Stray Bullet

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Stray Bullet

An inmate attempts to come to terms with his own actions, and turn his life around in prison.

By Gary Rivlin

The Atavist Magazine, No. 25


Gary Rivlin, an investigative reporting fellow at the Nation Institute, is a former New York Times reporter and the author of five books, including most recently Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.—How the Working Poor Became Big Business. His work has appeared in The New York Times MagazineMother JonesGQ, and Wired, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 

Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Research and Production: Nadia Wilson, Nicole Pasulka, Rachel Richardson
Fact Checker: Spencer Woodman
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Audio of Tony Davis’s Confession and Phone Call Home: Oakland Police Department
Audio of Tony Davis and Gary Rivlin: Courtesy Gary Rivlin

Published in January 2013. Design updated in 2021.

One

The room was the one you’ve seen on television, but dingier and more claustrophobic. It was as small as a prison cell, maybe nine feet by twelve feet—roomy enough for a large metal table, a few battered steel chairs, and little else. The table was scratched with graffiti, and the walls, made of acoustic tiling, were heavily gouged. The metal door looked as if it had been beaten with a sledgehammer. The sweat room, the detectives working the Oakland homicide unit called it.

Brian Thiem looked at the suspect in front of him, an oversize kid with round cheeks and a thick double chin. Tony Davis wore his hair in a scruffy high-top and had gaps notched in his eyebrows. That morning he had been sitting in his ’72 Chevy Impala, letting the old thing warm up, when Detective Thiem had come to arrest him. Thiem had brought four extra cops to help apprehend Tony, but he immediately felt ridiculous for going to the trouble. He could’ve walked up and said, “Tony, I’m the police. You’re under arrest,” and Tony would have gone along.

Now that he had Tony at the station house downtown, Thiem couldn’t believe this 18-year-old was the murderer he’d been looking for. He seemed docile and scared. Thiem had been working homicide for a couple of years—long enough to appreciate that most of the guilty who sat across from him in the sweat room weren’t born killers, just people who’d taken a life in a murderous moment. Even so, he’d later say that Tony might have been the least likely killer he’d ever arrested.

At first, Tony denied everything. Denied knowing about any drive-by shooting, denied owning a gun. But there had been two other kids in the car with him that night in July 1990, nine months earlier, and both had fingered Tony as the shooter. When Thiem confronted him with their stories, Tony changed his, insisting that the shooter had been another kid named Steve.

Thiem left Tony to sweat for a couple of hours, then returned, confronting him with the inconsistencies in his version. “He began crying,” Thiem later wrote in his police log, “asking what was going to happen to him. He then said he would tell [us] the truth.”

Thiem started his tape recorder.

Two

The phone rings, and the familiar 707 area code flashes on the display. Invariably, it’s dinnertime when Tony calls, or it’s a day when I’m looking at a tight deadline. But when your friend is calling collect from inside a state penitentiary—when he once told you that a highlight of his two decades behind bars was busting his ankle, because surgery meant a night spent in a real bed at an outside hospital—you pick up the phone. It’s not like I can call him back when it might be more convenient.

The call starts as it always does, with a mechanized voice that says, “This call and your telephone number will be recorded and monitored.” The voice then warns me that the person on the other end of the line is calling from inside a California state prison. Then, precisely every three minutes, our conversation is interrupted by a grating, automated message: “This recorded call is from an inmate at a California correctional facility.” It has been nearly 20 years since I first heard that message, and I’ve heard it many hundreds of times since, and I still curse under my breath each time. But Tony, accustomed to worse intrusions, never seems to mind. After 15 minutes—the time limit programmed into all the cellblock phones—the call abruptly ends.

Long ago, with Tony’s blessing, I got in the habit of recording our calls; I reasoned that if the California Department of Corrections was taping our conversations, I would, too. The recordings are painful to listen to in more than an I-hate-to-hear-my-own-voice kind of way. To choose one example: It’s January 2008, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton are vying for the Democratic nomination, and Tony mentions that he’s been watching the debates. I ask him where—in the common area of the cellblock, with other inmates, or in his cell on the 13-inch TV he owns? Except instead of saying “cell,” I ask if he watches alone in his “room.” I immediately laugh at myself, but Tony finds the slip-up too significant to let slide. “Hell no,” he says. “I will never get comfortable to the point I call my cell my room.”

On the tape, my voice sounds amped up, like it always does when I’m on the phone with Tony. Maybe it’s knowing that the clock is ticking, that we have just 15 minutes until the call cuts off. But a lot of it, I’m sure, is the jarring sense of being momentarily transported from my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Cellblock 12 at California State Prison, Solano. Just to get to the part of the common room where the phones are located, Tony must navigate the prison’s invisible territorial boundaries, passing through an area staked out by norteños—Latino inmates from Northern California—and another claimed by whites and the sureños from Southern California. Sometimes he will go months without phoning, because his facility is on lockdown yet again after a stabbing or a melee between rival gangs. Once, it was because a black inmate used a shower long ago claimed by the “others”—the inmates’ catch-all racial category for anyone who isn’t black, white, or Latino—prompting a minor riot.

The taped conversations are full of awkward moments in which I over- or underestimate the degree to which Tony’s world intersects with mine. “You know what email is, right?” I ask him at one point, prompting a sharp laugh on the other end of the line. He watches CNN, he reminds me. It’s 2008; he knows what email is. When he mentions borrowing recent copies of USA Today, I ask if he’s ever come across copies of The New York Times, where I worked at the time. Tony tells me that not only has he never seen the paper, he isn’t sure he could picture it. I mention that I’m about to go to Las Vegas on a work trip. “Before all is said and done,” he tells me, “I want to go to New York. I want to go to Chicago. And I want to go to Las Vegas.” That proves to be another conversation stopper.

Eventually, the phone calls always circle around to the most familiar and obvious of subjects: Tony’s plight, his fate, the mistakes he’s made that landed him in a prison cell serving an 18-to-life sentence. “I’ll be 37 in August,” he told me in 2008. “I can’t dwell on what happened, how I got here, or how long I’ve been here. I can’t be mad, because being mad ain’t going to help.”

Tony and I first met in the early 1990s, when I was a young reporter for a local alternative weekly writing about youth violence. I was looking to talk with a teenager who had killed another teenager. Tony had done exactly that. When we first started corresponding, he was two years into an indefinite sentence for a murder he had committed when he was 18, the killing of a 13-year-old boy named Kevin Reed. Reed’s murder and its principals became the focus of my 1995 book, Drive-By.

A decade passed, then another. Somewhere along the way, Tony, now past 40, ceased to be my subject and became my friend. It has been nearly 20 years since we last saw one another face-to-face. For the longest time, Tony discouraged me from visiting; I got the impression he didn’t want me to see him yet because he had not yet grown into the person he knew he could become. By the time he felt ready, I had moved east, and since then lockdowns have thwarted my efforts to visit him. Over the years, however, we have exchanged probably a couple hundred letters. Whatever the exact number, it’s a safe bet that I’ve written to him more often than to anyone else in my life. Tony is black, and from time to time his fellow inmates have asked him about the white man whose picture is on the wall in his cell. “He’s like the only real best friend that I’ve had in years,” Tony tells them.

Then there are the phone calls, more than I’ve had with all but a few of my closest friends. In between the mechanical voice’s interruptions, we talk about sports, politics, our lives. I update him on the kids—the 3-year-old’s mastery of a scooter, the baby who for two months has seemed on the cusp of crawling—and he asks me to give them a kiss from their Uncle Tony. The one constant topic of conversation, of course, is prison itself: his life locked behind bars, the strategies he has adopted for survival, and, especially over the past several years, his quest to win his freedom.

In early 2010, Tony started talking about his next parole hearing, scheduled for 2012. For someone serving a sentence of 18 years to life, as he is, the parole board represents the only path to freedom. Under California law, he first became eligible for parole in 2003, after serving 12 years of his term. But the “to life” at the end of his sentence—the “life tail,” as it is known to those who have one—meant that there was no cap on the length of time he might serve. If he could persuade the parole board that he was a new man, he’d be free, assuming the governor of California didn’t choose to reverse the decision.

But until he convinced the commissioners presiding over a parole-suitability hearing that he was worth a second chance, he would never get one. He had botched his first parole hearing a decade earlier when he grew flustered and tongue-tied. He had assured me that he had performed better in subsequent appearances, and sometimes he spoke with great anticipation about his upcoming hearing. Other times, though, it was with trepidation, if not outright dread. What if words again failed him just when they counted most? Two years in advance, he was already rehearsing in his mind what he might say.


The argument for keeping Tony locked up can be made in a sentence: He took the life of an innocent 13-year-old boy. He pulled the trigger of a .45 five times, firing from the back of a moving car. He was stoned at the time of the shooting and might also have been drunk. He would claim that he meant only to scare the group of kids he was shooting at, but it was Kevin Reed’s misfortune that the bullet that killed him was a ricochet off the pavement. The bullet perforated Kevin’s groin, causing him to bleed to death while waiting for an ambulance, which took more than 10 minutes to arrive. Tony’s shooting sent two other children, both 14-year-olds, to the hospital with gunshot wounds.

But that was Tony at 18. Now it was 2012, more than two decades later, and the 40-year-old Tony Davis who would face a parole hearing in March was a different man. “Davis has worked exceptionally hard to improve himself,” one of his GED instructors wrote of Tony a few years back. “His true desire and willingness to go the extra mile to reach his goal is commendable.” His work habits and good behavior had won him a transfer to a medium-security facility, where he seemed to have enrolled in every self-help and support-group program offered, from Narcotics Anonymous to a victim-offender reconciliation group. He volunteered with a program that helps younger inmates adjust to prison life. He was one of three inmates assisting a professional counselor in a course designed to get prisoners thinking about their crimes from the victim’s point of view. (“I’ve seen hardened dudes come to this and break down and cry,” he told me.) He had also experienced a religious awakening, which would help with the parole board, as would the credits he had earned toward an associate’s degree. He had even managed to meet a woman who lived on the outside and marry her.

All of this counted substantially in Tony’s favor. As Tony told it to me, the commissioners hearing his case in 2010 had given him every reason to feel hopeful about his chances the next time around; they had recommended that he come back in two years rather than three, as previous boards had done.

But above all it simply felt like time. Tony and his crime were both anachronisms from an era that had long since receded. He was a black teen from the ’hood in the first half of the 1990s, which stands as the most murderous five-year period in modern American history. He had been swept up in the crack trade that had flooded U.S. cities. He had committed one of the most iconic crimes of the era, a drive-by shooting—a video-game approach to settling scores celebrated in the West Coast hip-hop on the radio at the time. Even the cavalierly draconian nature of his punishment—a prison term longer than the number of years he had spent on earth at the time—was an artifact of its time and place.

For comparison, consider the case of Tony’s grandfather, O. D. Clay. In 1957, drunk after a card game, Clay shot and killed a man he suspected of fooling around with his wife. The charge was second-degree murder, the same as Tony’s. But although he was a grown man when he committed his crime, Tony’s grandfather would serve less than five years in prison before a parole board gave him his freedom.

By 1991, however, voters and politicians in California had all but given up on rehabilitation in favor of a hard-nosed law-and-order philosophy. The tough-on-crime movement peaked three years later, when the state’s voters approved a notorious three-strikes law that gave a judge no choice but to impose a life sentence on any defendant with two prior serious felony convictions, even if he was charged with shoplifting a dress shirt for a job interview or stealing a stack of wooden pallets as part of a prank (both real-life examples from the California docket). Even as a decades-long state budget crisis set in, California’s prison funding remained sacrosanct. Lawmakers cut deeply into spending on parks, public schools, and California’s vaunted university system, but the Department of Corrections continued to grow. At the start of the 1980s, the state was spending just under 3 percent of its general funds on corrections. By 2010, that figure had more than tripled, to over 10 percent.

But the pendulum has begun swinging back ever so slightly toward rehabilitation in California and elsewhere, for financial reasons, if nothing else. The United States now spends $200 billion or so on criminal justice each year, even as the causes of the boom in spending have largely receded. Crack use has fallen precipitously—in no small part because the drug so quickly devours its heaviest users—and the terror of drive-by shootings, if not completely gone, is greatly diminished. The national youth homicide rate is now half what it was in the early 1990s. In November, Californians voted to modify the state’s three-strikes law, giving judges the power to release offenders deemed to pose no threat to public safety. In 2005, the state quietly renamed the Department of Corrections. It’s now the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Yet, Tony sits moldering in a prison cell, trapped in a kind of purgatory where the year is permanently 1991. If his 2012 parole hearing was an opportunity to consider the fate of a single inmate, it was also in a small way a referendum on policies that the state’s voters tacitly admitted were no longer tenable.

At the end of Drive-By, I offered my own prescription for Tony. He should be locked away through his twenties, I wrote, and released sometime in his early to mid-thirties. That struck me as about right for a second chance. Incarceration into his forties seemed excessive for a mistake—even a fatal one—made when he was 18.

By the time he appeared before the parole board in March 2012, Tony would have served nearly as long a sentence as that handed down to Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian white supremacist who killed 77 people—most of them teenagers—in 2011. When I spoke with him last spring, even Brian Thiem, the arresting officer, thought enough was enough. Tony’s crime was “an unfortunate accident based on the impulses and action of kids,” said Thiem, who has since retired from police work. “Twenty years for what he did? God, I say let him out.”

Even politics, for once, were working in Tony’s favor. In the spring of 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that overcrowding inside the California prison system was so bad that it violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. To mitigate “needless suffering,” the Court, by a 5–4 majority, ordered California to release over 30,000 inmates by 2014—about one-fifth of its prison population. Tony, it appeared, had finally caught a break. He seemed precisely the kind of inmate the authorities should release, especially with the state billions of dollars in debt, yet spending $47,000 per inmate each year. For the first time since his incarceration, I felt excited about Tony’s prospects. It looked like 2012 could finally be his year.

Three

In 1916, the Chevrolet Motor Company built a factory in East Oakland, at the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and 73rd Avenue. It was the first major auto-manufacturing outpost on the West Coast, and it seemed to point the way to the city’s future as a prosperous industrial port. By 1971, when Tony was born in East Oakland, the neighborhood had become a solid enclave of the striving working class that grew up around the manufacturing industry. General Motors, Ford, Mack, Caterpillar, International Harvester, Del Monte, Carnation, and Gerber all had factories there. And then the factories left.

It was a West Coast variation of the story that played out across the Rust Belt in the 1970s and ’80s. Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs, home prices started to plummet; those who could leave did, and those who couldn’t were left to deal with rising crime and deteriorating schools. The city was hollowing out: the banks fled on the heels of the factories, followed by chain stores and, ultimately, many small businesses. By the time Tony was a teenager, East Oakland felt like a community under siege. The final straw was the arrival of crack cocaine at the end of 1983.

Crack was a cheap high. For a “dove”—20 dollars—the novice crack user could buy enough rock to stay happy for a couple of hours. But it wasn’t the price so much as the way it was sold that made the crack trade so deadly. The sale of heroin, the city’s previous hard drug of choice, was dominated by a few kingpins, like Felix Mitchell, a legendary dealer who parlayed his East Oakland corners into a multimillion-dollar criminal empire in the 1970s and early ’80s. But crack was too new for organized crime. It was sold by bands of freelancing teenagers claiming corners scattered throughout East and West Oakland. “[It’s] like one day they just popped up through the cement,” said Sergeant Mike Beal, at the time the head of the Oakland Police Department’s drug task force. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Beal recalled, his officers would shut down one corner crew only to see another start selling a block or two away.

The crack trade’s competitive and disorganized nature brought predictable results. Between 1986 and 1989, the national homicide rate among black kids age 14 to 17 doubled and kept rising into the early 1990s. There was a similar spike in the number of minors going away for murder. In some inner-city neighborhoods, in Oakland and elsewhere, it could properly have been called an epidemic.

In the popular culture, the West Coast’s wave of youth violence was associated with Los Angeles; it was Straight Outta Compton and Boyz N the Hood. But Oakland, not L.A., had the higher murder rate at the time—a statistic made all the more surreal by the fact that only a bridge separated Oakland from San Francisco, which, along with Silicon Valley, was on the verge of a tech-driven economic renaissance. The boom that remade large stretches of the Bay Area largely passed Oakland by, dashing the dreams of city leaders, who for years had spent most of the city’s antipoverty dollars trying to revitalize Oakland’s central business district. Instead of becoming a slightly less expensive version of its shimmering neighbor across the bay, Oakland was saddled with the highest murder rate of any city west of the Mississippi. And a stunning number of the perpetrators—and the victims—were teenagers.

I wanted to write a book that would put a face on these grim facts, and I set out to find a single case to document, one that involved both a shooter and a victim who were 18 or younger. I started looking at all the homicides in Oakland between 1990 and 1992 that met these criteria. When my initial search elicited an overwhelming 75-plus cases, I narrowed my parameters to those 16 or under. That still meant working through two dozen files and talking with a dozen or so cops, defense attorneys, and other players in the criminal justice system before I finally settled on the murder of Kevin Reed.

Reed’s case was ideal for a number of reasons. Everyone involved, from the Reeds to the arresting officer to the perpetrators and their families, was willing to talk with me. The murder had taken place in a part of East Oakland that cops and locals alike dubbed the “killing zone.” I wanted readers to wonder how they would fare raising their kids in a place like this, where the schools were terrible, crack and guns were ubiquitous, and children were dying in the street.

There was also the senselessness of the crime itself. In the shorthand of the media, Kevin Reed was a kid murdered over a bike. Alternatively, it could be said that the 13-year-old died tragically in a double case of mistaken identity.

The deadly chain of events began on Sunday, July 8, 1990, when Reed’s brother Shannon and his friend London Willard, both 14, saw a 16-year-old boy named John “Junebug” Jones pedal up to a convenience store on a borrowed bicycle. A tall kid with broomstick-thin arms and delicate features, Junebug exuded a moody vulnerability. Mistaking Junebug for a boy in the neighborhood who had threatened to beat them up earlier that week, Shannon and London jumped him on his way out of the store. Shannon punched Junebug in the face; London swung for his head with a steel pipe, hitting him on the forearm. For good measure they stole the bike, riding off and leaving Junebug to nurse his injured body and wounded pride.

On the corner, the other teens teased Junebug mercilessly—here was a supposedly tough street kid punked by a pair of 14-year-olds. Junebug would just as soon have shrugged the whole thing off; it wasn’t even his bike. But the damage to his reputation would’ve been irreparable—and on the corner, your reputation was everything.

Later the next night, Junebug and his friend Aaron Estill set out across the neighborhood in a boat-sized 1967 Chrysler Newport—which Aaron, all of 15 years old, had bought for $200 a few weeks earlier—looking for the bicycle thieves. They had been driving around only a few minutes when Junebug spotted London and a boy that Junebug took to be Shannon—in fact, it was Kevin Reed—standing below a streetlight a few doors from the Reed home, talking with some other kids. It was a little after 9 p.m. As the Newport idled down the street, Aaron asked, “What if they got a gun?”

That was when the boys went to go find Junebug’s friend Tony.

Four

Tony was two days old when the first person in his life gave up on him. It was his mother, Carol Davis, a 17-year-old heroin addict, who handed her newborn baby off to her mother, Vera, then disappeared.

Carol would resurface 11 years later to demand custody of Tony and his 8-year-old sister, Angela. She moved them into an apartment in San Antonio Village, at that time Oakland’s most notorious housing project. (Vera believed it was a scheme to qualify for welfare.) Angela didn’t last a month there before moving back into Vera’s apartment. Her mother, she later told me, was constantly high. For Tony, it wasn’t the drug paraphernalia lying around or the empty refrigerator or the lack of clean clothes in his drawer. It was the sound of his mother pleading for mercy as her boyfriend beat her. Eventually, the stories she was hearing proved too much for Vera, who filed the papers she needed to take legal custody of Carol’s kids.

I met Vera before I met Tony. In 1993, two years after the police had hauled her grandson away, she was living in the same small public-housing building where she had raised Tony. The apartment was only a 15-minute drive from the two-bedroom A-frame in the Oakland hills that I called home, but we might as well have lived in different cities. Dealers sold outside the family’s first-floor three-bedroom apartment. Chunks of plaster were missing from the ceiling, cracks were visible in the walls, and the floors were covered with linoleum that wouldn’t come clean no matter how hard anyone scrubbed it.

The day I visited, the place was chaotic. A television blared in the background, though no one was watching it. The phone rang constantly, and in the two hours I was there, so many people walked in and out that I couldn’t keep their names straight. There was no doubt that Vera, a stout woman whose face sagged into a permanent frown, ruled the roost. She had only to yell for a fresh pack of cigarettes and it would show up. Several generations called the apartment home; Tony was just one of many children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews who had passed through over the decades.

“What was Tony like as a boy?” I asked.

“He was heavy,” Vera said.

I smiled. “No, I mean, what kind of child was he? Tell me about his personality.”

“I guess he just played, like other kids. I don’t know.” I asked about the impact on Tony of his mother’s and father’s absence. “He never said anything to me about it,” she said.

Vera was 21 and pregnant with her fourth child when her husband went away for murder. Even after he was out, he didn’t amount to much of a father. He and Vera would have another four kids before he walked away from the family. To make ends meet, Vera, who had dropped out of school at 15, worked a series of cleaning jobs—as a domestic in the homes of well-off white people, mopping up after-hours at a bar—before going to work as a custodian at a local nursing home. It was the last job she would ever have. By the time she was laid off in 1968, her blood pressure was so high that she qualified for a monthly disability check. The next year, she moved the family into the public-housing unit. She was not yet 40 years old.

When Carol gave birth to a third child, Vera thought about handing the kids over to the county. She went as far as setting up a home visit. But Vera’s youngest daughter, Paula, who was seven years older than Tony, threw a fit. After the caseworker left the apartment, Paula vowed to feed and bathe the kids and make sure they went to school, and Vera relented. Paula was still in high school, but more than once she took a call from a teacher looking to talk with Tony’s mother.

When he was in fifth grade, Tony was placed in a class for slow learners. He was barely 10 years old and the school system already seemed to be writing him off. Tony responded in kind. He was 13 when a woman next door set him and another kid up in the crack business. She supplied the rock, and they split the profits on whatever was sold. Paula caught wind of the scheme and shut it down a few weeks later, but she was not in a position to judge: She, too, had tried her hand at dealing, if only briefly. At least two of her brothers—Tony’s uncles, though they were more like siblings, since they shared a room and were only six and nine years older than he was—sold crack on the street, too. It had become the family business. By 16, Tony was Fat Tone, a corner boss running his own crew. Junebug was among its members.

The two boys had grown up in the same building, but they were near opposites. Where Tony struggled in the classroom, Junebug had always been a natural student. His mother, who worked nights on the clean-up crew at the local post office, had finagled a place for him at a top-tier middle school miles from his home, using a cousin’s address to enroll him. It seemed like the best way to keep him out of trouble. When they were caught in this scheme—it was Junebug, in fact, who confessed to it—Junebug was sent back to Castlemont High, a school with a dropout rate of about 50 percent.

Junebug had never gotten over his abandonment by the father he had been close to, and his obvious intelligence made him a target for the other boys. Tony—the embodiment of the bad influences Junebug’s mother wanted to shield her son from—had recruited Junebug into his crew and served as his protector and street guide. Junebug wasn’t nearly as tough or hard-shelled as his neighbor. “My little cousin”—that was the diminutive that Tony would use to describe him, though the boys weren’t related.

A few months before that night in July, however, Tony had betrayed Junebug. After the boys’ crew had roughed up an older man whose girlfriend caused them trouble, Tony told the police that Junebug had punched the man in the face—though in fact it was Tony who hit him. A cop played Junebug a tape of Tony’s statement, which would cost Junebug a month in juvenile hall.

The two were still on the outs when Junebug and Aaron came asking for Tony’s help. Tony had been drinking and smoking pot all day and was in no condition to help anyone. But he was eager to make amends. He put on his dark sunglasses—his “murder ones,” as they were known in the neighborhood—grabbed the .45 he kept under his bed, and slipped into the backseat of Aaron’s Newport.

Aaron and Junebug thought the gun was insurance in case the other kids were packing. Tony, however, was under the impression that he was supposed to fire off a few rounds and give the boys a scare. Aaron later swore that when he heard the gunshots, his first thought was that the kids on the corner were firing at them.

Kevin Reed and his friends were still hanging out under the streetlight where Aaron and Junebug had seen them. As Aaron drove past, Tony stuck the .45 out the window and squeezed off five shots. One of them bounced off the pavement and struck Kevin in the groin.

“I ain’t fit to kill nobody,” Tony remembers saying a couple blocks before they reached their destination. Maybe he wasn’t. But now he had.


Nine months passed before the police caught them. By that point, the three teenagers had driven themselves crazy with paranoia and recrimination. Tony was furious at Aaron for refusing to ditch the car. Aaron and Junebug couldn’t believe that Tony had been so clueless as to hide the gun rather than dumping it in the Oakland Estuary, a few miles from where they lived.

Tony was a wreck in the days after the murder, and his Aunt Paula had no trouble figuring out what he had done. Go to the police, she counseled him. Clear your conscience. “They’ll go easier on you,” she said. Instead, Tony promised God that if he got away with it, he’d never do another bad thing in his life.

Junebug, meanwhile, kept an article about Kevin’s murder in his dresser drawer. He had been devastated ever since he saw the photo on the front page of the Oakland Tribune, showing a boy who wasn’t even the kid they’d set out to scare, let alone intended to kill. He would be at a Bible study class the first time Brian Thiem came looking for him.

The cops tracked down Aaron because of the car. Aaron fingered Tony as the gunman and put Junebug in the car with him that night. Junebug corroborated Aaron’s story, and Tony ended up confessing. When he was allowed his one phone call, he called Vera’s house. For all his experience on the street, he was apparently unaware that the call was recorded and that Thiem was listening to everything he was saying.

Five

Twenty years later, I still remember the excitement of those first few months after I made contact with Tony and Junebug. My first wife and I couldn’t have children, and at the time I was throwing my paternal energies into serving as a kind of super-uncle to the children of my siblings and close friends. I didn’t need a shrink to tell me that I was regarding Tony and Junebug—both effectively fatherless—as surrogate kids. “The boys,” we sometimes called them, my wife and I. Each day, I found myself eagerly checking the mail.

There weren’t even surface similarities between my life and Tony’s and Junebug’s. I had grown up comfortably middle class on Long Island, in an intact and stable family. Diversity in my school district was the occasional Irish or Greek kid thrown in among the Jews and Italians. The worst trouble I got into as a teenager was getting busted outside the Nassau Coliseum for scalping Elton John tickets. And yet it was easy for me to put myself in the corner boys’ shoes—to see how, in similar circumstances, I might easily have made similarly disastrous choices.

In his 1995 memoir Fist Stick Knife Gun, the educator Geoffrey Canada makes the point that the preponderance of guns in inner-city neighborhoods transforms the dumb things that all teenage boys do into life-altering tragedies. Looking at the mundane series of decisions that had led to Kevin Reed’s murder, it was painfully clear to me how true this was—how their actions differed from those of countless more privileged teenagers only in their terrible stakes. I grew up in a striving suburb, not an inner-city community. My older brother and a friend took bets on pro football games in high school, and that friend’s younger brother, Vinnie, and I got into the business as well. The thousands of dollars we made each football season was nice, but the real payoff was walking the halls at school and feeling like someone. What if the cooler, older kids in my neighborhood had been selling crack instead?

If someone had told me at the time that I’d have a close relationship with a character I had written about in Drive-By, I would have assumed it would be Junebug. He was the reason I chose the case I did—him and his mother. I saw something of my younger self in Junebug: the sensitive kid, easily bruised, who hungered for nothing so much as to fit in. In his letters, Junebug revealed a real talent for words, and I made sure to let him know that he was a far better writer than I was at that age.

There was an intimacy to our correspondence, and his letters revealed a sharp and probing mind. “I feel compelled … to contribute to your work,” he wrote in the first of them, “for moral reasons and also for my sense of ‘guilt.’” He saw his story both as part of a tragedy that reached far beyond him and as a cautionary tale. “I have realized that no power on earth can bring that young man back,” he wrote, “but at least I can provide assistance for others to somehow curb what’s happening nationwide.” Sometimes his letters would run over a dozen pages, full of agonizing reflection.

Letters from Tony, by contrast, rarely exceeded a page of slanted, hurried handwriting. They were notes, really, and consisted mostly of complaints about his family. In the first one, he told me he’d be happy to help with my project—then hit me up for $40. A letter from Junebug was ripped open before I had reached the top of the driveway. One from Tony might sit for a few hours, if not a day or two, before I actually read it.

My impression of Tony changed when finally I got a chance to speak with him over the phone a couple of months after our correspondence began. He had a man’s voice by then, full but surprisingly gentle. He sounded more thoughtful than I expected. He also proved more forthcoming about his story than he had been in his letters. Like Junebug, he told me he was eager to talk, that maybe others could learn from his mistakes.

Back then it was hard for me to keep an open mind about Tony. I’d also been spending time with Annette Reed, Kevin’s mother, and others in her family. Annette’s marriage fell apart shortly after the murder. Soon she had also lost her job, and with it the family home. In 1993, her second-youngest son, Shannon—the boy who Junebug was looking for on the night Tony took Kevin’s life—died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while playing Russian roulette. There was also Junebug and his family to consider, as well as Aaron and his: Both young men would be locked up for years because of what Tony had done.

But even those who had watched Tony pass through the system on his way to prison had detected something different about him. The perpetrators and victims of drive-by shootings were always brought together by a sadly random logic, but even by those standards, the 250-pound boy with the flat-top seemed out of place. Brian Thiem was struck by his docility at the time of the arrest. Shortly after his confession, Tony met with a county probation officer, who tacked this onto the end of the report she filed with the court: “We want to add that this case seems particularly tragic and that this defendant appears, by hindsight, to truly understand his mistakes and poor judgment.” It was doubtful, she continued, that it would take even 10 years to rehabilitate Tony.

The public defender assigned to Tony’s case, Al Hymer, told a similar tale. Hymer was a 30-year veteran of the department who had handled hundreds of murders by the time Tony’s file crossed his desk. But Tony stood out, Hymer told me, from their very first meeting in the county lockup. He only wanted to talk about the terrible thing he had done and not what Hymer could do to lessen his punishment.

Hymer wanted to challenge the admissibility of the confession based on two things Tony had told him. First, Thiem had ignored his request for a lawyer, which was an obvious violation of his Miranda rights. Second, Thiem had dangled the death penalty over Tony’s head during his initial questioning, which was also forbidden, since the case wouldn’t have qualified for capital punishment. (Thiem denied both claims at the time.) But Tony told Hymer not to bother. There would be no trial. Tony accepted the DA’s offer of 18 to life—15 for the murder and another three for using a gun in the commission of a crime—even though it meant that he might very well spend the rest of his life in jail.

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Calipatria State Prison (Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

Six

Tony was officially received into the California Department of Corrections on June 22, 1992. His first stop was the reception center at San Quentin, where prison officials calculated the placement score that would determine where he would be housed. An inmate scoring between 18 and 27, for instance, is dispatched to a minimum-security prison with open dormitories; a score of 52 or higher lands you in a maximum security, Level IV prison. Scores are based on a variety of factors, including the nature of the crime committed, prior record, age, and history of gang involvement. Tony had no prior record and never belonged to a proper gang—his corner crew didn’t count. But he had pled guilty to second-degree murder. That alone pretty much guaranteed that he’d start serving his sentence in a Level IV facility. Two months after arriving at San Quentin, he was assigned a spot inside Folsom State Prison, a 19th-century stone penitentiary two hours from Oakland made famous years ago by a Johnny Cash song.

California was then in the midst of an unprecedented surge in prison construction. The boom reflected a national trend—the U.S. prison population has increased sevenfold since the 1970s, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts—but in California it took on an extraordinary scale. Starting in the mid-1980s, the state would build more than one new penitentiary a year for 20 years—the only way to keep up with the public appetite for ever harsher sentencing policies. As new prisons came on line, Folsom was downgraded to medium-security status, and Tony, 11 months after arriving there, was transferred, along with hundreds of other inmates, to Calipatria State Prison. The new facility, opened the previous year, seemed the very embodiment of the law-and-order era. It was hailed as the first prison in the United States to employ an electrified fence that kills on contact. Worse for Tony was the location, in the desert between Death Valley and the Mexican border. He was now a nine-hour drive from Oakland, practically guaranteeing that no one in his family would visit him there. The only thing he had to look forward to was the possibility of parole, right after his 30th birthday.

Visiting days were Saturday and Sunday. The visitor’s room at Calipatria opened at 8:45 a.m., but the prison’s public information officer suggested that I arrive much earlier. When I pulled up to the prison gates for the first time, at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning in September 1993, I saw what he meant—45 people were already lined up ahead of me. I didn’t see Tony until nearly 11 a.m.; visiting hours ended promptly at 2:45 p.m. I would set the alarm even earlier for Sunday.

Tony had lost something like 50 pounds in the two and a half years since he had been locked up. His eyes looked forlorn behind his government-issue steel-framed glasses, and when he sat, his whole body slumped forward, as if it were caving in. Around us, couples and families ate microwaved meals and sugary treats from the vending machines that lined one wall of the room, but when I offered to buy him something, Tony refused.

Tony was miserable at Calipatria, and it was no wonder. The prison was built to house 2,000 inmates, but within a year of opening it was home to nearly twice that number. At least half of the prisoners were there for murder. Calipatria was new enough that hierarchies among the prisoners were still in flux and turf had yet to be claimed. Gangs warred incessantly, putting the facility into a constant state of lockdown. On a full lockdown, Tony and his cell mate were locked in their cell 24 hours a day. There was no yard time, and meals were served in the cell. An inmate would get a chance to bathe every few days, but he was escorted to and from the showers in handcuffs. And when Calipatria was off lockdown? Yard time was its own kind of hell in a region where daytime temperatures top 110 degrees. There was also the stench of the place. The area’s main industry was livestock, and the air was permanently redolent with the waste of thousands of cows cooking in the sun.

Finally face-to-face with Tony, I tried to be all business. We didn’t have much time, and there was a lot to cover, from his family to his life as a crack dealer to the murder and his life behind bars. But as he talked about prison life, I found myself distracted, imagining the primal fear that I would have—that anyone I knew would have—if I were locked away inside a maximum-security penitentiary thick with psychopaths, sociopaths, and sexual predators. “I’d be eaten alive in here,” I told him.

Tony took it in stride; he told me he feared the guards more than his fellow inmates. He coached me on surviving Calipatria. “See, you’s cool like that guy over there,” he said, cocking his chin toward a white man a few tables over who looked to be about my age and more or less my size. He didn’t run with a gang, Tony explained. He minded his own business. The key was that he didn’t look or act scared. My fast mouth would help me, Tony offered, but when words failed, you needed to be willing to use your fists—and risk a beat down to avoid a worse fate. “You have to carry yourself in a way that you know you’ll get respect and demand respect,” he said. If you don’t forcefully confront a problem right away, he explained, you’ve revealed yourself to be weak.

By way of example, Tony told me about a fight he had gotten into in the showers shortly after he had arrived at Calipatria. Another inmate cut in front of Tony while he was waiting in line. He could have shrugged it off—it wasn’t like he was pressed for time—but he confronted him. “And what’s a broke-ass n***** like you going to do ’bout it?” the man replied.

Tony didn’t hesitate. “I hauled off and hit that dude as hard I could, right in the face,” he told me. He did it even though he knew it would mean time in the hole—the Special Housing Unit, or prison within prison—and would single him out as a potential troublemaker. But after listening to Tony talk about prison all weekend, I didn’t doubt that it was the right thing to do. Tony offered the story as a kind of survival tip for my hypothetical incarceration, but I eventually took it to heart as a lesson for getting by on the outside, too, one that I dubbed the Fat Tone Rule of Life: Better to confront a small bit of unpleasantness before it escalates into something trickier.

Tony and I kept talking after I returned from Calipatria. He’d call collect, I’d turn on the recorder, and he’d tell me about himself and his life. By the end of 1994, we had exchanged a dozen letters and hundreds of dollars’ worth of collect calls, and I had finished researching and writing Drive-By. My official business with Tony was nearly over. But I’ll confess, I wasn’t surprised by the letter I received months before our working relationship came to an end. “Gary,” he had written, “i hope that when you get done writing the Book we can still be friends, thats if you want to.”

Seven

Our friendship advanced one phone conversation at a time. Listening back to the early tapes, I hear myself still playing reporter. Tony tells me he’s started a journal. Use your journal to chronicle prison life, I suggest. It’s an idea aimed more at helping me with the prison-related book I was thinking about writing at the time than at helping a young man struggling to process his feelings.

I hadn’t sanitized Tony in Drive-By. He had been a violent thug and betrayed those close to him on more than one occasion, snitching on Junebug to the police for a crime he himself had committed and robbing the older kid who had taught him the ropes of the crack trade. While fact-checking Drive-By prior to publication, I shared with Tony—as I did with the book’s other principals—the parts of the manuscript dealing with his life, so my depiction of him was not a shock when he read the completed book. But I was surprised by how deeply the rest of the story affected him.

For Tony, reading about the impact of the shooting on the Reed family meant taking a fuller responsibility for the murder. He dropped the “yes, but” attitude that allowed him to share blame with others. (Hadn’t Junebug also messed up? Why had the ambulance taken so long to arrive on the scene?) Once, after referring to the “incident” that landed him in jail, Tony immediately corrected himself. “The night I killed that young man,” he said more carefully. “It wasn’t an incident. I killed a boy. I know that. Kevin Reed. I’m not going to try and hide it by calling it an ‘incident,’ because it was a murder, and someone—Kevin—lost his life.”

I didn’t stay on the youth-violence beat long after the publication of Drive-By. When people asked me why, I told them that I had said all that I had to say on the topic. But truth be told, money played a big role as well. It was the dawn of the Internet era, and I was living in the Bay Area. I hadn’t done a stitch of business or technology writing in my life, but I had done some computer programming in college, and I figured that someone with my background should be able to understand what was going on in Silicon Valley. At 36, I could no longer afford to write about subjects simply because I cared deeply about them. And I had to face the fact that I could no longer justify the time spent on the phone with Tony as research. I was doing it for myself.

I was also doing it, I suppose, for Tony. By this point, his connections to the world beyond Calipatria had been winnowed away to little more than our regular phone calls. He had always felt close to his sister Angela, but she was struggling financially, enough that she could no longer afford the $15 or $30 charge that showed up on the phone bill when she received one of his calls. Soon she put a block on her phone, as did other members of his family. Even Paula seemed to fade from his life after she married and moved to Hawaii.

Aside from me, his only visitor at Calipatria was a volunteer tutor who Tony had met in the county lockup while he was awaiting disposition of his case. But within a few years, Tony was complaining to me that she, too, was giving up on him. “I barely hear from her anymore,” he wrote in one letter. “No matter what I go through in this place or my life,” he went on, “no one seems to understand or cares about my pain.” Around this time, he was diagnosed with depression by a prison doctor after complaining about anxiety attacks and insomnia.

There was an element of voyeurism to my side of our relationship. Prison gangs, race relations behind bars, the routine of life inside a Level IV prison: It was endlessly fascinating to me. At the same time, I was well aware of the possibility that I was a patsy being played by the con who knew the right buttons to push. It was true, after all, that I was not the only one who had profited from our relationship. Once, Tony told me he was in a bind because he had borrowed another inmate’s television to watch a basketball game, and his cellmate had stepped on the cord, sending the TV crashing to the ground. I bought a replacement. On another occasion, I bought him a pair of basketball shoes so he could compete in the tournaments they held in his cellblock.

But that was it for big-ticket items. In truth, I was shocked Tony didn’t ask me for more. I got in the habit of sending him an annual care package, and I’d send him the occasional book I thought he’d like, but those were rituals I began without being asked. He would hit me up for $18 here and $40 there—for postage stamps, paper and pens, the latest 2Pac tape —but never more than once or twice a year.

On one occasion, in 1997, he wrote me asking for money to buy a few toiletries. (The authorities issued soap and tooth powder to the inmates but no deodorant or shampoo.) The only thing I resented about writing that check was the 22 percent tax the authorities skimmed off the top for a statewide victims’ fund, which seemed to be more about expanding the prison bureaucracy than helping the families of people like Kevin Reed. Reading Tony’s letter again now, I immediately recognize a plaintive repetition that was common in his correspondence:

Gary I’m almost all out of cosmetics soap, deodorant, toothpast and if you can please can you send me a money order please so I can go to the store and get some more cosmetics Im relly out just enough to last about a week Gary whatever you can send I would be greatful I relly need to get some more cosmetics Please let me know if you can do that for me. Please I’m just trying to get some deodorant, soap and toothpast Gary pleae if you can do that for me. Let me know. Also tell your wife I said Happy New Year.


In 1996, after nearly four years at Calipatria, Tony was transferred to Salinas Valley State Prison—better known as Soledad, after the city on the Monterey Peninsula where it is located. At first it seemed to be a big improvement: He was only two hours from home, and the climate was far less brutal. But his family still didn’t visit, and Soledad was still a maximum-security facility, populated by some of the state’s most violent offenders. It was also another prison in the midst of a turf war between the sureños and the norteños. There’d be a stabbing, the entire facility would go on lockdown, and the other side would retaliate as soon as the lockdown was lifted. The gangs left the noncombatants alone, but the feud meant that the entire inmate population was confined to their cells for months at a stretch. In time, Tony would come to hate Soledad more than Calipatria.

Tony told me that he wasn’t worried about his physical safety, and I believed him. He had always been big, and in prison he had replaced fat with muscle, using free weights until they were banned by the authorities and thereafter maintaining a regimen of push-ups, chin-ups, and the like. What worried me more was the possibility that he might simply give up. He was surrounded by lifers who had abandoned all hope of winning parole in law-and-order California.

Winning parole meant proving to the board that you were working hard and committed to improving yourself. The commissioners want an inmate to have earned his GED and picked up at least a couple of trades. They want to see a work history. But given how rarely the board was granting parole at the time to those with a life tail on their sentences, plenty of Tony’s fellow inmates asked why he bothered. You might as well do nothing with your days, his cellmate—an Oakland man doing 25 to life—would say, because filling them to impress a parole board was futile.

“He was always playing with my head ’bout none of us there on a murder beef ever getting paroled,” Tony complained to me at the time. He requested a switch and moved in with another inmate who was also serving time for murder. His new cellmate worked a job and faithfully attended church services. Less than six months later, the man ended up in a prison infirmary after slitting his wrists.

At times, Tony’s first cellmate seemed to have a point: Why bother? The odds of his actually getting paroled were woefully slim. Of the roughly 6,000 lifers appearing before the parole board in California each year, just 6 percent are granted parole. Since 1988, the state has had the power to overturn the parole board’s decisions, which has shrunk that figure to less than 1 percent; there is no political upside in freeing a convicted murderer. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed about 75 percent of the paroles granted during his two terms. Gray Davis, his predecessor, reversed 99 percent.

The realities of prison, meanwhile, made it all but impossible for Tony to pursue the self-improvements the parole board wanted to see. Between lockdowns and teacher turnover, his GED classes were canceled for eight of the first twelve months he was at Calipatria. Soledad was more of the same: classes suspended due to warring between rival gangs, teachers who would resign and not be replaced for months. “My soul is dead,” Tony wrote to me in 1998, after one long stretch of lockdowns. What was the use of trying, he wanted to know, when no one cared about him anyway? “I been curse since birth … I’m in hell Gary I relly am.”

Still, Tony stuck with his GED classes. He started reading more, asking me to send him a dictionary and a book by Will Durant called The Pleasures of Philosophy. He learned to play chess. Approaching 30, Tony was growing interested in a world beyond his cellblock and his disappointments with his family. He was also sounding like someone gaining some perspective on life. Locked inside a cell, sometimes for weeks at a time, he was having insights that reminded me of the late-night debates my friends and I had in college. He realized, for instance, that even when he was on the streets, he wasn’t really free; he was imprisoned by the low expectations of his family and culture. “My mission in life is to get out of prison,” he wrote to me shortly after his 30th birthday. “I will say this over and over again. This place is not for me.”

Eight

In 1999, my first marriage ended. It was the child we couldn’t have, it was money, it was the festering resentments born of our two-career household, it was who knows what. Moving out began a nomadic period in my life. The Internet magazine where I was working went out of business in 2001, and after bouncing around the country for a few months I ended up back on the East Coast. Then it was off to Silicon Valley, followed by New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and finally, in 2006, New York again. It would have been easy to lose touch with Tony while I was pinballing around the country, and at one point I went several months before letting him know where I’d landed. But I missed hearing his voice, I missed our talks. I kept updating him on my new coordinates, and he kept calling.

There wasn’t a single moment when the sad-sack Fat Tone was replaced by the upbeat new Tony, only a series of steps forward and backward. A letter from March 2003 starts with a self-directed pep talk: “Staying positive, keeping hope alive, reading and doing some writing and just trying to keep my mind stress free in a stressful place.” It’s midnight, he tells me; his cellmate is sleeping, and the cellblock is blessedly quiet. “I like it like this,” he writes. “I can relly think about my life.”

But then there were letters like the one he wrote to me two years later, in the summer 2005. “Basicly, I’m just waiting to”—he blotted out the next word and then added, “I relly don’t even look forward to going to the [parole] board.” Tony declared 2005—the year he turned 34—to be the worst of his life, and 2006 wasn’t looking much better. “To relly be honest,” he wrote that April, “I wish at times they would have kill me instead of leting me go through this misery.”

Fate—or at least some midlevel Department of Corrections bureaucrat—intervened in the nick of time. Every year, the California Department of Corrections recalculates an inmate’s classification score to see if he or she can be moved to a lower-security—and therefore less-costly—facility. An inmate’s record of prison rule violations, employment, classroom attendance, and age are among the factors the authorities take into account. One month after Tony penned that last letter, his classification score was recalculated, and the number fell enough that he was qualified to be transferred to Solano, a medium-security prison just outside San Francisco in Vacaville, California.

Solano proved a welcome respite from the gladiator schools that had previously housed him. Yard time lasted most of the day rather than three hours of it, and inmates had to report to their cells for a headcount just once between 7:45 a.m. (when the cellblock was unlocked) and 9 p.m. (when it was locked down again for the night), rather than regularly throughout the day. And the differences extended beyond small freedoms.

At the state’s maximum-security facilities, itchy-fingered guards armed with assault rifles stand on parapets above the prison yard, ready to shoot at the first hint of trouble. It’s amazing to watch, an official at Calipatria once told me during a tour of the facility. “A warning shot is fired and like that, boom, every inmate hits the dirt,” he said. “I mean, 500 inmates one second are standing, and then the next moment every one of them is lying face down on the ground.” (Tony’s greatest fear, he used to tell me, was getting struck by a guard’s errant bullet—a grimly poetic concern given the circumstances of Kevin Reed’s murder.) Correctional officers armed with rifles still stood guard at Solano, but only around the perimeter of the facility. They were there to prevent escapes, not maintain order. Now Tony’s greatest complaint was the gossipy nature of the yard. It was “like one big fish bowl,” he told me, where “everybody knows everybody[’s] business.”

But a prison, of course, is still a prison. A day served inside Solano might be less awful than one spent locked away inside Calipatria or Soledad, but there was still the abyss of time stretching into the future. Friends were still a relative concept, the meals still bad and hurried enough that Tony felt full, he told me, only on the big holidays, when treats were served: roast turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving and Christmas, apple pie on the Fourth of July. And then there were the guards, who Tony always referred to as the police, as if there is no distinction to be drawn between those who busted him on the outside and those watching over him on the inside. “The po-lease here, there’s no other way to put it: they’re bullies,” he told me. “They bully you every day. They treat you like an animal.”

Tony’s new cell measured nine feet by twelve feet—the same as at Soledad and Calipatria. He and his cellmate shared a toilet and small steel sink, though each had his own small steel desk, with a fixed metal stool, and a few cubbyholes to stow their scant belongings. Lockdowns, if not as relentless as they had been at the maximum-security prisons, were still regular occurrences—so much so that they would thwart my last several attempts to see him when I was in the Bay Area.

Still, the move to a medium-security prison was undeniably a step in the right direction. Tony enrolled in an intensive psychotherapy regimen and a 12-step program. He grew more serious about religion and started sharing his epiphanies with me, like the realization that his childhood had been almost completely devoid of positive role models. “All my life, I was patted on the back for doing the wrong thing,” he told me. He finally earned his GED in August 2008, at the age of 36; several years later, he was only a few credits shy of an associate’s degree.

But even in Solano, a facility where most inmates would eventually be released, rehabilitation could seem like a peripheral concern. And if Tony needed a reminder of how precarious the path back to society was, he got one in 2007. He broke the bad news to me that September: Junebug was behind bars again.

Unlike Tony, Junebug didn’t need to impress a parole board to win his freedom. A 16-year-old at the time of his conviction, he was a ward of the California Youth Authority and sure to be released before he turned 25. But he managed to impress just the same. He and I also kept in touch during his eight-year sentence, primarily through letters, and he kept me posted on his progress. A paper he wrote about Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision upholding the doctrine of separate but equal, earned him an A-plus in his English literature course, as did an essay he wrote on the meaning of Hamlet. Always smart, he was now taking his studies seriously. I made sure to call him John when I dropped him a letter and on those rare occasions we spoke, as a way of distinguishing between the immature kid he had once been and the man he was growing into.

After Junebug was released in 1999, Tony periodically passed along updates about how he was doing. At first the news was all good: Junebug enrolled in an aviation repair school, earned his mechanic’s license, and got a job in Seattle in 2005. He was making good money, he had a girlfriend, he was the father of first one son and then another. But then in 2007, Junebug was found guilty of second-degree assault for hitting his girlfriend. Because of his prior murder conviction, and because the domestic assault had taken place in front of a minor, he was hit with a 10-year sentence. A lawyer with the Washington Appellate Project, a Seattle nonprofit representing indigent defendants, would later challenge the sentence as unduly harsh. But as it was, Junebug stood to spend a good chunk of his thirties, and perhaps some of his forties, in a Washington state prison.

Nine

Do you talk about your love life when the person on the other end of the phone is trapped indefinitely in prison? Was it cruel even to broach the subject? I knew Tony, in spite of his circumstances, was looking for a girlfriend—he had even enlisted my help once. Two weeks after he was transferred from Calipatria to Soledad, in the summer 1996, he began a letter by noting that it was good to be breathing Northern California air again, and then he got right to the point. He was interested in finding a female pen pal, how would I feel about putting an ad in the paper on his behalf? “I’m a good person and I have a good heart,” he wrote. “I’m sincere and I have a lot of confidence in myself and on top of that I’m lonely.”

Still, the subject came up rarely—I avoided talking about it if Tony didn’t bring it up himself—and I was shocked when he told me in 2011 that he had gotten engaged. “The greatest love story ever told,” he called it, jokingly.

Tony had been at Solano only a couple of years when a fellow inmate named Thomas told him about Candace Mitchell. You’d really like her, said Thomas, who had known Candace since both of them were kids. She had been a real party girl back in the day, he told Tony, but she had found God and settled down, and now lived just a few miles from the prison. Thomas was so convinced that she and Tony would like one another that one day in 2008, when he was on the phone with Candace and Tony happened by, he handed him the receiver.

Candace was three years younger than Tony. She had three daughters and ran a day care center out of her home. The two immediately hit it off. Tony made Candace laugh, but more importantly, she later told me, “I sensed right away that he had a good heart.”

But for Candace, at least, at first their conversations were more about Christian fellowship than courtship. Candace was seeing another inmate at Solano at the time, and another woman named Kim was coming to see Tony regularly in the prison visitor’s room. Still, Candace was always happy to take one of his calls. “I have a passion for the ones locked up,” she told me. “To let them know they’re not forgotten.” But the relationship was hardly one-way, Candace stressed. “He always gave good advice,” she said. “He stayed on my mind.”

One day, Candace told Tony that she had been praying over him the night before and had a vision of him crying in his cell. The comment stopped Tony cold. “He says to me, ‘How did you know?’” Candace recalled. The sense of the bond they shared would help Tony survive the next couple of years, which proved to be difficult ones.

In 2010, a prison guard caught Tony talking on a cell phone inside his cell. “I was brazen,” Tony later told me. “I wasn’t being smart.” There are good and obvious reasons why inmates aren’t allowed to have phones inside prison. But for Tony, the logic for having a phone was just as inexorable. Collect calls from prison—the only allowed means he had of reaching the outside world—ran upwards of $10 for 15 minutes, more than most of his family members were able or willing to pay. The cell phone allowed him access to his family in a way he had not experienced since he was a teenager. It helped him get back in touch with his mother, his Aunt Paula, and even his father, with whom he had not spoken since he was around 15. Tony spoke to him only a few times from prison before he passed away later that year. But in those conversations, his father apologized for not being in his life, and Tony forgave him for everything. As Tony told him, “How can I not forgive you when I want forgiveness myself?”

But Tony had gotten careless, and now he had another serious violation on his record. When he told me about his write-up for the cell phone, my heart sank. I was, in a small way, complicit in this crime. I knew about the phone. It had made our conversations much easier. When he was caught, I had to admit that I had turned off the critical part of my brain that would have asked the obvious question: How in the world was Tony able to pay for a cell phone all those months when he had no money?

The answer was more bad news. Tony, it emerged, was busted not only for the cell phone, but also for drug possession. It was a fact he kept from me at the time; I only discovered that it had happened several years later. He wasn’t using, he insisted, or even selling. He was renting out his cell as a kind of safe house, stashing extra product for a dealer he knew. His punishment was 12 months in the hole. More critically, he would now need to explain two fresh violations—one for involvement in the prison’s drug underground—to the parole board.


In the California prison system, a write-up for a serious rule violation is known as a “115,” after the number of the form used to document infractions. 115s influence an inmate’s placement score more than any other factor—and, of course, the total number of 115s on an inmate’s record looms large when appearing in front of a parole board. Although they are considered universally serious in the eyes of the authorities, practically speaking, 115s span a spectrum from genuinely serious to the prison equivalent of a speeding ticket.

Among the latter was the 115 Tony received less than a year after arriving in prison, when he was caught with a jar of pruno—prison wine made from anything that can be fermented, from apples to bread to canned fruit cocktail—in his cell. It was a clear-cut, if relatively minor, transgression. Other 115s, however, suggested the impossible bind confronting inmates trying to follow both the official prison rules and the unofficial code that determines survival in the brutal gauntlet of a correctional facility.

The 115 that Tony received for punching the inmate in the shower shortly after arriving at Calipatria was a case in point. At first glance, it seemed like a stupid and reckless act, a write-up incurred for no good reason. But Tony knew that if he didn’t respond to the challenge, the next one would be more serious than an argument in the shower line—even if he knew that the parole board would be less than sympathetic to that logic.

Tony had told me about other 115s in his file. The one he said he had received in June of 2000, also for fighting, seemed the most serious. Tony claimed that the day after trying to break up a fight between a friend and several others inmates, he was jumped by three men who blamed him for the incident. One of them ended up in the hospital with a fractured back, earning Tony a write-up for battery. That meant a fresh 115 for a serious crime, only a couple years before his first parole board hearing in October 2002, in anticipation of a possible release in 2003.

That hearing had not gone well. In his own estimation, Tony came off sounding defensive, argumentative, and confused. Waiting 12 years to finally have his say, it seemed, had left him unable to say much of anything at all. Later, he’d downplay the importance of the hearing, saying he never stood a chance the first time anyway.

Tony’s second appearance before the parole board was scheduled for 2005, during the bad stretch near the end of his time at Soledad, when he seemed on the verge of suicide. I later learned that Tony himself chose to delay that hearing until early 2007, and then, according to a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, took what was known as a three-year stipulation: He basically conceded that he wasn’t ready for parole, agreeing that he should spend at least another three years behind bars.

He would do the same in 2010, when he took a two-year stipulation. From our phone calls—and maybe a little bit of hopeful thinking—I had the distinct impression that each appearance before the parole board represented another step in a steady climb toward release. But the truth was that, technically, Tony hadn’t appeared in front of the parole board in 10 years. “The thing is,” he would eventually tell me, “when I went to the board all those other times, I knew I was doing wrong. I was doing dirty.” The difference in 2012, he said, was that now he had Candace.

Tony and Candace started getting more serious once Tony was released back into the general population after his time in the hole. She saw something good in him, she told me, “but I knew I was going to have to pull it out.” Tony started attending chapel services inside the prison, and, maybe more important to Candace, he cut out people from his life whom she was able to convince him were bad influences. “I told him he had to learn certain people he was with were doing him no good,” she said. “They kept him doing the same patterns.”

They would talk whenever Tony could get to a phone, praying and reading the Bible together. She would start visiting, she told him, only once she felt certain that there’d be no more backsliding. “I asked him, ‘Tony, where are you at with God?’ Because I needed to know. I needed to know he was planted.” There were her three daughters to consider and also her job. Break rules on the inside, she counseled Tony, and it’s easy to get in the habit of breaking them on the outside. There would be no more cell phones, no more hiding drugs, no more small infractions, even, as long as she was in the picture.

Candace started visiting Tony in 2010. Tony’s punishment for the drugs and cell phone included a three-year ban on contact visits, so that meant that while he and Candace could spend a few hours talking, they couldn’t touch each other. They sat on either side of a thick sheet of plexiglass, connected only by a set of phone handsets. Tony was still forbidden from contact visits when the two were married in November 2011—“married behind the glass,” as Candace described it. The couple exchanged vows with the bride and minister standing together talking on one phone and Tony talking on another.

When Candace sent me photos of the two sitting happily together in the visitors’ room shortly after the contact-visit ban was lifted, I realized that it was the first time I’d ever seen Tony smiling in a picture. When I mentioned it to him, he explained, “I don’t want no little kid seeing my picture, my niece or my nephew, and think it’s cool to be in prison.”

Ten

Five months after his wedding, Tony was finally ready to face the parole board. His hearing took place on the morning of March 16, 2012, in an administrative building on the prison grounds. The board consisted of two officials chosen from a stable of roving commissioners who bounce from prison to prison across California. The people of Alameda County, which includes Oakland, had their representative, a deputy district attorney named Jill Klinge. Tony had his representative as well, a state-provided defense lawyer. And then there was Tony himself, his head shaved, dressed in his prison blues and wearing his prison-issue steel-framed glasses. This time he didn’t feel that fluttery feeling in his stomach like in the past, he later told me. It had been over a year since his last 115. He was a reformed sinner with a clean conscience.

Though I wasn’t physically present for the hearing, I did make a brief appearance. I had written a letter on Tony’s behalf—the first time I had chosen to do so. For me the letter represented my final transition from journalistic observer to friend. I was no longer just a sympathetic ear for someone who had committed a horrible act and felt deeply repentant about it. I was now telling the California parole board that Tony was a kind and decent man and deserved a second chance.

“I’ve observed him work hard to improve and grow over the years—through books, through the church, through the various courses and programs offered within the penitentiary system, all driven by a strong sense of determination that a single terrible act would not define the remainder of his life,” I wrote. “I’m confident declaring him a good man, wise and kind—a man with a good head on his shoulders who very much would strive to become a productive member of society if ever he were given a second chance.”

There’s a this-is-your-life aspect to a parole hearing. Aside from Tony’s crime and what the presiding commissioner—a former rural county sheriff—called Tony’s “institutional behavior,” much of the early part of the hearing focused on Tony’s childhood. The commissioners asked him about his father and mother. Tony told them the story of his mother, how she was a junkie who would disappear from his life for years at a time when he was young. She was still using, he said. But Tony knew these questions were a test. “I always say that even though I came from the background I came from,” he told the commissioners, “I’m not a victim of all that.”

“No,” the former sheriff, Mike Prizmich, said.

“I’m a victim of just the bad choices that I always made,” Tony went on. “There’s a lot of people that was in worst situations than me that worked and worked hard and got out and did productive things.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So I can’t use that as an excuse.”

“No. And I’m glad you can’t,” Prizmich replied, “Because it’s a flimsy one.”

The interview shifted to Tony’s life behind bars. Prizmich asked what he learned about himself participating in a 26-week psychotherapy program inside Vacaville. Tony’s answer was crisp. “What I gained from that is that my mental map was faulty, that I had self-esteem issues,” he said. “I also took shortcuts in life.” Prizmich’s deputy commissioner, Kenneth Cater, upbraided Tony for his “erratic” involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and said he was disappointed to see so little vocational training on Tony’s record. What about a plumbing course or one in welding?

I knew that neither of these was Tony’s fault. Solano boasts of its substance-abuse program on its website but doesn’t mention that it discontinued its AA and NA programs years ago due to lack of staffing; Tony had enrolled in both, but they shut down two years later. (The sessions have since been partially restored, but Tony’s name still sits on the waiting list.) The same website touts the prison’s wide offering of vocational programs, from carpentry to plumbing to fiber optics, but Tony’s name was on waiting lists for those as well. Tony explained to the commissioners about NA and AA but said nothing about the vocational work.

But what the commissioners really wanted to talk about were the 115s. Tony had racked up 10 of them during his 20 years behind bars. This struck me as a modest number, given the length of his incarceration and the realities of prison life, but I seemed to be the only one who thought so. “Mr. Davis has a noteworthy disciplinary history,” Cater remarked. Even Tony’s defense attorney would say that her client has “struggled during his incarceration period” to avoid “disciplinary infractions.”

“Every 115 that I received,” Tony said, “I earned.” He wouldn’t waste the board’s time making excuses, he said. Then Cater, the deputy commissioner, pressed him about another incident, one that Tony had never mentioned to me: “an institutional offense of distribution of a controlled substance,” Cater called it, which was barely a year old at the time of the hearing. According to the write-up, Tony had been caught holding methamphetamine.

In fact, I later learned, Tony had not. It was his cellmate who had been busted—Tony had had nothing to do with the drugs, but the write-up was improperly placed in Tony’s file. It would later be expunged from his record. All the board knew, however, was that Tony had a “technical” issue with the charge. Rather than tell the board it was all a mistake, Tony remained the good prisoner who embraced responsibility. “I was not a participant in it but I knew about it,” Tony confessed.

Once the entirety of Tony’s record had been scrutinized, Jill Klinge, the district attorney, was invited to give a closing statement. “I commend him for his honesty with the panel today,” Klinge said of Tony. But it was impossible to endorse parole for a man who seemed to have been clean only since 2011, she went on, referring to the cellmate’s meth bust. “He’s going to need a substantial period of time for those gains to be solidified and to make sure that it is really going to settle in,” she said.

Tony’s own prison-appointed lawyer might as well have been a potted plant; over the course of the hearing, her only substantive contribution to his defense had been to correct a single date that one of the commissioners had gotten wrong. She seemed similarly unaware of the extent of the mistake on Tony’s record, noting how “significant” the meth charge was. “There’s no doubt that [Tony] has a very long way to go to dig himself out of the hole he has been in for most of his incarceration,” she told the board.

Finally, Tony was called upon to offer his own closing statement. He opened by apologizing to the families of all those he harmed in the shooting. He apologized to the commissioners for making them listen to him talk about all the mistakes he’s made in his life. “The only thing I can do is be honest,” he said, “and say I’m sorry and just use each day to become a better person.”

Eleven

The hearing lasted nearly two hours, but a verdict was rendered after only 11 minutes of deliberation. Tony had clearly impressed the commissioners with his closing remarks, and they went out of their way to compliment him. “Your appearance here today was truly a stand-up performance,” Cater, the deputy commissioner, told Tony. “You did show courage today. You took ownership, and there was honesty.”

Then Prizmich, the presiding commissioner, announced the board’s decision: Tony, he said, would not be paroled. He would need to wait seven more years until his next hearing. “You did a good job today,” Prizmich said. “Prove to us that that’s the real you now.”

The news was devastating but, I suppose, not wholly surprising. Even discounting the meth charge, the previous drug violation and cell phone were both relatively recent offenses. Parole boards are in the business of saying no, and by disrespecting their rules, Tony had given them a reason to conclude that he would break the law on the outside.

But seven years? That seemed cruel, a verdict that would discourage rather than encourage someone who had obviously been working hard to make something of his life. The boy who was so repentant after his arrest that a county probation officer thought it wouldn’t take 10 years to rehabilitate him had already spent twice that long behind bars—and now he would be staying in prison at least until 2019, when he would be nearly 50. Tony had fought so hard to ignore those who had urged him to give up, but maybe they were right: Why even bother trying to impress the parole board when it amounted to so little?

“It’s good that he has all these support letters,” Jill Klinge, the district attorney, had said near the end of the hearing, “but all of them state that he’s ready for release. So it makes me question if he has informed them of what’s truly going on.” She was referring, in part, to me, of course, and implying that I had been manipulated by Tony, that he had fed me a sanitized version of his life behind bars. It was true that Tony had not told me about his 2009 drug conviction; I found the revelation jarring when I read it in the parole hearing transcript. But Tony had told me about all of his other transgressions, and it was understandable to me that he had felt ashamed that he messed up so monumentally and chose not to share the news with me. It seemed the equivalent of learning only after a divorce that a good friend—one who did a lot of complaining about relationship woes—had been carrying on a prolonged affair. It was disappointing, of course, but it took nothing away from how impressed I was with the man Tony had become. Given the opportunity, I would write the same letter again without hesitation.

I was far more taken aback by how little the commissioners and the district attorney appeared to know about the system over which they presided. During the hearing, Klinge referred to the 15 years it took Tony to earn a GED as proof that he wasn’t serious about turning his life around—apparently unaware of how difficult the on-again, off-again nature of classes in maximum-security prisons made it to earn one at all. And what about the 2011 meth charge that played so central a role in the hearing’s outcome? The commissioners live a crazy, peripatetic life, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections later told me by way of explanation. They were part of a justice system charged with tracking several hundred thousand inmates and parolees. It was inevitable that the occasional file would fail to catch up to a parole board in time, that the occasional wire would get crossed.

But there is also an appeals process. Shortly after the hearing, Tony enlisted the aid of a fellow convict who had already secured a new parole hearing for one inmate and helped another win his release. (I picked up part of the tab for the services of this jailhouse lawyer in the form of a package of items he had requested. As far as legal bills go, it was a steal: two plastic jars of Folgers coffee, a pound of cashews, one package of Red Vines and another of taffy, a Schick Quattro Titanium razor, and a few other odds and ends.) He has managed to get the 115 for methamphetamine possession expunged from Tony’s record and may have won him a new hearing well before 2019. That, at least, is what he tells Tony when he’s hitting him up for more money. As of this writing, the Department of Corrections does not have a new hearing officially scheduled for him for the next seven years.

But Tony seems determined to remain optimistic. It took a while for us to talk after the hearing —his facility was on extended lockdown, naturally—but when we did, he sounded lighthearted, almost giddy with optimism about life. I seemed more devastated by the news than he was. “Don’t be sorry,” he said. “Be happy. Be joyous.” Life for Tony seemed finally to be moving in the right direction, parole or no. He had found a woman to love and, maybe more importantly, he had forgiven himself for what he had done. Somehow, in the crucible of the California prison system, he had found redemption. He exuded not self-pity but a determination to fight on. “This is not the end,” he vowed to me. “There’s no way seven years will be seven years.”

I wanted to believe it, and believe that Tony believed it. But I worried about him. In the first letter he wrote to me after getting the bad news, he told me about his plans to fight on. But then his confidence gave way to another familiar tone. “P-L-E-A-S-E don’t give up on me,” he wrote.

In case I missed the point, he repeated the plea in a postscript: “P-L-E-A-S-E don’t give up on me my life is so much more than this.”