Twenty-two years into a life sentence for a crime committed as a teen, a former gang member found hope with the help of USC legal advocates.
Charles sat on the hot concrete yard of the state prison in Lancaster, California. He was done.
Done with the hope of freedom. Done with the hope of experiences beyond the prison walls. Done with life.
After two decades behind bars, he had just been denied release by the parole board. No one seemed to care about him, and he couldn’t find the desire to care about anyone else — or himself. The Mojave Desert sun sizzled, yet Charles had never felt so cold or dark.
That’s when the dog shuffled toward him, perhaps sensing his desperation, Charles guesses. Whatever the reason, the canine began licking his ear gently.
“The dog didn’t judge,” Charles says. “He loved me for who I was.”
How did a dog end up on the prison yard? It came from Paws For Life, a program that seeks to heal two groups that rarely get second chances: animals in local shelters and people in prison. For Charles, that small moment of comfort, of unconditional love, renewed his hope that his life meant something. It put him on a road of redemption, reflection and healing that would lead him to USC justice reform advocates who believed in him, including law professors and students.
It would also lead him beyond the prison walls to his freedom.
Laws of Survival Guide Life on the Streets
Violence, suffering and abuse were the norm for Charles well before he landed in prison. As a child with absent parents, he turned to crime when he was 12 to support three younger siblings. Joining a gang brought survival. His self-worth depended on his ability to provide for his family, which kickstarted his career selling drugs on the streets of South Los Angeles.
“I was a person who could rationalize taking another person’s life,” he says.
And he did take a life. A drug deal gone wrong led to his murder conviction and a life sentence. He was only 17. (USC Trojan Family is using his first name only out of concerns for privacy.)
In prison, he followed the same survival tactics he learned at home. He clung to gangs and violence, to anyone who had his back. Those who challenged his behavior received the same retort: “What are y’all gonna do, put me in prison?” He felt certain he would die alone behind bars, so the outside world was irrelevant. His life and identity existed only within the confines of those walls and his gang. “If you told me, ‘Just be Charles,’ I was lost,” he says.
For many years, Charles carved out an existence fueled by anger and distrust. But as he grew older, he realized he had been living a life that others saw for him, rather than figuring out the life he wanted for himself. He also saw something in the young men coming into prison that felt familiar. No one believed in them, and they didn’t believe in themselves. No one had tried to make his small world better when he was their age; could he do that for them?
He began to advise young men looking to escape a life of violence. They looked up to him and followed his lead, but he was painfully aware that he was “steering them wrong” as long as he kept his gang affiliation. So, he made a choice. “The day that I walked away from the gang was the first time that I ever slept peacefully,” Charles says.
Just one week later, Charles took another step that would change his life. He went to a workshop sponsored by the Post-Conviction Justice Project, or PCJP, a legal clinic run by the USC Gould School of Law. The USC justice reform project works with people serving adult life sentences for crimes they committed as youths. Led by co-directors Heidi Rummel and Michael Brennan, law students learn to advocate for clients like Charles, guiding them through parole hearings and court resentencing sessions.
After Charles met Rummel and learned about PCJP’s work, he began to feel the most dangerous emotion in prison: hope.
A Former Gang Member Commits to Change
Rummel has seen too many people end up like Charles. Since 1981, PCJP has represented and advocated for incarcerated men and women — many sentenced to life terms for crimes they committed as children or young adults. Since 2008, PCJP has cosponsored or written nearly every juvenile justice and parole reform bill in California. “We believe in the power of hope,” Rummel says.
They saw in me what I didn’t see in myself. They were willing to see the best in me when the worst was more prevalent.Charles
Through PCJP, Rummel and Brennan work alongside law students, former clients and supporters to help people prepare for parole hearings and advocate for themselves. In the project’s 40 years, it has helped more than 150 people with life sentences gain their freedom and assisted more than 4,000 clients with other legal challenges. The project has offered more than 100 parole readiness programs in 20 California prisons. At one of these workshops, Charles met the people who would become his first friends in decades.
Rummel and Anna Faircloth-Feingold, a former PCJP student and one of the clinic’s supervising attorneys at the time, saw that Charles deeply wanted to change.
“When we met Charles, he was in a maximum-security yard, where it was very difficult to do the right thing,” Faircloth-Feingold says. “And Charles had done that, despite the odds and despite his environment. His commitment to rehabilitation and the authentic nature of his change were very clear from the beginning.”
Charles simply remembers the support he felt: “They saw in me what I didn’t see in myself. They were willing to see the best in me when the worst was more prevalent.”
USC Justice Reform Advocates Offer Glimmer of Hope
PCJP accepted Charles for representation, and law students and professors began their work with him. But it was a tough sell at first. In the beginning, he was skeptical of Faircloth-Feingold’s commitment to his case. He tried hard to figure out her motive.
“Because of his life experience, it was unfamiliar for someone to be willing to help him without some angle or something that they were trying to get out of him,” she says.
Eventually, Charles agreed to let Faircloth-Feingold represent him at his first parole hearing. “They thought that I deserved a second chance, even when I didn’t,” he says.
In the intense hearing, he would have to relive his traumatic childhood before a commissioner, a deputy district attorney and correctional officers — all in a bid for freedom that could be turned down with the shake of a head. Until that day, his murder conviction was his only story. The USC law students and PCJP attorneys helped him talk about the rest of his life. Charles had to be ready to field questions about his crime, his upbringing, his healing and his humanity. He had to convince the parole board — and himself — that he was worth releasing.
He answered their questions, he respected their commands and he was honest, open and vulnerable. He expressed deep remorse for the suffering he brought to the victim and loved ones. For the first time in his life, he told his full story and advocated for himself.
When the decision came back — parole denied — it gutted him.
“He did everything right,” Faircloth-Feingold says. “You could just tell that the parole board was not interested in giving him a second chance, regardless.”
Returning to the prison yard, Charles felt defeated. The small hope he had carefully nurtured had vanished.
Then came the gentle licks at his ear.
Dog Rehab Program Brings Healing to All
Charles felt an instant connection with the damaged dogs he met through Paws For Life. They, too, had the fear-based aggression he used to keep people away for decades. They also knew neglect and abandonment, craved respect and dared to trust in those who believed they could change.
He became a dog trainer for the program, helping to rehabilitate many animals. He fondly remembers Dakota, a Staffordshire terrier, that came to him injured and abused, biting anyone who approached. But to Charles, her eyes seemed to say, “I just don’t know any other way.” He put her bed on the floor of his cell, where she could eat and explore her surroundings without fear. After many months of intensive work, Dakota recovered. Now able to trust others — and perform 40 commands — she was adopted by a family.
Dakota and the many other dogs Charles trained gave him a sense of accomplishment and pride. Each adopted dog reminded him of the power of rehabilitation and forgiveness, reflecting the program’s motto: “We work hard so our dogs can have a better life.”
“I don’t see it as hard work,” he says. “I consider it a chance to give back to the world I’ve taken so much from. Paws For Life tossed me a life preserver when I was drowning in my own despair.”
Years later, when the possibility of a second parole hearing came around, his dog training experience gave him a newfound perspective. He knew he could be denied a second time, but he had to try.
“It’s God’s plan,” he recalls telling Faircloth-Feingold. “If I hadn’t gotten denied the last time, I would have never gotten involved in the dog program. I would have never met all of these people who offered me jobs. I would have never realized that working with dogs was my true passion in life. It all comes full circle, and if my getting denied again is part of God’s plan, there’s a reason for that.”
Another Chance at Life through USC Justice Reform Program
As Charles faced the parole board for the second time, he had a new supporter at his side. Ashley Smith, a PCJP law student, showed the same determination and commitment to his case.
“Ashley would not let me be anything less than I knew I could be,” Charles says.
“Charles is just such a special human,” Smith says. His positive outlook and willpower to keep going, despite setbacks, showed the second-year law student that “he believed in me just as much as I believed in him.”
Charles is just such a special human … he believed in me just as much as I believed in him.Ashley Smith
They scheduled a parole hearing date and began their meticulous prep work again. With his faith in God’s plan, PCJP’s support and Smith’s representation, Charles entered the hearing room for the second time.
Once again, he told the parole board his story. He answered questions. He knew the gravity of what he had done many years ago. He told the panel that he often puts himself in the shoes of the victim’s loved ones: “There’s no way that I could even fathom trying to forgive somebody who did that to someone in my family.” He acknowledged that he took away their chance of seeing the victim grow up and have children of his own. “I deprived them of so much,” Charles told the parole board. “Despite how authentic and heartfelt my expression of sorrow may be, it won’t undo the atrocities of my actions.”
This time, no one shook their head.
Last May, Charles walked through the prison gate, where Smith waited with a welcoming smile. For decades, he had stared out at the scrubby desert landscape through the bars of his cell window. His surroundings had changed as dramatically as his future.
“The air was so different just 20 feet outside the gate that contained me for 27 years,” he says.
Today, he’s a trainer with Paws For Life, fulfilling his dream to be “the best dog trainer out there.” He always picks the toughest dogs to work with. He says he can see the goodness in them, just like his friends saw it in him.
“One word that I don’t use lightly ever in life is the word ‘friend.’ Those are my friends. Heidi, Ashley, Anna, Mike,” he says, naming the PCJP advocates who helped him earn his freedom.
“They just have a way of seeing what you don’t see in yourself and helping you bring it out.”
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Trojan Family Magazine. Writer Alexandra Zarchy is a student at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.