is wondering, will they be called for an interview. You can't get a commutation without being interviewed. The stress levels continue to rise. Everyone is silently praying and begging to the unknown for their chance to be interviewed, and as the numbers rise so does the stress. I continue to try and find the right words to describe this miracle that appears to be happening. THen a friend, Duncan Martinez, shared his thoughts; he tells me he has the perfect analogy, "we are all people in the ocean, no land in sight, we are waiting to drown, we know it is going to happen. We can tread water for days, months, and even years but we know, it is going to happen. We are going to die, we will sink. We watch those around us sink." I have added a few of my thought to this because this works for me. I can see this all in my head. We watch some prisoners lose their minds and drift off into madness and then we just wait for our turn. Then a row-boat comes by and says hey, I will try to come back with a bigger boat and help you, but it is a long way to shore so I may not make it. THen the rescuer takes one guy with him. A few months later he comes back and this boat is a little bigger but only big enough for a few more. He leaves again after taking a few more people saying, "I'll try to come back for more, we'll see."

For me, what is hard is two of the guys that have received their commutations live close by and continue to tell me, don't worry, you're next; saying "This Christmas brother, it will happen." So, I wait for the next boat. The stress level is now getting higher and higher. For decades now I have stopped believing in the rumors of "this law will change things", and that "the law will let us go home," because those rumors never come true. Hope is dangerous; hope can drive you crazy, hope can kill. But now, I listen to those rumors, I break my own self-imposed rules, I start to believe them when they say that my turn is coming. CHristmas comes and the "rescuer in his boat" saves a few more, but not me, I am left adrift. I feel dead inside, I feel pain like I have never felt before. The depression crashes over me and threatens to drown me in a sea of despair. I hear other names being called out, but my name is not one of them. I walk out of my cell in a daze. I get my dog and I do everything that i can possibly can to keep the tears from pouring down my face. I just need to get away from everyone. So many people looking at me, sadness in their eyes, my PFL brothers want me to go home, they have all told me that I deserve it. But I have no words for them, I can't find my voice for fear of breaking down. I just want out of the building with my dog at my side.

Just inside the building's door I run into my friend and teammate in PFL. My PFL brother Tobias Tubbs is just staring at me crying, in a stage of disbelief and wonder, tears of happiness are streaming down his face. My composure crumbles and I lose it, the dam breaks within me. I start crying with him, for him, he has been rescued and now he gets to live! Tears of joy mingled with tears of sadness for myself. We barely talk, just hugging while people clap for him and we cry again anew. I let go of him to make way for others to share in his elation. It is unlike anything I have ever experienced in prison. The elation is incredible but deep inside of me, I am losing it, I am so happy for my brother Tobias. I love him like the brother he is to me, just as I know he loves me, still the wave of depression is screaming and wanting to envelope me. People are trying to talk to me and I am smiling, but I just want to get away and walk with my dog. Of course, my do can feel how messed up I truly am. She is so incredibly special and amazing. As we walk she keeps touching my hand with her nose. I start to get annoyed, it's a wet nose after all; but I just sit at a table on the yard, luckily there is no yard right now so it is just us. She rest her head on my knee, sighing and I can feel the tears pouring down my face. I can't decide if they are for Tobias or for myself. She jumps up a little, putting her paws on my lap and starts to lick my face. I realize right then that it is okay. I just need to back up and not give up. I am sad, but I sit and think of two more of my PFL brothers and friends that will now be getting out. I smile and hug this incredible dog. I get up and walk it off. The boat has returned and picked up a few more, the rumors say he'll be back, just keep treading water, and try not to sink.

The days come and go and I try not to think about the future, but it's hard. I watch all the men on the yard hoping and praying for an interview; and those that get an interview begin to have an entirely new way of stressing. The only consistent rumor is that during Christmas something big would happen. Then on August 17, 2018, rumors are running through the building, and on the yard; men are being called to the program office, the Governor is commuting more people! I listen to the names of some of the people called and I know a few of them. I am doing much better this time because I have surrendered myself to fate. I have done all that I can, I have held nothing back and I did my best. I will get on a boat or I will drown, but if I do drown I will grow old and die knowing that I did everything I could to be a good person and help others. I am sitting with my friend and a different dog that has been assigned to me, just inches from where I had been sitting when Scott came in and told a few of us to submit our commutation request. Then, over the loud speaker I hear "Jack McFadden, report to the program office!"

My heart stops and the explodes in my chest, beating so fast that I could feel it pumping. I could feel the adrenalin start coursing through my body. My friend Thaisan is looking at me in wonder as men in PFL start clapping and yelling. Thaisan is smiling at me and I have an outer body experience. I can see myself getting up with a smile on my face, I can see that I am trying to stay calm. Inside I want to believe that this is happening, but I am so afraid that it is something else. I am worried that when I get to the program office that they will just hand me some PFL inventory paperwork for my PFL job or paper work for the building. I can hear myself telling the people in my building that we will see what is going on over there. I am walking in a daze to the program office. When I arrive there is a Correctional officer that I have never seen before; the yard is closed and she is looking right at me. I tell her that someone called for me and she tells me that there are a lot of different things going on at the moment. As she checks where I am supposed to be going, my heart beats faster and faster. I am trying to hold the hurricane force of emotions rampaging through my body. I am so scared that it is just something mundane, like more paper work or more PFL stuff. Then the correctional officer looks at me and tells me that I am here to see the warden. My heart soars and I know that the Captain in the boat has chosen me to rescue; I am no longer drowning, I am no longer in a sea of hopelessness and decay.

It is impossible to describe those moments to anyone who hasn't been through it. I sat out in front of the program office for about 15 minutes, crying one minute, and smiling the next; then just sitting there unable to think, I was in shock. An officer calls my name and escorts me to the captain's office were the warden is there waiting for me. Warden Asuncion looks up at me and smiles as she recognizes me from the PFL program; her smile breaks through my shock and I start crying. I was overwhelmed with so many emotions, elation, hope, happiness, giddiness, and joy. The boat was truly here and I have been rescued. I won the lottery that day and I won my life that day. A new chapter was opening up for me, it is a new beginning, a rebirth into the world that I have been kept away from for a very long time. I was not the only one, eight men had their terms commuted that day, another man from PFL, another brother and friend joined the list of LWOP survivors. I say survivors because the overwhelming guilt hit me a few days later when I calmed down. It was so unexpected and so overwhelming that I had to go to my cell, turn off the lights, in order to calm down. It truly felt like I was abandoning people that I had known and loved for years to drown while I had been rescued.

I was standing in the dayroom when I looked up and saw my friend and PFL brother, Allen Burnett come out of his cell. It hit me that he had been one of the first group of LWOPs to be interviewed. He is married to an amazing and kind woman who is fighting for his release. His daughter is incredible and loves him dearly. He has done so many things to help others and himself. He started many self-help programs, is in the PFL program, college educated, and is in the Bachelor degree program at CAL State Los Angeles. It was his hard work, and love that convinced his daughter to go to college. She is now at Cal State Los Angeles as well. He has been waiting all this time, hoping that he would get the call, hoping to be rescued. So I freaked out when I saw him. I had seen him the other day when I had received my commutation and he was smiling for me and offered his congratulations. That night I had laid on my bunk and thought about what he must be going through. I felt so guilty to be chosen when he has done so much more than I had done. I wondered why I had been chosen? Why was I so lucky? Why had I been blessed and not him? I couldn't find the answers anywhere. I was rescued while so many others have been left to drown. I equated what I was feeling to survivors guilt. I had been saved from death while others have not. It was just so hard to process it all. The conflicting emotions were messing me up inside.


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