A circle of men put their hands in the middle of the circle to show support and unity.
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This article was first published by Mule Creek Post, a newspaper at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

Convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances, lifers, or those with life without parole (LWOPs), entered the penalty phase of their trials when a jury determined that their lives were worth living — albeit while locked away behind prison walls with little hope of ever getting out.

Yet, like a tiny seed of self-worth planted in the hot desert soil of prison life, LWOPs’ hopes take root by digging deep within and embracing change. 

Vern Barker, 23 years into his life sentence, made a crucial adjustment when he began to attend self-awareness groups.

“I saw my first holding cell when I was 10,” said Barker. “Young and misguided, my influences were not positive. I was looking to get what I wanted, no matter the cost. As I got older, the rolls of money got bigger. But thanks to the self-help groups and the awesome people who sponsor them, I got me back. I’m more humble and have come to the realization I don’t want to hurt people anymore.”

Barker’s list of groups include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous , Lifers Support Group and the American Bible Academy, among others. His disciplinary history speaks to the success of these groups — not a single write-up since 2007. 

“I’m most proud of this fact because I really want to better myself,” said Barker. “I think the most rewarding experience [has been] the Amends Project. … My amends letter to [the victim of my crime] John Simpson, his family and his students was certified and processed through the correct channels.”

Barker is doing more than attending groups; he’s rebuilding life around them and reaping the rewards of rehabilitation. 

“I want to lead by example so that maybe the next person who isn’t on the right track can follow my lead,” he said. 

Barker has chosen the path of self-awareness over violence, despite the fact he may never be released from prison. 

“I want to be accepted within my community, in prison or out,” Barker said. “I didn’t like who I was, but I like who I am now and that is the most important thing, whether I’m in prison or not.”

Ivan Charles, an LWOP for 38 years, has been in self-recovery since 2003 and a facilitator for such rehabilitation groups as AA, Victim Awareness, Power Source, Houses of Healing and Anger Management, among others. 

“I never felt like I was held accountable until I got into these groups,” said Charles. “I came into prison with a chip on my shoulder — I was hurt and real angry. But I learned quickly how that was not going to change my sentence. The groups I was taking helped me think about the victims I created along my path of destruction.” 

Charles reminisced about the turning point that changed his outlook on life. 

“It was the day in 1998 when I was able to make an amends video to the Mitchell family,” he said. “I was able to see firsthand what I had done to [my victim] Darnell’s family. I’ll never forget the look in his daughter’s eyes when she told me that she has no memory of her father because of what I did, but that she forgave me. 

“I will never forget those words. They have inspired me to this day to become a better person and to never bring harm to another human being. Although I can’t give that little girl her father back, I know that now I can give goodness to others in his memory.”

Many lifers now choose to own up to their crimes and acknowledge the impact on their victims. Loss of life can never be compensated, but through renewal and transformation, perhaps emotional healing can begin — for victim and offender.

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.

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Ricky A. Ortega

Ricky A. Ortega is a reporter for the Mule Creek Post, a newspaper inside Mule Creek State Prison in California.