As Black Lives Matter draws national attention to the pervasive systemic racism of the U.S. criminal system, USC’s Post-Conviction Justice Project continues to work on the front lines, in June freeing three life-sentenced clients from state prisons.
Clients Allen, Celia and Charles received life sentences for crimes they committed as teenagers and spent 84 years combined in California prisons. Each expected to die in prison, but put in the hard work to rehabilitate and become positive members of their communities. Through their dedication and PCJP’s advocacy, they are now free with high hopes for doing good in the world.
“Our criminal system disproportionately affects communities of color, especially Black and Brown communities. At PCJP, we have long believed that these lives matter — Black Lives Matter. And that they are worth fighting for,” said Heidi Rummel, clinical professor of law at USC Gould School of Law and PCJP co-director. “Our representation of our clients restores their humanity and their dignity, demanding that the criminal system recognize that each of us is more than the single worst choice we have made in our life.”
Allen was greeted by friends and family at his release from California State Prison in Lancaster on June 24. He served 28 years in prison after being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a felony murder carjacking that he participated in at the age of 18.
Although he faced a certainty that he would die in prison, Allen said he took every opportunity for self-improvement. He obtained a college degree and became a leader in self-help and restorative justice groups doing outreach to victims of violent crime. Allen’s work to create curriculums for gang intervention and mediation, and his willingness to share his own story, influenced one 14-year-old boy to rethink his gang involvement, he said.
In 2019, Governor Newsom recognized Allen’s extraordinary service and commuted his life-without-parole sentence to a parole-eligible sentence. In February, Allen, together with PCJP law student Jacqueline Lee (JD Class of 2021), made the case to the Board of Parole Hearings that he no longer posed any danger to the community.
Allen described PCJP as an extension of his family.
“The men in Lancaster fell in love with USC, with the Post-Conviction Justice Project, because they constantly take the time to come to the prison, to do workshops, to accept our collect calls, to listen to the men’s narratives, and to go out of their way to fight for us,” he said.
Likewise, Lee expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to work with Allen. “The experience pushed me to become a better attorney, and also a better person,” she said. “I am excited to see the positive change and healing Allen will bring to our world.”
Celia was released from Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility on June 10, after serving 29 years on multiple life sentences for a crime she committed at the age of 17, while struggling with extreme gender dysphoria and a deeply traumatic childhood.
In 2014, Celia took the step to transition to live outwardly as a woman in a male prison rife with everyday gender violence. She emerged from prison a fierce advocate for more humane treatment of her transgender peers in prison.
Although the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation denied her application for sex reassignment surgery, she persevered to advocate for her community to receive hormone treatment, authentic gender personal items and a legal name change. Her advocacy now extends beyond prison, as she continues to fight for those she left behind prison walls.
In the face of her transgender identity posing a serious threat to her safety within prison walls, Celia credits PCJP for providing her with security and strength that was difficult to come by.
“I never felt alone in anything. Through my worst times in there, through my good times, whenever anything was happening, PCJP supported me,” she said. “They made me feel a safety in prison as a transgender woman that I had never felt before. I knew whatever happened, if I did what I was supposed to do, everything was going to be alright, because Heidi and the students were going to find a way for me.”
PCJP alum Alexander Kirkpatrick, JD 2017, was at the prison to greet Celia upon her release and shared his reflections on his work with Celia over the years:
“It was an honor to witness Celia’s freedom and a privilege to be a part of her journey and remarkable transformation. I met Celia as a first-year law student with PCJP to help her prepare for her first parole hearing. Celia postponed her hearing to petition for sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) and other gender affirming health care from CDCR. Celia and I worked for the next four years to fight administrative legal battles against CDCR for the humane treatment of transgender individuals in California prisons. Celia’s advocacy mapped onto significant changes. In 2016, while Celia’s own petition for sex-reassignment surgery was pending, California became the first state in the U.S. to provide SRS in state prisons. Celia’s willingness to shine light onto her own journey of gender dysphoria exposed the real denial of humanity suffered by incarcerated transgender people. Celia’s journey to live fully as her true self, seeking personal freedom, also facilitated her actual freedom.”Alexander Kirkpatrick, JD 2017
Charles, too, was released from the Lancaster prison on May 13 after serving 27 years on a life sentence for a crime he committed at age 17.
He was met at the gate by Ashley Smith (JD Class of 2021), the student who represented him at his parole hearing; Eunice Bautista, PCJP senior case manager; and Javier Stauring, founder of Healing Dialogue and Action.
Charles’ rehabilitation was fueled by his work with the Paws for Life dog training program. He found purpose and fulfillment in training traumatized dogs to prepare them for adoption. “I understand their trauma — healing the dogs has helped to heal me,” he said.
Charles has continued his work with dogs since his release. “This work can bring happiness to a family,” he said, “and gives my life a sense of purpose.”
Charles credits PCJP’s representation not only with his freedom, but also his self-esteem: “They saw in me what I didn’t see in myself. They were willing to look for the best in me when the worst was more prevalent.” He counts PCJP among his support system, which speaks to the unshakable bonds with both the attorneys and the student who represented him.
Smith shared her reflections on her work with Charles:
“Working to prepare Charles for his parole hearing was rewarding in so many ways. From our very first meeting, I could see that Charles was extremely hard-working and dedicated to his rehabilitation. He was not put off by my seemingly long list of requests and assignments, but instead, he welcomed them. His hunger for his freedom was infectious. It pushed me to do better and be the best advocate I could be for him. Specifically, I remember speaking with him a few days before his hearing and asking him how he would feel if he was denied parole again. ‘It’s God’s plan. If I had not been denied parole last time, I would have never gotten the opportunity to work in the dog program and realize that working with animals is my true passion.’ Charles’ positive perspective on the denial of his freedom is a testament to the dedicated, hard-working person that he is.
On January 8, 2020, Charles earned a grant of parole. On May 13, 2020, I met Charles at the prison gates to welcome him home. Since his release, I am constantly amazed, but not surprised, at the positive contributions Charles continues to make to society. His genuine gratitude for life is a lesson I will carry with me forever.”Ashley Smith, JD Class of 2021
When he entered prison as a teenager, Charles said he lacked a support system and did not trust anyone. “One word that I don’t use lightly, ever in life, is the word ‘friend,’” he said. “But I can say that those are my friends. Heidi. Eunice. Ashley. Anna. Mike. They brought out the best in me when I couldn’t see it.”
Fighting for second chances
The criminal justice system “swallows up and destroys people who have great potential to grow and change and be a positive force in their communities,” said Rummel.
“I am proud to be part of USC Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project where professors and law students have spent decades fighting for Black and Brown people targeted with extreme sentences in our criminal system. And I am encouraged that America is finally waking up to the long, hard road ahead of us to address systemic racism and mass incarceration.”
Please support PCJP as we fight to free those who deserve second chances and continue to advocate for meaningful reform of our criminal system. And join us as we celebrate the clients who have suffered in our oppressive system and the students who fight for their freedom so that they may raise their voices for change.
— Alexandra Zarchy —
Featured photo: Allen looks out at the ocean after his release from prison. (Photo / F. Scott Schafer)