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A red heart is painted on white-washed wood boards
Illustration by Dink101 on Depositphotos

I took a seat across from the judge and waited for the inevitable. 

This was the early 1980s. I knew he was going to sentence me to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), meaning I would remain in prison with no opportunities for conditional release before I died.

At 19, I wasn’t prepared to hear I had reached the end of my life, but there was a price to be paid for what I had done. The judge asked me if there was anything I would like to say before he sentenced me. At that moment, everything seemed to stop. 

How could I summarize, in one brief statement, the value of my life or the life I took? As I stood, frozen in time, I said the only words that came to mind.

“Your honor, please don’t take away my hope.”

Unlike people who are executed, people serving LWOP sentences have no pending execution date — just a day when our spirit dies. Hope dissolves into the passing of time. For us, prison is not a place of temporary confinement. It’s a living death sentence. Tired of living, and afraid of dying, we must search for hope in the dreary permanence of prison. 

There are roughly 55,000 Americans serving LWOP sentences nationwide, according to a 2021 report from The Sentencing Project. 

Why, when serving life without parole, would someone still want to change? Where do they want to go in life, knowing it will likely end in a prison? And how do they keep hope alive?

Love amid a life sentence

Leonard Ruiz is incarcerated with me at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. He’s in his early 60s and is more than 40 years into his LWOP sentence. Growing up in the small town of Watsonville, California, Ruiz lived a life of drug and alcohol abuse — a youthful mind captured by corruptive influences. 

Instead of the glorified life he was searching for, Ruiz found a dead end in prison. 

“Youngsters like me had to prove ourselves every day in order to survive,” Ruiz said. “I quickly came to understand that the value of life meant very little behind these walls and each day was a constant reminder of that.”

After brief stays at Folsom State Prison and California State Prison, Sacramento, Ruiz started to see personal growth in Pelican Bay State Prison in 2000, 20 years into his sentence.

“It was a place where I could choose a life for myself and be around positive people who were going in positive directions,” he said. “Serving life without parole gave me the idea that life wasn’t worth much more than the concrete walls that locked me in, and those ideas led me down a negative path.”

At Mule Creek, Ruiz has continued his positive transformation with the assistance of prison self-help groups.

“I’m committed to taking responsibility for my crime, to understanding the reasons I committed my crime, and to recognizing the effects on the victims I created by my selfish acts,” Ruiz said. “This awareness humbled me.”

With a new approach to life through rehabilitation, Ruiz was also able to find human connection that eluded him for years. In 2020, Ruiz met Wendy, a woman who lived in Washington, through family members. After one phone call, the pair hit it off. In-person visits quickly followed and in July 2022, the couple married.

“Wendy has renewed my faith and restored my hope,” Ruiz said. “As my partner, she inspires me to never give up and to continue to grow and change from within to become a better human being.”

Wendy, whom I interviewed through mailed correspondence, described her relationship with Ruiz as “a genuine-connection between two people based on trust, loyalty and commitment that knows no boundaries.” She said prison walls “don’t define Leonard.”

“People inside and out question why I chose to be with a man in prison,” Wendy wrote. “It’s simple, really. I didn’t choose to be with a man in prison; I chose to be with Leonard, my best friend.”

One wouldn’t expect to find such an inspiring love story behind prison walls, but that is the power of hope. 

“My outlook,” Ruiz said, “has never been brighter than it is right now.”

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.