Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

White Mule Creek State Prison sign mounted on stone wall surrounded by trees
Photo by Teresa Tauchi

The week that Matthew Toerner turned 20, he began his sentence to die behind bars. Fifteen and a half years later, he’s often up at the crack of dawn as he works to better himself.

“It (was) a very daunting concept that I would not only die in prison, but that I would have to grow up here too,” said Toerner, who was at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, where I’m housed, before he was transferred to California Institution for Men in Chino.

In the mornings, he was often found cradling books and paperwork in his arms as he headed off to attend or facilitate self-help groups such as the Christian 12-step program Celebrate Recovery, the behavioral therapy program Power Source and the conflict transformation program Alternative to Violence Project.

“Trying to discover yourself and then preserve that self in a place where individuality goes to die is one of the most psychologically excruciating things I’ve ever had to endure,” he said.

A prison cell sometimes becomes a living tomb to bide time and wait for the inevitable while the spirit dies and thoughts perish. When it’s your last resting place, equipped with a mattress, sink and flushing toilet, it’s easy to surrender to the eternal silence of regret and the faces of loved ones fade into the cracks of the walls. 

But the need to make things right — to make amends for destruction inflicted on others and ourselves — can turn a prison cell from the end of the road to the beginning of a journey. 

In 2020, there were over 55,000 people sentenced to life without parole in the U.S., the highest ever, according to the latest statistics gathered by the Sentencing Project. But while courts sort through the legal and moral questions about excessive sentencing, some of those thousands aren’t just sitting on their bunks and waiting to die.

The classes like the ones Toerner attended, which also includes the restorative justice program Guiding Rage Into Power, or GRIP, show people that we’re not defined by our crimes. We committed them and must be held accountable for them, but we can choose to not be identified by them. 

For example, as part of the process of GRIP’s year-long program, we put ourselves through a process known as sitting in the fire, where we face the demons of our past with trained facilitators who walk through the causes and effects of what we’ve done.

Toerner described it as being refined by God and purified like silver or gold. 

“My family, particularly my grandparents, instilled in me that if you let where you are dictate who you are, then you were never really you to begin with,” he said.

These programs remind LWOPs, as those of us serving life sentences without possibility of parole are sometimes known, that we are also students, mentors, skilled laborers — people with valuable life lessons to share with the next generation. 

“If my existence takes on the form of service to the prison community for the rest of my days, I will encourage and help enable others to get out and stay out,” Toerner said, adding that he wants to inspire others to never come to prison in the first place. 

That perspective helps make cells look more like classrooms or libraries than mausoleums. 

Another participant, Byron Mendizaval, said self-help programs were a beacon of light for him. 

“When I was first sentenced to life without parole, I lived in disbelief for several years, trying to make sense of my life and where I would go from there,” said Mendizaval, who had spent 35 years in prison but describes his heart still being in Guatemala City, where he was born and raised. “I tried to remain positive by having faith that I would get a chance to go home someday if I do my time clean.”

He said he participated in numerous programs including Criminals & Gangmembers Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. 

“The sponsors and facilitators I worked with over the years have served as mentors for me and were instructional in my recovery from addiction,” he said. “They helped bring the pages of a textbook to life and gave me a positive sense of direction that I now try to pass on to others.” 

His efforts paid off on Jan. 13, 2022, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom commuted his sentence from life without parole to 35 years to life, giving him the opportunity to appear before the parole board.

“While serving a sentence with no hope of release, Mr. Mendizaval has devoted himself to his rehabilitation,” Newsom wrote in his decision. “This act of clemency for Mr. Mendizaval does not minimize or forgive his conduct or the harm it caused. It does recognize the work he has done since to transform himself.”

Mendizaval called it the happiest day of his life. 

“I immediately thought of my mom and the rest of my family who have stood beside me all these years and never allowed me to give up hope,” he said.

Meanwhile, in another cell in another prison downstate, Toerner remains on his journey. 

“I am learning to become my true and complete self,” he said before he left Mule Creek.

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.

Ricky A. Ortega is a writer for the The Mule Creek Post, a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.