Incarceration nation: What it's really like when a prison lifer gets a new shot at life

Ricardo Sapienza's hardest challenge began the day the parole board finally said “yes"

Published December 4, 2016 10:59AM (EST)

 (Photos by Isadora Kosofsky)
(Photos by Isadora Kosofsky)

This article originally appeared on Narratively.

Narratively On the breezy patio of an upscale Brazilian steakhouse overlooking Redondo Beach, Ricardo Sapienza celebrates his 46th birthday with thirty close friends and family members. Presents pile up, balloons float in the air, meat is carved from rotisserie skewers and later, feather-headed Samba dancers will shimmy through. Forty-six is not a milestone for most, but this is the first time in 25 years Sapienza is celebrating his birthday as a free man. For a quarter century he was inmate #H28469. Convicted of second-degree murder and attempted murder at the age of twenty in 1991, he was paroled on April 8, 2016. Tonight he also celebrates his last weekend in a six-month court-ordered transitional housing program.

More from Narratively: Fidel Castro Is Dead. What Will Cuban-Americans Like Me Do Now?"

He’s wearing a light blue suit that was given to him by a cousin, like most of the other clothing he owns. It hangs from his compact frame as he makes his way through the crowd, greeting friends, some for the first time since his release, with a mustachioed smile. They fist-bump and hug one another. He makes sure his mother has a seat of honor at the head of table. She touches his face, saying how handsome he looks, adding, “some people have told me you look like a detective.” He moves with a soft-spoken confidence, without the puffed-up exterior of some who have done hard time. “This is the second time in my life I’ve ever worn a suit,” he laughs. “The first time was when I took my girlfriend to her junior prom.” That was when he was eighteen, a year after he joined a gang and dropped out of high school — a year before his life would drastically change.

More from Narratively: My Father's Dying Days Showed Me There's No Such Thing as 'Death with Dignity'"

Sapienza grew up in the Gateway Cities area of Los Angeles, a kid who was into drawing and sports. His dad returned from the Vietnam War with a drug problem and left his mom with three kids when Sapienza was thirteen. That’s about the time he got into graffiti, running the streets with his crew while his mother made ends meet as a bank teller and check cashier. His family bounced around from place to place, even living in a motel at one point, using the nearby public telephone as their own.

More from Narratively: My High School Girlfriend Became America's Most Wanted Drug Queenpin"

By 19, Sapienza was a member of a gang in Bell Gardens, a largely Latino city in southeast Los Angeles County. He had already fathered two children, been arrested once on a domestic violence charge and survived two bullets to the head from a rival gang, leaving him deaf in his left ear. On August 16, 1991, he and his fellow gang members rolled up to a public park in San Pedro in five cars, looking to settle beef with one gang when they accidentally ran into another. Words and bullets flew, and at the end of it all one 16-year-old lay dead and another, an 18-year-old, was injured.

Ricardo Sapienza celebrates his 46th birthday with family and friends.

“When shots were fired, everyone scattered — that’s gang mentality; you do your thing and then you leave,” says Sapienza, who was picked up and questioned by the LAPD’s gang unit the next day. He says he understands now why they assumed he was the shooter. A gun was never found and nine eyewitnesses put him at the scene of the crime. He lied at first, saying he wasn’t there, but he “wasn’t a very good liar.” He says two other gang members saw who did the shooting, but when they went to trial they decided they didn’t want to be snitches. Sapienza lived by the code of the streets, too. It’s what drove him to serve time for crimes he maintains he didn’t commit. (The court records for his case were sealed by a judge in Long Beach, but parole board hearing transcripts state Sapienza was “shooting into a crowded area,” which he denies.)

He says his first mistake wasn’t that he didn’t leave the scene of the crime soon enough that day, it’s that he was there in the first place. “Even though I didn’t actually do the shooting, I had to ask, ‘Am I innocent?’ I didn’t pull the trigger but I was there. Our intentions weren’t to have a picnic that day. It wasn’t planned to murder someone, but we were ready to retaliate if something happened.” He says he wrote to the Innocence Project once but withdrew his request once they asked him for names of the guilty to help with his exoneration. “Because of my dedication to the neighborhood, I got convicted and had to live with that. It’s crazy because now I look at it with a bigger perspective and can’t believe I was willing to spend the rest of my life in prison before saying anything.”

It was a long road to this epiphany. Sapienza was sentenced to 25 years to life. His gang promised to “have his back” on the inside. He says they sent him $15 — once. Sapienza tried to go the other way. He steered clear of prison gangs, kept his body tattoo-free, became a Christian, attended AA meetings and discovered Criminal and Gang Members Anonymous (CGA) meetings, all of which helped him clean up what he calls “polluted thinking.”

In 2010, he went before a parole board and told them he was living a clean and sober life. His hearing transcripts showed only three write-ups for rules violations, all minor infractions made within his first few years of incarceration. Someone on the board asked him about the 12-step meetings and which step he liked the most. Sapienza was stunned. He couldn’t recall a single one. “I was such an idiot and told them I didn’t know any steps but at the next hearing I would. I realized I had just been going to meetings for the certificates and not utilizing the program,” he says. He was denied parole and told he could try again in five years. “I realized I had more work to do.”

Sapienza spent the next five years trying to better himself with trade courses and more self-help groups. He also credits in-prison visits from the Victims’ Awareness Program — a nonprofit educational program designed to teach offenders about the impact of their crimes by having victims and victims’ families share their stories. “These are people from the streets who themselves or someone in their family were victims of violent crime. They didn’t have to do this — they hate us — but those people said, ‘I’m going to put away my feelings and I’m going to come to prison and share my story and see who I can help.’ It’s really emotional to see.”

A letter written by Sapienza's friend which contains a plea for his release from the parole board.

Not long after the parole denial, he learned his estranged father had died of a heroin overdose. On Nov. 4, 2015, he faced the parole board again. He told them about his childhood, about his absentee father and “getting love from the streets.” He admitted gang life was a choice. He used the full names of the boy who was killed and the one who was injured and showed empathy for their families.

“I have to accept that I was convicted and no matter what, the victim’s family will forever know my name as the one who murdered their son,” he says now. “That’s hard to swallow. They’ll always think that, so I have to accept that.”

He was nervous when the board took a 40-minute break. “I was praying, thinking there was a lot of stuff I should have brought up that I missed,” he says. He knew there was no formula for earning parole and that prisoners have no guarantees in the process; most state law books explicitly call parole “an act of grace” and not a right.

When the two parole board members and the Commissioner came back to the room, they announced they had unanimously found him suitable for parole. Sapienza remained there in his orange jumpsuit trying to sit up straight. “I wanted to say ‘Did I hear right?’ I kind of looked at my public defendant and I think he smiled and blinked his eye. I was truly amazed.”

Then they gave him a speech. They reviewed his crime, “actions deemed deplorable and vicious,” but noted he had taken full responsibility for them. “You were young, you were dumb, full of machismo when you committed this offense at the age of 20.” They complimented him on his presentation as a “calm individual with reasoned thoughts and mature disposition.” The board noted his upgraded education — a GED and vocational courses in upholstery, silk screening and computer literacy. They stressed that he understood the difference between “just being sober and being in recovery,” and that he had a relapse-prevention plan in place.

At the end of it all, the Presiding Commissioner said, “Good luck to you, sir. The officer will have your paperwork. And we hope not to see you ever here again.”

Sapienza answered,  “Amen. Thank you very much.”

Once a prisoner is found suitable for parole, the state offers a release date 150 days from that date. This is when transcripts are reviewed, the governor can intervene or a victim’s family can object. “In my case, they didn’t show up but they had the right,” he says.

He was bussed back to the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo on what he remembers as a beautiful day. “I got out and was walking and it was like a dream, I was wondering, ‘Is this real?’” he says. The few men he knew in the yard gave him ‘thumbs ups’ with questioning looks on their faces. He nodded and they all smiled. He took a moment to walk around the track, just taking it all in, then went inside to call his mother, telling her, “I’ll be going home soon.” The next call was to his former prom date, the one who had remained a supportive friend, sending letters over the years.

In prison, Sapienza connected with a transitional housing program. He signed a contract, agreeing to live in their facilities and participate in their services for six months once released. They picked him and one other parolee up on parole day.

“The first humbling moment I had was when I was leaving the prison and some guys I knew were cheering me on, wishing me luck. Some will be there forever, but they still were happy for me,” he says, choking back tears. “But some were just happy to get my stuff. I gave away almost all of my CDs,” he jokes. “They’re like $30 in there!”

When the driver of the van asked the two men where they wanted to go for breakfast, Sapienza says he was struck by the fact that, for the first time in many years, he had a choice. He didn’t exactly know what their options were, but remembered he had liked one fast food chain when he was young. “Carl’s Junior?” he asked. They found one on the highway heading south to Los Angeles, and he enjoyed his first breakfast sandwich in many years.

After 24 hours in one housing facility he landed at Amity, a nonprofit recovery program that helps the homeless and formerly incarcerated rebuild their lives using the “therapeutic community model.” California has adopted laws over the last decade to reduce its overcrowded prison population by more than thirty thousand, meaning programs like Amity’s are at capacity these days. Those released include many older prisoners.

“Part of it is that when the economy got bad, we cut $450 million dollars out of the corrections budget,” says Matthew Cate, former secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Offenders over age 45 are the most expensive to keep — they’re the least dangerous, least likely to reoffend, and most expensive due to health problems because prison is not a place to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”

Sapienza lived in a dorm-style apartment with two “thankfully cool” roommates. He slept on a top bunk near a shared desk full of letters and paperwork. He could stroll the pleasant courtyard sprawled between the housing building and dining hall. He ate chef-cooked meals made from organic ingredients grown in their on-site aquaponic gardens. Still, it was a sea of testosterone where some men sat alone with their thoughts and others shared their latest accomplishments.

While Sapienza lifted weights in the outdoor gym area in his spare time, he faced a barbed-wire fence against a brick wall.

Ricardo sits in his room that he shares with two other formerly incarcerated men.

The new environment sometimes got to him, like the day he learned a fellow resident was caught with pruno — prison wine made from fermented fruit. “This is sober living,” he scoffs, shaking his head. “That is just prison mentality.” It was not quite independence, but it beat prison. “I like that black, white, and everyone can congregate.”

“Guys like Ricardo had to do a lot of work to get out of prison, so having the ability to reach end goals is important to a lot of things,” says Mark Faucette, the Community Relations director for Amity. While the campus has its rules — a curfew, onsite parole officers, and mandatory drug testing — “students” are free to come and go on weekends.

On his first weekend out, Sapienza’s family held a homecoming party for him at his aunt’s house in South Los Angeles. His two daughters — ages 29 and 27 — and three grandchildren greeted him along with a house full of cousins, nieces and nephews. They brought him sneakers and brightly-colored athletic wear as gifts.

Sapienza was anxious to start job hunting right away but first had to abide by the rehab’s thirty-day “threshold” period of adjustment. “I had to take self-help classes. They taught us healthy eating and singing for confidence, stuff like that, which I guess is good, but I wanted a job.” Eventually a non-profit called Friends Outside assisted him with creating a resume, and Amity helped him secure a ninety-day contract job with the California Department of Transportation, picking up trash from the sides of roads. He was excited about that first paycheck. “It was $400. It’s the most legal money I ever made in my life and I don’t mean to boast but I felt proud of that. I was able to give my niece $100 for her birthday. That felt good,” he shares. “It’s a blessing to work.”

A fellow parolee referred him to ManifestWorks, a workforce program geared toward helping the formerly incarcerated and those aging out of foster care to learn life skills and work in the entertainment industry. Now he spends his Saturdays learning how to be a production assistant on actual working sets. It’s an internship with strict guidelines — “not a handout,” Faucette stresses. Interns can be fired for tardiness and the agreement is to work for free for twelve weeks, knowing paying jobs could be offered during or after the training period. “Even in expensive film school you don’t have access to talk to some of these people,” says Faucette. “They expose them to opportunities for PA work, camera jobs; some have landed union jobs,” he adds.

Sapienza completed his program with Amity on October 8 — his birthday. He has since moved into an aunt’s townhouse in the city of South Gate, where he’s sleeping on a couch while she has an extra bedroom built to accommodate him. His contract job has ended but he’s picking up hours as a paid production assistant, learning the ropes of the film industry. “I can’t believe so many hours go into making a two-minute commercial,” he says. Even though getting around LA and making early call-times by bus has been a challenge, he’s glad to have the work. “I carry a radio. I keep people off the set. I do what’s asked of me. I’m learning the lingo. It makes me feel important,” he says.

A photo of Sapienza and his two daughters is displayed on his phone.

Between work and mandatory anger management classes, he spends time with family and Gabby Esquivel — the girlfriend he once took to prom as a teen. “He smiles more now,” she says, comparing his behavior to when he was first released. “He was always social growing up. But when he first came back, it was like he was afraid to laugh.” They are officially back together and he credits her with teaching him how to use emojis and the calendar on his phone and “all of these technology things” he missed out on.

He admits his relationship with his youngest daughter is “in progress.”

“My younger went through a lot with me not being there for her and her sister and their mother … I have to be patient. She has every right. She has to get to know me.”

Sapienza outside of Amity Foundation.

The conditions of Sapienza’s parole mandate he see a parole officer twice a month, with the possibility of less supervision over the years, depending on his behavior. He is also forbidden to travel out of state, and as a parolee, isn’t allowed to vote. None of this seems to bother him. He says in five years he sees himself with steady work, married (“because I’ve never had that experience”), owning a car and living in his own home. “If grace stays upon me, I can do it,” he says.

On a Monday in November, he and Gabby sit side-by-side in a diner booth, having lunch. He sports a blue Nike tee and a five o’clock shadow on this day off between production shoot. He recently passed the written test for his driver’s license and has been practicing with Gabby. When she jokes that his skills are “getting better,” he rests his head on her shoulder, saying he’ll be ready to go for the driving test in a few weeks. Next weekend he’ll take his grandchildren out for the day alone for the first time. He’s also happy about being able to buy his mother a turkey for Thanksgiving. Above all, he seems grateful for this second chance. “A lot of lifers give up on the inside when they lose friends and family over the years. I’m lucky. Whenever I get a little impatient or agitated I just think about where I was at and I never ever want to go back there.”

By Shawna Kenney

MORE FROM Shawna Kenney

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Addiction Alcoholism Narratively Prison