Listening to Lifers: Arbbie
Our newest project is a partnership with The Francisco Homes (TFH) to provide full service legal representation to lifers. While it has been eye opening to learn how vulnerable many of the men are as they return to society, what has struck me most are the incredible stories they have. Their experiences before, during, and after incarceration are rare insights into how they ended up in prison, what sustained them while in custody, and what empowers them upon reentry. Over the next several weeks we'll be sharing some of these stories with you in a series we're calling Listening to Lifers.
The first story in our series comes from our client and TFH resident, Arbbie:
Arbbie was originally sentenced to 19 years to life in prison. That means he could be eligible for parole after serving the base term of nineteen years. But for a lifer, nothing is guaranteed; he could also spend the rest of his life in prison. He was convicted and sentenced during a harsh period when "tough on crime" became the vanguard. Particularly for men who committed any degree of murder, there was little hope of ever being released if you were convicted during the early 80s.
Arbbie spent 36 years in prison and was just paroled last year. He was convicted of second-degree murder in 1979. At the time, he was running a gambling operation out of his house in Long Beach and was expecting his first child. To protect his business and keep the peace, he kept a baseball bat around just in case there was trouble.
One night, he heard a scuffle outside: his pregnant girlfriend was arguing with a woman on the front lawn. Another man, someone who had been at the gambling spot earlier in the day, got involved and started threatening Arbbie's girlfriend. Arbbie grabbed his baseball bat and went outside to make sure that the situation didn't escalate. But it did. Arbbie ended up slamming the man in the head with the bat, putting him into a coma from which he would never wake up.
Arbbie is the first one to admit that he was a criminal back then. He started when he was fourteen, engaging in small-time theft and robberies, eventually moving on to more elaborate confidence schemes. He was a pool shark, a hustler, a "flim-flam man," but he was never violent. His commitment offense was the first and last time that he ever laid hands on someone.
Nevertheless, Arbbie served his time with a dignity and determination that even his fellow inmates recognized. He won awards for his performance in prison work placements; he got clean and sober; in the thirty-six years he eventually served, he was only written up once, for not making his bed; he came to grips with his crime, working through it in support groups and taking responsibility for his actions and their consequences. Yes despite this progression, Arbbie was deemed unsuitable for release by the Parole Board eleven times.
For a lifer who was incarcerated in the 80s, going before the Parole Board and being found unsuitable a dozen or more times over the decades is not unusual. What is unusual is that Arbbie was found suitable three times, in 2003, 2011, and in 2015, yet was only finally released in 2015 due to his designation as an elderly prisoner.
Can you imagine? Finally being told by the authorities that you are to be released, only to have the rug pulled out from under you by the governor? Twice?
Some courts have ruled that what happened to Arbbie amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Through our partnership with The Francisco Homes, we have begun litigating on Arbbie's behalf, seeking compensation for the way he was treated over decades of imprisonment. By providing full service legal representation to Arbbie, we hope to create an environment where he can thrive as he transitions back to society so that he can provide for himself, stay out of trouble, and enjoy life as a free man.