Ritualizing the return: Former lifers welcome home the newly released

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September’s Welcome Home Ceremony. Photo credit: Louis Pham.

When a lifer steps out of prison after so many years, often decades, they are smacked with an onslaught of smells, sights, and unfamiliar sensations. “I remember walking uphill for the first time since I went in,” says Louis Pham, who spent 24 years in prison and got out four months ago. “All prison yards are flat, so that feeling of walking uphill was like, whoa.” 

For many former lifers, it’s significant to see trees again or people strolling down a sidewalk, or feeling the sensation of riding in a vehicle going over 70 miles per hour. State buses never went that fast. 

Reentering society after decades of incarceration is humbling, says Johnathan Barber, who got out in September after serving 16 years for a fatal DUI collision. 

He’s one of the attendees at a recent Welcome Home Ceremony, which is  hosted by Francisco Homes, and serves to recognize and welcome former lifers back into the community. 

The event takes place the last Wednesday of every month. A crowd of people, mostly other former lifers, gather in a large room off Normandie Ave. just south of the Coliseum. The atmosphere in the room is subdued at first.  First-comers arrive around 4:45 PM and arrange shiny metal chairs in a large oblong circle. By 5 PM, the room is buzzing with people anticipating the beginning of the ceremony. 

Barber sits in the circle alongside five other former lifers. They’re being welcomed home. He is calm outwardly, his palms resting face-down on his lap. On the inside, he has mixed feelings about being the center of attention tonight, knowing full well “what was lost for me to get here.” 

With this in mind, the Welcome Home Ceremony is deliberately ritualistic, not necessarily celebratory, offering each returning citizen a first memory of freedom and a moment to reflect on how far they’ve come in their journey home.

Serving a life sentence means you do not have a set release date. A life sentence is indeterminate. One must go before California’s parole board and earn their freedom by showing their sincere transformation and remorse. 

Up until this past decade, most lifers never thought they’d be going home. The understanding was that a life sentence meant spending the rest of your life in prison, period. 

But that changed thanks to former governor Jerry Brown setting a record  number of commutations and pardons, along with the Supreme Court mandating California to reduce its prison population, and activists pushing through a wave of criminal justice reforms. 

This change may have been a long time coming, but for many people behind bars, it felt like an overnight shift. Suddenly, nearly 35,000 people serving life sentences across the state started to see their peers going before the parole board and being found suitable for release. For many, a light at the end of the tunnel appeared. 

Back at the Welcome Home Ceremony, Program Manager David Smith, a former lifer himself, reads the names of each lifer being welcomed into the community. The room applauds and someone in the circle beats a drum, adding to the intentionally tribal sentiment of the evening. Afterwards, the men stand up, and in quivering words, they express what freedom means to them.  

Many people get out of prison without family support. They must start over on their own and ask for help along the way. But for a handful of lucky individuals, Francisco Homes becomes their instant family, and that is most evident at the monthly Welcome Home Ceremonies.

Credits

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Jenna Kagel

Reporter:
Lucy Copp