By Dana Simas, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Former life-term offender Adrian Vasquez grew up in South Central Los Angeles in a gang-infested neighborhood. Many of his friends were gang-involved and because of that, he developed a gang-like mentality.
He managed to rise above the gang life, graduating from high school and enrolled at California State University, Long Beach, with hopes to complete a double major in Criminal Justice and Business Administration. However, he made a horrible choice and took a man’s life in the belief that he had raped Vasquez’s girlfriend. He discovered during the trial his former girlfriend lied to him to hide the truth — she was never raped. Vasquez was sentenced to serve 16 years to life at only 19 years old.
As a life-term inmate, Vasquez struggled while in prison. For the first 10 years of his sentence he involved himself in negative behavior. One day, Vasquez’s mother came to visit him as he was serving time in the Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU).
She told him she had been diagnosed with a malignant tumor. As visits in ASU are conducted behind glass, his mother begged him to change his behavior and get out so that she could have the chance to hug him again in case she were to pass away.
Vasquez began taking college courses and joined multiple self-help groups in prison. He managed to obtain two associate degrees from Coastline Community College, three vocational certificates and became a facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence Program.
On Oct. 24, 2013, he was granted a parole date after his fourth hearing and was released from prison on Feb. 25, 2014, after serving 22 years.
Vasquez was recently accepted to Cal State University, Long Beach to major in sociology with a minor in business for the fall 2016 semester. He began interning at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) from August 2014 to January 2015 and due to his dedication, his passion and his hard work, he became a full-time staff member in February 2015 as ARC’s member advocate and job developer.
Stories like Vasquez’s have become more common as society’s views toward offender rehabilitation continue to shift in a positive direction.
Since 2009, more than twice as many long-term offenders have been paroled in California than in the previous two decades combined. A 2008 state Supreme Court ruling stated that parole denials could not be based on the viciousness of a crime alone. Instead, there must also be evidence that an inmate is still a threat.
Since that ruling, parole boards have recommended release at a much higher rate than in previous years and have given hundreds of long-term inmates who have served decades behind bars a chance to reenter society. Less than 1 percent of those who have been released have reoffended.
Norma Cumpian is another long-term offender who is involved in encouraging others like her both in and out of prison. Cumpian spent most of her adult life behind bars before her release on Dec. 7, 2010. At the age of 22, fearing for her own life and the life of her unborn child, she shot and killed her abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend.
After serving 18 years of a 15-years-to-life sentence, the Parole Board recognized that Cumpian had accepted full responsibility and demonstrated genuine remorse for her crime. The Board also found that she had been a model of rehabilitation, using her time in prison to better herself and those around her. She obtained her associate’s degree, graduating as valedictorian of her class, and completed multiple vocational programs.
Both Cumpian and Vasquez recently volunteered their time to speak with former male and female life-term offenders who have been granted parole and are now free people after being incarcerated for 15, 25 or even 32 years. These brand new meetings created by CDCR’s Division of Adult Parole Operations (DAPO) are meant to help establish a connection between offenders who have spent decades behind bars and their community reentry needs. It provides a central location for resources such as housing, employment, counseling, family reunification and substance abuse treatment.
Joining these meetings are young offenders who, if they commit another crime, could be looking at 20-plus years behind prison walls. There is a clear difference between the two populations; the long-termers wear every single year of incarceration in their eyes and face. There’s a calmness in their demeanor that is absent in the youngsters.
You can tell that there is a hard history there, a history the DAPO staff are working hard for the anxious youngsters to avoid.
The DAPO staff pair the young group up with a long-termer so they can have an honest discussion with one another. One of the long-term offenders pleaded, “Stop. Change your lives or you could lose it. If you get involved in the game, you’re going to miss out on everything. Your relationships go out the door if you’re gone 18 to 20 years.”
Another long-term offender explains what’s at stake. “I lost everything. I don’t think some of these guys realize the ramifications carry more than just time. My dad died six months before I got out of prison. I just wanted to hug him one more time.”
The meetings also included speakers like Dr. Renford Reese, a professor of Political Science at Cal Poly, Pomona, and founder of the Prison Education Program and Reintegration Academy.
“In life, you get what you give. What are you going to be remembered for?” Dr. Reese asks the group.
The Reintegration Academy was founded in 2009 and has hosted five cohorts: 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015. The program brings 25-30 parolees to the Cal Poly, Pomona, campus for 10 weeks to be immersed in academic, life skills and career development courses.
On the first day of the program, each participant receives a meal card and a gift card for transportation and to purchase business casual clothes. In the fifth week, each participant receives a laptop computer to help do course work. In the sixth week, participants are registered into Mt. San Antonio College and are assisted with completing financial aid forms.
Vocational education is provided in felony-friendly fields such as aviation maintenance, graphic arts, computer technology, horticulture, electronics, welding and culinary arts. During the ninth week, the program hosts a job fair for the participants – inviting 25 local employers to meet, greet and interview participants. At the graduation banquet, each participant receives a certificate of completion. The program is currently seeking more funding to begin another cohort of participants.
Also present at the meetings were representatives from the California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR). The DOR has dedicated 1,000 job training slots specifically for former prisoners. With areas such as Antelope Valley experiencing a 75-80 percent unemployment rate among ex-offenders, the opportunities are sorely needed to keep people from reoffending. In the program’s first year, more than 200 offenders participated in job training programs such as culinary and truck-driver training.
The road to reentry is extremely difficult, particularly for long-term offenders. After being incarcerated for 20-plus years, how does someone learn to function in a fast-paced world? Norma Cumpian describes the first night she spent in the free world in her new, unfurnished apartment to the group.
“I was just so excited to have a place of my own. I didn’t have anything – not even a bed. But I loved it, I rolled all over that floor because it was mine,” she said.
The female parolees have many special circumstances and obstacles to overcome, especially since many have children. More than three quarters of the participants at the day’s meeting have children; some had them as young as 15 years old.
Finding transitional housing is paramount because many find themselves without much support, disproportionately less support than most male offenders. Many have burned familial bridges and many were brought into the criminal lifestyle because of the men they chose in their lives. Finding new, healthy relationships can be difficult.
“Choosing healthy relationships and changing the way in which we love ourselves is so important,” Cumpian said to the group. “When we’re incarcerated, we feel ‘less than,’ so when we get out and a man says ‘you’re pretty’ we don’t automatically jump in feet first. We need to be smart and strong in ourselves.”
DAPO staff such as Parole Agent III Francine Mitchell are clearly invested in helping these offenders stay free. DAPO has created specialized caseloads for parole agents so they may focus on the exact needs of their unique population. The consistency of having one specific parole agent is something the parolees are saying has largely helped them stay on the straight and narrow. A similar program has been a success in San Francisco and DAPO hopes to expand the long-term offender parolee group meetings to other areas across the state.