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

This article was first published by Mule Creek Post, a newspaper at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. Aside from the headline, it appears as it was published and has not been edited by PJP.

Life without the possibility of parole, “the other death penalty” — it means you’re spared death, yet sentenced to die in prison. With seemingly nothing left to lose, LWOP inmates find themselves in a precarious situation. 

Though their futures are uncertain, however, you won’t find many sentenced to LWOP sitting back waiting for opportunities to be handed to them. Nor will you find them reverting to a life of crime and violence. Instead, many press forward, rebuild constructive habits, and explore positive changes through education and self-improvement.

Kevin Walker is 35 years into an LWOP sentence. Not wanting to be defined by his sentence and the terrible choices that led to it, Walker set out to make a difference. “I was hired as a narrator for the Folsom Project for the Visually Impaired where I read books onto tape for the visually-impaired members in the local community.”  

When asked what was the most fulfilling part of serving his community, Walker stated, “In 2006, I was working as a teacher’s aide and met one of my former students, who I didn’t recognize at first. He asked me, ‘You don’t remember me, do you? I’m the guy you taught how to read.’ That was one of the proudest moments in my life.”

Walker focused on self-improvement, participated in several groups, and facilitated the Lifers’ Support Group and Long Termer Program. He also received facilitator training in anger management, stress management and positive parenting, among other endeavors. In addition, Walker founded the Islamic 12-Step Program on Facility B and was instrumental in organizing Kid CAT. Yet, perhaps his most noteworthy accomplishments are the four associate of arts degrees he earned.

Richard Villegas, 27 years into his LWOP sentence, has maintained an exemplary work history in the California Prison Industry Authority since 2006, where he worked in fabric products and developed exceptional work skills as a quality control inspector and assistant lead man. 

He is currently working in the food and beverage plant as a machine operator since qualifying for a Level II placement on Facility E. “It was important for me to work my way through life,” began Villegas, “becoming more independent and taking the financial pressure off my family. Instead of selling drugs, I made a commitment to myself and to my family to make an honest living. Prison industries did that for me.” 

An avid churchgoer, Villegas devoted his life to a spiritual walk where he found tranquility and answers to a destructive past. “I was raised with spiritual values by a spiritual family, but my drug abuse prevented me from fulfilling those values,” admitted Villegas. “Now I hope to live up to the example my family set for me.”

Walker and Villegas are two examples of countless LWOP inmates who raise the bar for change and rehabilitation. Believed by many to have no incentive to behave because they have no possibility of parole, most prove doubters wrong by perseverance in spite of hardship and little hope for the future. Not even time off for good behavior applies to those with the sentence, so something else drives them to improve their lot in life. 

“I’m not trying to forget my past,” stated Villegas. “If that were the case, my victim would have died in vain. Instead, I use my past to motivate my future and to make the changes I need to make in order to become who I really am.”  

When asked about his motivation for participation in so many rehabilitative programs, Walker replied, “This is my living amends, my way of honoring the victims I left during my brief life in society. I decided to be a better person and a positive influence on those I meet. In order to accomplish this, I had to change. In order to change, I needed to heal.”

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.