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If freedom is a road, it is paved with the stories of these men. It is a road that I walk on and hope to be a part of someday. That road is the path from prison to being granted parole.

Before we went on quarantine, a lifer in my unit (a person sentenced to life in prison) was granted parole. While still in quarantine, he awaits his final release approval from the governor. I asked him and others who were being paroled if they would be willing to be interviewed. Anthony “Hardtime” Wilburn agreed.

This is the first in a series highlighting the stories of those on Freedom Road and to understand the fears and hopes of lifers and those without a release date. It should be noted that well over a million dollars was spent to incarcerate Anthony for 25 years. According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state spends an average of $106,000 per year on each one of its prisoners. Anthony’s crime was robbery. 

Q: What was your sentence and what year did you come into prison?

Anthony: My sentence was 28 years to life and I came into prison in 1997.

Q: How much time have you served?

Anthony: I’ve served 25 years and 5 months.

Q: Were there moments when you thought you’d never get out of prison, and how did you cope with those moments?

Anthony: Yes, there were times when I thought I’d never get out. I just held on and stayed strong. I remember telling my mother that I never gave up when I was playing football, running that ball trying to score a touchdown, so why should I give up on life and freedom now? 

I have a son who was 6 years old when I came into prison. He is now 31. He is still my responsibility and it is my job to make sure he doesn’t end up making the same mistakes I did. 

I want to let him know to come to me for anything because I’ve got his back. I have been there and done that, so I can show and tell him there is a right way and a better way of doing things.

Q: We have a lot of men here who still have no release date. Do you have any encouraging words or advice for them?

Anthony: To the brothers that have not got a release date: No matter what race you are, we are all brothers. You have to be strong and change your lifestyle and be honest and real with yourself and others. 

Take full responsibility for your actions and stop blaming others. We have victimized others. It is time for us to stand up and create a positive example for others to follow. That way people will not get hurt. 

You must start by being 100% real and honest with the prison board. Give them what they want and they will give you what you want. You alone have the key to your freedom. 

Praying has been a very big part of my life, and after two-and-a-half decades my prayers have been answered. Don’t give up without a fight for your life, and fight in a positive way.

Q: What was the hardest part of serving a life sentence for you, and what do you look forward to the most for when you get out?

Anthony: The hardest part for me was missing my mother, my son, my twin sister and the rest of my family. It has been hard worrying about them and knowing that I let them down. 

It was also hard not knowing if I was ever going to come home. Sadly, some of my family members have passed away, and I couldn’t be there to comfort them. That still hurts. Not being there for my son and not being able to see him grow up has been very difficult. 

I look forward to being a better person than I was when I got arrested. I’m hoping to spend lots of time with my mother, my son, my granddaughter and the rest of my family. I just want to keep appreciating life. I’d like to talk to the younger brothers and sisters of all races and share my experiences — the good and the bad — to help them learn the right path in life.

Q: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview while you are still here with us in prison. You and others are paving the way for people like me, who have no release date. 

Anthony: Thank you for the questions, Milo. It helped me to open up and share a part of me with others.

Q:  What would you say to the younger versions of you out there who may be struggling?

Anthony: Life is what you make of it. To be successful, listen to your parents and pay attention in school, because a good education is important. Nothing is free in life and if it is, it usually comes with a prison cell. But you are better than that. 

If you are having a hard life, you have the power to make it better by believing in yourself and working hard towards your dreams. There are plenty of legal products to flip and make money. By choosing legal choices, you will stay on the path to a successful life. The minute you choose an illegal path, you are headed for jail. 

Twenty-five years ago I came into prison, and now I’m about to go home. During that entire time I was in prison, not one of my so-called homies sent me anything — no packages, no money for food, nothing. The only people that were there for me were my family. They are the ones who will be there in the end when all your homies have forgotten you. 

It is never too late to change, but you have to make that change now because tomorrow may be too late. Think about your mother and loved ones that you don’t want anyone else to hurt. When we do bad things, we stress our mothers out and make them cry because they love you. 

I don’t even know you, but I love you. I love you because I see myself in some of you young men. You can lead the way for other young men to become positive and productive citizens. You can open that door. You can do it! 

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jessie Milo is a writer, artist and poet incarcerated in California. He is a volunteer for and an advocate for mental health.