CDCR employee overcomes drug past to receive pardon from Governor

David Earl White sits in his office at San Quentin. White, a Recreation Therapist with CDCR, received a pardon from the Governor for drug convictions in the 1980s.

David Earl White sits in his office at San Quentin. White, a Recreation Therapist with CDCR, received a pardon from the Governor for drug convictions in the 1980s.

Marine veteran, football star turned life around after drug convictions

By Don Chaddock, InsideCDCR editor
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer

In the early 1970s, poverty-stricken Compton’s murder rate was second only to Los Angeles. A young black man named David Earl White knew this all too well – it was his home.

“In Compton, people were dying and they didn’t even get an obituary in the newspaper,” he said recently from within the walls of San Quentin State Prison. “I was putting my life on the line on the streets of Compton. I figured if I went to Vietnam, and instead put my life on the line for my country, if I died, at least my family would get $20,000 and I would get a flag on my casket.”

White served as a U.S. Marines in Vietnam from 1973-1975. After his release, he went to college but found himself immersed in the drug culture. In the mid-1980s, he was twice convicted of felony narcotics charges.

“Sitting in the county jail, I knew this wasn’t where I wanted my life to go,” he said. So he decided to do something about it.

White isn’t an inmate at the state’s oldest penitentiary – he’s an employee. And on Christmas Eve, 2014, Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. issued White a full and unconditional pardon for those drug offenses committed decades before.

White’s story is one he hopes can help others struggling on the streets.

Turning to drugs for money

“I was raised on welfare without a father,” he said. “I was raised with the rats and the roaches.”

He said his single mother did the best she could for him and his siblings, but there wasn’t enough food.

He sold items door-to-door to help with money, but he was getting 30 cents on the dollar. Then he was introduced to drugs.

“I was intrigued by the fact if I sold weed, I didn’t have to share the profits,” he said. “I’ve always been an athlete, even back in the Pop Warner days. So I had one foot on the field and one foot in the drug culture. … It was a struggle growing up there.”

He went from the streets of Compton to the dangers of war, but he said it gave him some stability.

“I saw my life spiraling into the wrong direction,” he said of his early years in Compton. “When I joined the military, it was the first time I got three meals a day.”

Leading a double life

He returned home as a war-time veteran and played football at Compton Community College, but kept his hand in the drug culture.

“I broke a record at Compton CC for interception returns,” he recalled.

Film from the play made its way into the hands of the coach from San Francisco State University.

“When I almost lost my life in the violence in Compton, I thought the best thing was to get to San Francisco,” he said.

But college, particularly a university, was an academic challenge for someone who hadn’t excelled in his studies. He spent the first few years taking easier courses and continuing to pour his heart into the game. When he could no longer skate by on easy classes, he found himself on academic probation.

“I learned to read and write in college,” he said. “I had to take certain courses to graduate and I failed them all. I was on probation for three years and it took me almost six years to graduate.”

One of his early life lessons of success was simply perseverance.

“That was key – staying in school and finishing,” he said. He credits his coach with believing in him and pushing him to do better.

Despite all this, drugs still played a big role.

“Dealing drugs was still a part of my life, especially in the 1980s,” he recalled.

Finally, his double life caught up with him. White said one of his first times getting busted was for possessing drug paraphernalia. Later, it was for dealing drugs.

“When I spent time in the county jail and the work furlough program, I knew that wasn’t the place to be,” he said.

On the road to recovery

White earned a living driving tractor trailers and used the money to attend seminary school.

“To not sell drugs, I was willing to work driving trucks,” he said.

He ended up earning a master’s degree in biblical studies.

Later, he started coaching high school sports, which then led him to coaching some college teams.

“I worked with the athletes to help keep them on track and developed a program to monitor them on a weekly basis,” he said.

It was his way of trying to prevent others from going down a dead-end path.

He started working with others in drug and alcohol treatment programs, but as a convicted felon, he always had to strive to prove himself even more.

“I always said, ‘If you hire me, I’ll be here every day,’” he recalled. “The felony situation is always there.”

Where he is today

White is currently a Recreation Therapist with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, working with inmates at San Quentin. He’s worked for the department for six years.

“The pivotal part was staying in school and struggling, and learning from it,” he said.

He runs the Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the prison. He also connects inmates with opportunities for self-improvement.

“(Most) of the people are in here because of choices they made on mind-altering drugs,” he said. “They think they are strong enough to deal with their addictions, and they’re not.”

David Earl White discusses his future and what he does to help inmates learn from their mistakes.

David Earl White discusses his future and what he does to help inmates learn from their mistakes.

For many inmates, landing at San Quentin is the first time they’ve truly had to face their addictions and the consequences of their actions, according to White.

“Mind-altering, mood-changing drugs are devastating to personal growth,” he said. “They’ve been on these drugs for years before coming here and now they have time to look at that. They have lots of time to look at that more closely.”

Currently he connects them with education resources to help them learn to read and write, as well as learn job skills, such a driving forklifts or trucks, or deal with issues such as anger management.

“A lot of guys coming into prison have a second- to fourth-grade education level,” White said. “I tell the inmates to take full advantage of time while doing time.”

He said many think of themselves as victims of their circumstances but White’s personal story of struggle and drugs allows him to connect with the inmates.

“We tell people to stop looking outside yourself and look inside you,” he said.

What does the future hold?

On a personal level, White is back in school as well.

“To keep this job, I had to go back to take eight courses,” he said. “I made the honor roll for the first time in my life. It’s great being sober. … I’m in school now to get my certification as a counselor for alcohol and drugs.”

He’d also like to do more to help inmates with their transition back into society.

“Re-entry is crucial to me,” he said. “I have a passion for that.”

He said the pardon from the Governor helps validate the path his life has taken and what he’s doing to help others.

“It solidifies the opportunity given to me,” White said. “All these people in my life were a part of giving me the opportunities. They had faith in me.”

He said while he’s turning 60 years old, he knows there is much more in store for him.

“It’s a miracle for me to be here,” he said. “But, I would like to further my career and do more.”


41 Responses

  1. Barbara Tuesday, November 8, 2016 / 11:00 am

    I am so proud of you Mr. White, once a Marine always a Marine. YOU survived Vietnam, Compton and drugs. You are a winner and I am very happy you can work with the inmates, because you have been there and it helps them to know we can turn our lives around.

    Much continued success.

  2. Joyce Reed Tuesday, November 8, 2016 / 10:06 am

    Those who have been there are wonderful role models for those who may feel they have no hope. Great job.

    • Denise Dube' Tuesday, November 8, 2016 / 10:22 am

      You are a great inspiration to all. Best of luck in your studies and God bless you!

  3. Earnest Hall Jr Thursday, December 24, 2015 / 3:57 pm

    David is truly a remarkable guy. I grew up with David and the road he took was very difficult. He strives to be better than the other guy. He`s reaching for the stars, laying the foundation for those who follow his lead. The journey continues…………..

  4. L.A. Rodriguez Thursday, March 5, 2015 / 9:10 am

    I can relate to your hardship. You are my hero. You are a proven fact to the world there are not limits as to becoming a better person. Even though circumstances get in the way, you can overcome them, excel and be happy.

  5. greling.jackson Tuesday, March 3, 2015 / 1:14 am

    Congratulations, Mr. White, on your Governor’s pardon. I also have accomplished this very same, life-long task, after 25 years. Yes, its a miracle. I thought nobody cared, except me. I thought I was the only one, willing to go that extra mile, to keep on moving’ against all the odds fighting an up hill battle to survive and overcome life’s pitfalls and setbacks. Good luck in your dreams for your future. May the light of the almighty continue to shine upon you.

  6. c.powers Friday, February 27, 2015 / 8:34 am

    A very touching story to tell, Mr. White. We thank you for your service to our country. A true hero to our world, we commend you for all you do. May God continue to bless you.

  7. Melany.Heaslip-Thomas Thursday, February 26, 2015 / 12:16 pm

    Once a Marine, always a Marine. Mr. White, thank you for your service and the service you continue to give. You improvised, adapted and overcame. What a wonderful story of perseverance and pride in oneself.

  8. C. James Wednesday, February 25, 2015 / 9:32 am

    Hello, Mr. White. This is “pay-it-forward” in its most perfect form. Although the previous responses have expressed every emotion one would feel after reading about your journey, I must still go on the record and say in a unique fashion you managed to reach beyond yourself and plant many life-affirming seeds of existence. And witnessing this very thing is what motivates me to continue to break through any boundaries placed around me — whether self-imposed or imposed from afar. I’m further motivated to “pay-it-forward” by encouraging others to continue to break through, as well. God bless you and yours, David!

  9. Mar Wednesday, February 25, 2015 / 2:32 am

    Congrats, Mr. White. My hat is off to those who saw your light. They enabled you to shine on your own playing field. The Lord has shown you the way. Continue to feed others with your knowledge. Hopefully others will emulate you.

  10. Docrays Tuesday, February 24, 2015 / 2:44 pm

    Mr. White, I hope we meet one day while trudging the path of happy destiny. Once a wretch, now saved and welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

  11. EW Monday, February 23, 2015 / 6:24 pm

    Mr. White, through God, all things are possible. When you trust in God and believe in yourself, all doors will open. This is about accomplishments and blessings. Continue to strive and open the mind and heart of those incarcerated. Job well done!

  12. Ardis Monday, February 23, 2015 / 2:24 pm

    You are a hero, Mr. White.

  13. D. Bell Monday, February 23, 2015 / 10:54 am

    Congratulations, Mr. White! You’ve overcome and accomplished many great feats in only 60 years of living. I’m glad you shared your story with everyone. It’s truly a blessing to have you here at SQ doing the work you do and having the passion to help the inmates here who may have similar backgrounds or stories. You’re helping them also find peace within themselves by looking inside themselves and making a commitment to a positive change for good. Great work.

  14. Debby Monday, February 23, 2015 / 10:42 am

    Absolutely love stories like these. Thanks for giving back as you do to so many who need your help and inspiration!

  15. Susan Monday, February 23, 2015 / 10:40 am

    We desperately need to hear stories like this. Many of my DJJ students feel hopeless, like no one ever does good after being in a CDCR institution. If you know of other stories like this, please make them known. Thank you.

  16. Don Brown Monday, February 23, 2015 / 7:57 am

    Wish we had more like you, Mr. White. God bless you.

  17. Mark Monday, February 23, 2015 / 7:12 am

    This is what pardons are for. Good work.

  18. Carla Sunday, February 22, 2015 / 6:29 pm

    Mr. White, you are an inspiration to humanity! It’s such a pleasure to hear your story and, more importantly, it’s so powerful for those you serve. Your struggles, perseverance and courage have blessed not only the inmates at San Quentin, but all those you encounter on a daily basis. San Francisco, San Quentin and Compton are better places because of your spirit.

  19. l. sanchez Sunday, February 22, 2015 / 10:43 am

    Day by day is the only way to survive this incredible journey called life. Always keep the faith, Mr. White.

  20. Lt. M. D. Williams, CCWF Saturday, February 21, 2015 / 6:43 pm

    Victorious! What an amazing story of triumph and why it is so important to see every individual as a miracle waiting to happen. I am proud of your many accomplishments and blessings. Way to work hard. You are an inspiration to all. Continue to shine your light. God bless.

  21. David Friday, February 20, 2015 / 6:21 pm

    I can relate to your story, David. It is good to hear that someone else has turned their life around with help from God.

  22. Munshi Friday, February 20, 2015 / 3:52 pm

    Seeing this article made me happy, Mr. White. I look forward to seeing you at the conference next Friday! Go RTs. Wish you all the best.

  23. Denelda Footman Friday, February 20, 2015 / 3:08 pm

    Mr. White, every day I saw you walking the halls of San Quentin were an inspiration.
    We are all blessed to have crossed your path.

  24. Nancy Tokar Friday, February 20, 2015 / 2:11 pm

    I honor the testimony of your life! There is much to learn from you.

  25. KD Friday, February 20, 2015 / 1:25 pm

    Well done, Mr. White. I will share your story with my son, who is also having drug issues. You are an inspiration. I might need your help, too.

  26. Donna Friday, February 20, 2015 / 12:52 pm

    So glad I read this heartwarming and encouraging article. Mr. White, you make the world a better place. Thank you for sharing your story.

  27. Steve Albritton Friday, February 20, 2015 / 10:14 am

    Mr. White you are an outstanding and inspirational model of redemption and what a person can do with dedication and the will to overcome humble beings.
    You have come to the right place – San Quentin – with its rehabilitative fertile grounds. The men here, in various stages of changing their lives, can really benefit from your example.

  28. Bertha Perez Friday, February 20, 2015 / 10:09 am

    Well done, Mr. White! I will share your story with the class I instruct knowing you will have motivated and inspired them to remain in education and never give up on their dream.

  29. Amy Kohl Friday, February 20, 2015 / 9:52 am

    Mr. White, you are an inspiration! I plan to share your story with some of the parolees.
    Amy Kohl, LCSW at Compton POC

  30. Chaplain Abdul Johnson Friday, February 20, 2015 / 9:41 am

    Way to come full-circle. Continue to strive! There is no limit to your success.

  31. Sandra Cardoza Friday, February 20, 2015 / 9:39 am

    Mr. White, you are a living example of overcoming trials, growing in faith and of service to others. Many blessings to you.

    • Frank.Walker Saturday, February 21, 2015 / 7:28 pm

      Mr. White, you are an inspiration. Keep up the good work. Many blessings to you.

  32. Joey Friday, February 20, 2015 / 9:37 am

    You are a testimony that everyone deserves to be given a second, a third, fourth and many more chances in life because we all have a God-given gifts to share with the world when the right time comes. Congratulations on your success despite earlier hardships. You are better positioned to mentor, coach and encourage these guys to keep hope alive.

  33. Estela Acosta Friday, February 20, 2015 / 9:34 am

    Mr. White is living proof that there is “light” at the end of the tunnel in spite of the overwhelming darkness, collapsing tracks and constant debris of life’s hurdles. Inspirational story of hope for so many!

  34. Ti Neff Friday, February 20, 2015 / 9:31 am

    Great job paying it forward! Thanks for sharing your story. The world is a better place because of people like you.

  35. Rebecca Spencer Friday, February 20, 2015 / 9:08 am

    Well done, Mr. White.

  36. Kerry Friday, February 20, 2015 / 8:53 am

    Most inspirational. What a positive resolution!

  37. P.Lewis Friday, February 20, 2015 / 8:39 am

    Incredible story. More of our young men need to hear this. God bless you, man!

  38. Linda Hagen Friday, February 20, 2015 / 8:38 am

    What a wonderful, heart-warming story. I commend Mr. White for all the help he is giving to others.

  39. Latrece Friday, February 20, 2015 / 8:36 am

    What a great way of paying it forward. Continue to empower those who have no faith!

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