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Exterior of Folsom State Prison, California
Folsom State Prison (Photo credit: The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Much to my surprise, I recently learned that I am incarcerated with a man whose prison sentence began almost two years before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

This man, who goes by Pancho and asked to remain anonymous, has spent the last 56 years behind bars. 

Pancho told me he hasn’t had a rule violation since 1971 and has been eligible for parole for more than three decades, but has been denied almost 10 times. He was granted parole three times, but each time the governor of California reversed the decision. He faced other setbacks too, such as postponed parole hearings. 

Now 80 years old, Pancho has white hair and is a chronic care patient. It takes him a while longer to get where he’s going, but he does so with a great attitude. When someone approaches him, he stops, smiles and gives them a three-part fist bump greeting (up, down and straight). He always asks, “How are you doing?”

He spends time on the yard so his cellmate can have some time alone in the cell. Pancho can be found sitting on his favorite bench or standing in the shade by the handball court. 

I sat down for an interview with this longtermer to ask him about his nearly six decades of incarceration.

Q: After all these years inside, much of it must be a blur. Do you remember where you were the day MLK was killed?

Pancho: Yes, I remember it. I was in the hole (administrative segregation) at Old Folsom (or Folsom State Prison). I had just been transferred from Soledad State Prison or Correctional Training Facility. We had no TV, but we had a radio, although stations were hard to get. We were able to get a country music station called KRAK Corral and it was there that I heard the news. There were Aryan Brotherhood members on the tier who were joyful and the Black guys were sad. I was in disbelief.

Q: What was prison like back then?

Pancho: Soledad State Prison was known as the gladiator school. It was filled with violent youth. And Old Folsom was no better. The Aryan Brotherhood took over the tier one time. They attacked the guards and got the keys and opened all the cells to attack people. But there at Old Folsom, I saw the light, thanks to an older gentleman named Richie. 

He pulled me aside and said, “You see those guys over there, Pancho? They have no hope! Only your family cares about you. You keep going the wrong route and you’ll die here an old man and not even a dog will bark for you.” 

I decided then and there to do positive and go home someday. Staff helped me transfer back to Soledad with a new outlook on life. Soledad was a violent place, but it had all the programs to better yourself.

Q: When I first met you, I didn’t even know your name and you told me to not give up hope. You have been doing good since 1971. How do you keep hope alive?

Pancho: By thinking positive in everything I do. If I encounter conflict, I look for solutions that will benefit all. Respect has played a big part in my life in prison. Everyone should be respected. Even when you disagree with someone, you should respect them. You’ve got to surround yourself with positive people and stay focused on where you want to be in life, in addition to where you are.

Q: You have been granted parole three times by the Board of Parole Hearings and three times the governor has reversed the decision. Yet you remain optimistic and continue doing good. How are you able to do that?

Pancho: Bitterness and resentments do not solve anything. They will lead you down the wrong path to destruction and violence, and that’s not what I want my life to be about. Staying focused on freedom helps me deal with difficult situations. When I changed as a person, so did my values and priorities; I share the hope I have because God loves us and we’re all human beings. I questioned my purpose on Earth for years, and it came to me when I had a stroke. My purpose is to love others and glorify God.

Q: At 80 years old, do you still have hopes and dreams?

Pancho: My dream is to get out and help other people and make amends.

Q: Are you afraid of what awaits you outside of prison?

Pancho: After 56 years in prison, I am afraid of being stereotyped or judged by my past. Life has many challenges, and as long as I have the will I will overcome them. Recovery is a lifelong process, even at 80. With the help of a 12-step program, I will be successful. 

Q: Is it scary to think about freedom?

Pancho: Yes, at my age my memory is failing. I’m old. What if I don’t catch on fast? A lot has changed since 1966. I don’t know how to use a cellphone, but I want to learn. I don’t want to go to a retirement home and wither away. Even at age 80, I want to help people, both young and old. 

Q: What role has art played in your incarceration?

Pancho: Art has helped me cope since the beginning. After my stroke I lost the ability to paint the way I was used to, so I learned to paint with my other hand. I love to paint and wish I could do it all day.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

Pancho: When I came to jail my four kids were all under age 3 and now they are over 58 years old and I haven’t heard from them in many years. I regret the harm and pain I caused in my youth in 1966. I wonder what life would have been like for myself and my family if I had made better choices.

Q: Are there any places you want to see out there?

Pancho: I want to visit my mother’s tomb and clean it up and bring her some flowers. I want to show her I fulfilled her wish. On her deathbed, she said for me to not give up on freedom. If it wasn’t for my mother’s prayers, I wouldn’t be here today.

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.