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This story was produced in collaboration with Prison Journalism Project, an independent, non-partisan, national initiative that trains incarcerated writers to be journalists and publishes their stories.
“You’ll be paroled to Oakland. Report that Monday,” the parole liaison at my prison informed me on July 15, as she looked down at the paperwork. “Any later, and they’ll issue a warrant.”
After being sentenced to 17 years for first-degree residential burglary, I was granted an expedited release in recognition of my “extraordinary conduct.” The district attorney of Alameda County had recommended that my sentence be reduced to 11 years at 50%, which meant that I was able to get out after doing 5 1/2 years.
This story is part of Amplify Oakland, our series of first-person stories shared by Oaklanders in their own words.
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Amplify Oakland is supported by a grant from Akonadi Foundation.
I took my paperwork and made my way to the recreational yard at Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, where I’d transferred from San Quentin State Prison two months prior to train as an incarcerated firefighter.
Two days later, on a Saturday, I was released and made my way back to Alameda County, where I had spent most of my childhood and had caught my case. With nowhere else to go, I decided to enter a residential treatment center in Hayward for the sake of housing.
On Monday, program staff drove me to my assigned parole unit, and I took in my first sights of East Oakland in over five years—the hustle and bustle of people doing their midday shopping and pedestrians making their way to and fro. Looking around town I noticed that not much had changed—except me. Aside from a few businesses not existing anymore due to the pandemic, the town remained intact.
Pulling into an office park on Edgewater Drive, I saw the cream, two-story facility I would be reporting to. Then after passing my drug test, I exited the facility and returned back to the center in Hayward.
I spent those next few days waking up at 4 a.m. each morning, the same time that I got up in prison. I liked getting an early start. I began lifting weights while it was still dark, before attending the various group therapy sessions offered onsite.
I celebrated my return home by binging on huge scoops of chocolate chip, mint chip, and fudge-swirl ice cream with whipped cream, chopped cashews, and crushed Snickers, Reese’s Cups, and dark chocolate truffles. You can get most of those items in prison (not whipping cream) but it usually requires waiting for hours at the commissary.
I was happy to just be out of prison, but found the center to be restrictive. Unable to leave the grounds, and busy attending mandatory group therapy sessions, I had no opportunity to look for the job I so desperately craved or the adventures I had planned amid the free world.
I enjoyed a full week of this limited freedom. Then, the coronavirus got me—pulling me back into confinement.
First, a program counselor who specializes in running therapeutic groups tested positive. In one of our morning groups, he complained about blowing stringy, gooey snot out of his nose. He had a mask on but had sat in front of us conducting some minor business before taking off early.
That’s when everyone in the program got sent to a drive-thru test site, where I tested positive along with my roommate at the time. I had been feeling mild symptoms from some unidentified ailment for over a week, but I had been vaccinated, so it never occurred to me that I could have COVID-19.
With help from a program director at the center, I arranged a transfer to a county-run quarantine facility in Oakland, a place I refer to as “Hotel COVID” because the building literally used to be a Quality Inn. I was placed in room 308, where there are two queen beds, a flatscreen TV, and various other accommodations to keep me company. It’s slightly nicer than a Motel 6, with finer-quality blanket covers, sturdier furniture, hard tile floors, and more pictures on the walls. From the front window of my new virus-recovery pad I could look down three stories at a pool alongside the parking lot and a Planned Parenthood across the street.
I don’t have much with me—a big bag of clothes, toiletries, and a used Macbook Air, a cherished possession that my friend Courtney gave me.
The food here is worse than a penitentiary’s: tasteless eggs, freeze-dried potatoes, bland sandwich wraps and burritos, and other flavorless concoctions. The meals are similar to the pen, but the portions are much smaller than in prison. The only menu item that outrivals the joint is the fresh pineapple and grapes they serve regularly. Fruit of that sort is never found behind bars.
The facility gives us the option to purchase food from DoorDash, GrubHub, or UberEats, but I’ve resisted the urge so far because I’m trying to be responsible with my money. Having just gotten out of prison with just a couple grand, I couldn’t justifiably spend money on sushi and fried duck with orange sauce when I have other more important matters to invest in. I wondered how the drivers would even feel about accepting cash from people with COVID-19.
I’ve been here for five days now. I either spend my time on my phone or on my laptop. In prison, I had the opportunity to be involved in a volunteer-run program called Marin Shakespeare that allowed me to learn about theater, performance, and stage-play writing. That gave me an idea for a screenplay about a gangster’s path out of crime, spurred by his love of a good woman. I’m staying productive, finalizing the script that I had handwritten in prison.
Here at Hotel COVID, we can only leave our rooms three times a day after each meal. It’s akin to the recreational yard time in prison. Still, I didn’t have the opportunity inside to meander the grounds of any hotels, and ultimately, there are no fences holding me in. In addition, I still keep up with my early morning exercise routine, even through COVID-induced coughing fits.
Leaving prison is difficult enough because of the stigma that we face as formerly incarcerated people with a felony record. The other day I found out that the parole liaison at prison placed a note in my file labeling me a “highly probable” risk for substance abuse. I imagine she must have based her assessment purely on the day I was arrested, rather than looking at me for who I am today.
My positive COVID-19 test and the subsequent quarantine, however, took my challenges to a whole new level. At this very moment, I languish in a facility, battling the sense of feeling unaccepted while writing this essay in absolute solitude.
On top of that, back at the program I’ll be returning to soon, I’m with patients who are fresh off a drug relapse, which is a challenge for me after the many years of recovery and emotional stability I’ve worked for. I’ve also been talking to an ex-girlfriend I’ve known since the 5th grade, and we were supposed to be meeting up next week to see where things go, but I obviously won’t be able to go.
I try to stay positive, though, trusting that my best days are ahead of me. I feel fortunate to have friends to text message with, and my support network at Ella Baker Center started a GoFundMe account to pay for the different expenses as I restart my life. I recently checked it, and I’m humbled that people, many of whom I don’t know, believe in me enough to have donated over $1,000.
It also means a lot to me to have the support of Brendon Woods, Alameda County’s chief public defender, who helped secure my release four years early. He recently emailed me to tell me he was still there for me, which gives me strength in moments when I feel uncertain and vulnerable. My mom and I recently sent him some ties as a thank you gift, and even though he wasn’t able to accept them, I was glad to be able to express my gratitude in a small way.
I’m also still talking to my ex-girlfriend. She recently told me that we’ll catch up when I’m not a petri dish, to which I replied that I’d be available for ice cream soon.
The center agreed to transfer me to a transitional home where I can become gainfully employed. The only potential problem is that, depending on where there are available beds, I could be transferred to a city I’m unfamiliar with and where I’d feel isolated. If I’m lucky I can avoid that and land in a spot that’s local—hopefully in Oakland.
Editor’s note: Shortly after writing this article, Kerry moved to a transitional home in Castro Valley, the Bay Area Freedom Collective. He also received a van donated by Raymond Y. Ho, a member of his community. He reports doing well and said he is finding happiness at his new home (even though it’s not in Oakland).