Freed from prison but not from the ghosts of their past, four recent parolees adapt to a new kind of housing arrangement.
Imagine: You were 16 when you first got locked up in prison. Now, you’re 46 and free.
You've never had your own room.

You've never owned a drivers license.

You've never operated a cellphone, or heard of GPS.
Your re-entry into society is at once long-awaited and utterly terrifying.
Who will I turn to?
Where will I live?
How will I survive?
These are questions that many of the 650,000 people released annually from U.S. prisons must grapple with.

The difficult truth is that many fail to reintegrate into society. Some move from prison directly to a homeless shelter. Others end up in transitional units, like halfway houses. Once out, they have a tough time getting jobs. They receive little in the way of emotional support. Because of all this, many resort to committing crimes again. Sixty-eight percent of paroled prisoners are arrested within three years of their release. Eighty-three percent are arrested within nine years.

It’s these harsh realities that the Homecoming Project seeks to address. An initiative by the Oakland-based organization, Impact Justice, the Homecoming Project pairs recent parolees with host families and individuals, giving formerly incarcerated people a rent-free home for six months, as well as a support system to ease their return to society. Unlike halfway houses, with their strict curfews and institutional cultures, the accommodations offered in the Homecoming Project are open and free. They seek not to be an extension of life inside, but an antidote to it.

Launched in Alameda County, the Homecoming Project is attempting to reverse a vicious cycle, one that too often ends with parolees going back in prison. The program imagines a different world, in which formerly incarcerated people receive a fair shot at creating meaningful and redemptive lives. To understand how the Homecoming Project is impacting the lives of the formerly incarcerated, we spoke with four participants. These are their stories, in their own words.

Chapter 1.

Chapter 1. Richard Cruz

Richard is adjusting to a new normal after 30 years in prison.

“I was rewriting all the birthdays I never had.”
Richard Cruz
Chapter 1.

Richard Cruz

Richard is adjusting to a new normal after 30 years in prison.

“I was rewriting all the birthdays I never had.”
Richard Cruz

For nearly 20 years in prison, Richard Cruz had been a member of a gang. Then, around 2007, he decided to drop out. It wasn’t a trivial decision—doing so would mean risking his life. At the time, he was in solitary confinement, serving a life sentence for a crime he had committed as a teenager. He had known no other identity, but he knew that he wanted to change.

After 30 years, Cruz was released when California governor Jerry Brown commuted his life sentence. Cruz eventually became certified as a drug and alcohol counselor in prison. Now he is a program manager at Ahimsa Collective, an Oakland-based organization focused on restorative justice. He joined the Homecoming Project four months after his release.

“I was five years old when I started using drugs.”

“I was five years old when I started using drugs. My parents used crank, methamphetamines, cocaine, and heroin, so they taught me how use them, too.

“That was our family trade. We’d buy drugs on the first of the month, cut them up, and bag them using a triple beam. By 8 or 9, I was running drugs. By 16, I’d been sentenced to life in prison— but it was actually prison that saved me. I’d be a dead man if I hadn’t gone in.

“When I was released, I had nowhere to go, so a halfway house was my only option. At night, it was 32 people sharing five rooms. For the first 20 days, we couldn’t work, even though I already had a job at Ahimsa Collective. We were also required to take a drug program, but I’d already become a certified drug and alcohol counselor in prison, so it felt like I was taking a step backwards.“

Richard felt trapped. Despite his resolve to move forward, circumstance kept pulling him back. Then, a supervisor at work told him about the Homecoming Project.

All seemed lost — and then, a supervisor at work told him about the Homecoming Project.

Richard decided to apply, and he got in. “I moved into a real house, a bedroom on the second floor of my host’s apartment. I was struck by how spacious the room was. There was nothing in it, but I was laughing because the closet alone was as big as my prison cell.

“It was the first time I ever bought a bed, ever bought a dresser, any of that, because I didn’t have them when I was a kid. I would sleep in the garage or on the sofa. It was the first time I got to do all that and it felt great. I went to IKEA for the first time—that damn store is a cult. I couldn’t get out of there.

“They only ask you one question.”
0:00
Listen to Richard...

“Three decades inside prison is a lot—the last time I’d been out in the world was in 1988. I hadn’t hugged anyone in decades—physical touch is forbidden in prison. But on the inside, everybody greets each other, even people you’d consider your enemies, like, ‘Good morning, how you doing?‘ Out here, nobody talks to each other—they just look at their phones and walk around like a bunch of zombies. It’s so disconnected.

“On the inside we didn't touch.”
0:00
Listen to Richard...

“A few months ago, while waiting for the train, I struck up a conversation with a man—a teacher from Los Angeles visiting the Bay Area. ‘What do you do?’ he asked me. I told him about my job at Ahimsa Collective. Then he asked, ‘So where did you work before that?’ At that moment I had to make a decision—do I tell him or not? In my head I was thinking, ‘He seems open. Maybe I can tell him.’ So then I said, ‘Before that I was incarcerated.’ He asked for how long. I said, ‘30 years.’ Immediately I could see his face change; fear flashed in his eyes. He said he had to go, and took off right away.

“I realized that I needed a community who I could relate to, so I started a re-entry group with a bunch of friends who had been in prison with me. We’re meeting every month now. We have a circle where we talk about our lives, the issues we’re facing. I don’t have to explain myself to them—they know exactly what I’m talking about; they understand my situation. This is the work I do now: Building and supporting community. I also facilitate conversations between police officers and protesters; between domestic violence survivors and their abusers. I hold space for them. I share. I’m honest."

“Immediately I could see his face change; fear flashed in his eyes.”
“Before that I was incarcerated. He asked for how long. I said 30 years.”
0:00
Listen to Richard...
“For the first time in my life, I felt celebrated.”

“For my birthday we went and played laser tag with a group of 20. I thought it was going to be childish, chasing each other around in the dark, but it turned out to be a blast. Afterwards we all went out for dinner, Indian food, in Berkeley, and it was a transformational experience for me. For the first time in my life, I felt celebrated. I was rewriting all the birthdays I never had, the birthdays I spent in prison.

“I have so many loving relationships around me now—which is a kind of relationship I’d never experienced before. I remember thinking at first, ‘Okay, this ain’t real. When is it going to be pulled out from under me? When are these people going to tell me, “Get out of here,” but I know now that’s not going to happen.”

“I finally feel at home, here in the Bay Area. And the people around me,

I consider them my family.”
Richard Cruz

“I finally feel at home, here in the Bay Area. And the people around me,

I consider them my family.”
Richard Cruz
Chapter 2.

Chapter 2. Jason Jones

Jason spent 13 years – with no privacy, no phone, and no best friend.

“I never planned to make it to adulthood.”
Jason Jones
Chapter 2.

Jason Jones

Jason spent 13 years – with no privacy, no phone, and no best friend.

“I never planned to make it to adulthood.”
Jason Jones

Every morning, when Jason Jones, 35, first opens his eyes, he listens for footsteps outside his door, in the hallway of his apartment. When he hears them, he knows his roommate Tamiko Panzella is up, and he texts her: “Good morning, BFF.” That’s Tamiko’s signal to knock on his bedroom door for their daily tete-a-tete. It’s a far cry from life in prison, where he spent 13 years—with no privacy, no phone, and no best friend. After his release he immediately moved into an apartment with his Homecoming Project hosts, Tamiko and her partner Joe Klein. Now, Jones is working as a coder for an entertainment and media platform called Fandom—a job offer he received three weeks before he was paroled—and teaching his own coding class at McClymonds High School in Oakland.

“There are no doorknobs in prison, only cell doors that open for you.”
0:00
Listen to Jason...
“I didn’t even know what computer coding was at the time.”
Jason Jones
“I didn’t even know what computer coding was at the time.”
Jason Jones
“Look, we gotta try to keep you out of trouble.”

“I arrived at San Quentin in 2013, and for the first 10 months, I completely messed up. I was confined to my cell for disciplinary reasons, and I got into a lot of trouble very fast. Some guys took me under their wing and told me, ‘Look, we gotta try to keep you out of trouble. Go apply for the Last Mile. It’s an entrepreneur program.’ So I applied for the program, and I went in for an interview. I thought I killed it—they were loving me, smiling and everything—but then I got a notice in the mail that they didn’t pick me. For the rest of my time in prison, I carried that rejection slip in my wallet.

“A week later, someone gave me an application to a new program that the Last Mile was starting up: a coding class. And I was like, “I ain’t fixing to fill that out.” But I ended up filling it out anyway and going to the first class. I didn’t even know what computer coding was at the time. I thought I was going to go play solitaire for a couple months and then quit.

“The first day they paired us up with complete strangers and told us to build a website in a week. I was like, ‘Man, they’re crazy.‘ My website turned out ugly, but I started picking up the coding thing, and then Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti, the founders of the Last Mile, were like, ‘Did you do this before you came in?’ Everybody tripped out because I hadn’t even read a book before I came to prison. Six months after that first class, I was one of three people to get a perfect score on the final.

“For the first time, I had an alternative. It ... changed the trajectory of everything.”

“For the first time, I had an alternative. It completely changed the trajectory of everything. I'll be completely honest—before that, I was selling drugs in prison. I joined a gang when I was 11 years old, so that life was the only thing I knew. But with coding, there was suddenly another path. By the time I was released, I already had a job.”

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated individuals have an unemployment rate of over 27 percent. Despite a desire to work, many of these people face insurmountable barriers in getting a job, precisely because they were once in prison. Learning to code was Jason’s way out.

“The morning of my release date, they took me to the holding tank, where I put real clothes on for the first time in 13 years. That felt really good. My son was waiting for me at the gate—he was 17 and so tall. The last time he saw me outside of prison, I was getting arrested. He was four years old at the time. Chris and Beverly were with him too, along with a few friends.

“They took me to a restaurant in Marin—a real restaurant. I’d never been to one before. They were like, ‘What do you want?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. You have to order for me.’ I was too overwhelmed.”

Unlike Richard, Jason had been accepted into the Homecoming Project while he was still in prison, and was able to move immediately into Tamiko’s and Joe’s home. Still, he admits to having doubts about the program.

“To me, it sounded like adult foster care. I felt like I was getting adopted by complete strangers. I was like, ‘Man, I’m gonna get these rich white people that I can’t relate to, can’t talk to, and it’s gonna be completely awkward.’

“I met Tamiko and Joe the day after my release. That night, we had dinner and I was so overwhelmed, so I told them I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t order anything. Joe was like, ‘You want some of my pork chop?’ At first, I said no. In prison there are politics. If someone’s a different race, you can’t eat off of their plate—you can get stabbed for doing something like that. But Joe was like, “No, just get some, just get some.” And he’s putting it on my plate, and I was like ‘Alright.’ And it was so good—so juicy.

“To me, it sounded like adult foster care.”
0:00
Listen to Jason...
“There was no judging, no horrible look, nothing like that. I felt welcomed.”

“There were a lot of firsts. My first cell phone, which I didn’t know how to use at all. My first bed—I’ve always had to share a bed with someone else. My first bank account. My first time going to the beach. My first time having a job. My first health benefits. My first 401k. My first big purchase—a new car. My first time at the DMV. When it was my turn, I was completely transparent with the woman behind the desk. I told her I just got out of prison yesterday and she just looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Welcome home. Let’s get you an ID.’ There was no judging, no horrible look, nothing like that. I felt welcomed. It was the first real ID I’d ever gotten in my life.

“All these things that people normally do—I had never done. I never planned to make it to adulthood. I never thought I would make it. I had never seen nobody grow old and die from natural causes. It’s a process—to be comfortable with the idea that I’m not gonna die tomorrow.”

With Tamiko’s support, Jason began to ease into his new life. She showed him how to use Google Calendar and helped him with his taxes. Eventually, he wanted to help others who might be headed down the same path Jason had taken in his youth.

“I never planned to make it to adulthood.”
0:00
Listen to Jason...
“Man, I only joined this coding class because I heard you was.”

“I started teaching a group of high-schoolers to code. We meet at the tech center at McClymonds High in Oakland. The computers were donated but they had no teachers. So I said, ‘I’ll teach coding here.’ I’m there every week and I take the students out to dinner afterward.

“I want these kids to use their imagination, to be creative, to work on a team. And I want them to see that someone who comes from a similar background as them, and looks like them, can work in tech. I never wanted to be a coder, doctor, or lawyer because I had never seen one where I grew up. If Tupac created Facebook, a lot of these kids would want to create Facebook, too.”

Recently, Jason visited the Stockton Youth Facility with Governor Gavin Newsom, where an unexpected encounter made him realize the distance he’d already come.

“While I was there, one my little homies who was in the same gang I used to be in came up to me. I didn’t recognize him because the last time I saw him, he was much younger. But he knew who I was. He told me that he had started learning how to code. ‘Man, I only joined this coding class because I heard you was,’ he said. That was a validating moment for me. It was when I realized that my choices were starting to change my community. If I could do all this, then maybe they could, too.”

“I never wanted to be a coder, doctor or lawyer, because I’d never seen one.”
0:00
Listen to Jason...
“It was when I realized that my choices were starting to change my community. If I could do all this, then maybe they could, too.”
Jason Jones
”It was when I realized that my choices were starting to change my community. If I could do all this, then maybe they could, too.”
Jason Jones
Chapter 3.

Chapter 3. London Croudy

It Wasn’t the Freedom I’d Imagined.

Chapter 3.

London Croudy

During her 8 years in prison, London never stopped dreaming.

During her eight years in prison, London Croudy never stopped dreaming. She would visualize the music video that she’d create for Kanye West’s “All of the Lights.” Or she’d imagine what it would feel like to hug her mom again as a free woman. Croudy relied on these dreams to give her hope and the strength to survive. It was in prison that she also found her calling: To mentor the women around her. Croudy is currently a policy fellow at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in Oakland. After eight years in prison, she joined the Homecoming Project after meeting her host and colleague, Sabina, at work. London is the first female participant in the program.

“The entire time you’re in prison, you’re just dreaming of one day—the day you’re going to be released. I thought it was going to be balloons in the air and glitter being thrown on me and people setting off doves. But none of that happened. I thought I should be feeling more. Feeling something. But I didn’t feel anything at all.

“Initially, it wasn’t the freedom I’d imagined. My family picked me up, and we went to grab breakfast at this little diner. It was my first real waffle, ever. We stopped by a CVS, and I was overwhelmed by how many options I had. My family was like, ‘What shampoo do you want? What soap?’ and I was like, ‘You pick. Please, just grab it.’ We went straight to a halfway house from there, but I hadn’t been in a car in over eight years, so I got really carsick.

“As soon as we got to the halfway house, my family had to leave. I walked into this house full of people I didn’t know, and they started telling me all the rules. You’re not allowed to buy groceries or bring food. There’s a curfew. I had an ankle monitor I had to wear at all times. It was like prison all over again. I was terrified of breaking the rules. I sat there thinking, Now what?”

“My purpose is to encourage the forgotten.”
0:00
Listen to London...

For London, the answer came in the form of LSPC, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. While in prison, London had heard that it was a good place for former inmates to get resources and support as they transition to life outside. Little did she know, she’d find both a job and a home through LSPC.

“I went there my second week out. I didn’t know where else to go, and I was scared to death. As soon as I sat down I busted out crying. But the women at LSPC, they knew what I’d been through, because they’d been through it, too. By the end of our conversation, they’d offered me an admin support job at the organization.

“It was that week that I also met Sabina, who is a policy manager at LSPC. Sabina knew about the Homecoming Project, and while she wasn’t going to sign up to be a host at first, when we met, it all just aligned. She had an extra room. Instead of staying at the halfway house, I could live with her.

“As soon as I sat down I busted out crying.”
“This is what my Saturday looks like now.”

“The morning I moved out of the halfway house, Sabina picked me up at exactly 6 a.m. It felt like I was experiencing a new layer of freedom. I mean, I had my own room for the first time in forever. The walls were freshly painted. There was a brand new bed, a closet with hangers, lamps perched on end tables. I could close the door and be by myself. I could step into the shower without any shoes on. I could cook. I could wake up with people that I knew.

“That first night, Sabina lit a fire and we watched a movie, I don’t remember which one, but it felt like I was living again. If I had been watching a movie in prison, it would have been with ear buds, squinting up at a small monitor, with people all around me. I would have been cold, wearing only my grays, uncomfortable. Now I was lying on a couch with a blanket on top of me, my body warmed by the fire. I remember taking a picture and sending it to my friend with the caption: This is what my Saturday looks like now.”

Living with Sabina completely transformed London’s life. Having the security of a real home allowed her to concentrate on reforming relationships, particularly with her mother.

“In prison, the thing I was most looking forward to when I got out was hanging out with my mom again. She’s my best friend. Because all the prisons I’ve been at have been so far away, and my mom doesn’t have a lot of money, she was never able to come visit me. The one time she tried to surprise me, I had to beg her not to come. It had been five years, and I was scared that once she came in, she was gonna leave me again, and then I was gonna be stuck with my emotions. I just didn't want to feel stuck again.

“The most I’ve touched my mom in over eight years now is her knuckle. The day I got sentenced, they dragged me out the courtroom, so I didn't get to hug my mom. They felt bad for me at the county, so they gave me a special visit. They let us into the bonds room, and there was a little opening in the glass—I guess the bonds people slip papers back and forth—so we were able to touch each others‘ knuckles.”

London is determined to move past prison in all but one crucial way: She doesn’t want to forget the dreams that helped her to survive.

“Back when I was incarcerated, dreaming saved me. I’d go jogging around the prison track every day and imagine scenes from a life on the other side: Eating lunch with my aunt at a sidewalk cafe in San Francisco, publishing a book that young girls everywhere would read, sitting in a director’s chair creating a music video for Kanye West. I’d come back into the prison unit drenched in sweat after nine miles, and it would feel like I just had the best time.”

“That's how I survived prison—focusing on the future.”
0:00
Listen to London...
“I’m every character in my book.”
0:00
Listen to London...

“But it’s different now. I can make plans and move forward;

I can build the future that’s ahead of me.”
London Croudy

“But it’s different now. I can make plans and move forward;

I can build the future that’s ahead of me.”
London Croudy
Chapter 4.

Chapter 4. KC Matthews

KC Matthews was the first participant in the Homecoming Project.

“It’s the not knowing, the loss of control, the fear of what’s to come.”
KC Matthews
Chapter 4.

KC Matthews

KC Matthews was the first participant in the Homecoming Project.

“It’s the not knowing, the loss of control, the fear of what’s to come.”
KC Matthews

Throughout his 10 years in prison KC Matthews kept a meticulously organized notebook, filled with list of things he wanted to do, movies he wanted to watch, places he wanted to travel to. Pismo Beach. Yosemite. Fiji Islands. Matthews is transgender and successfully completed his transition while in prison. Shortly after his release he became the inaugural participant of the Homecoming Project. Just days before he would have to move out of his host Terri’s house, he spoke about how his life—and his dreams—have changed.

“I’d been in foster care since I was three years old—my mom was on drugs and my dad was abusive. I never felt accepted by my foster parents, so I constantly ran away and lived a lot of my life on the streets with other runaways. I had to do things that I didn’t want to do, and use drugs that I didn’t want to use. But it was a matter of survival.

“Growing up, I was seen by society as a female. But I never felt like one.”
KC Matthews
“Even though my body was incarcerated for 10 years, my mind never was.”

“Growing up, I was seen by society as a female. But I never felt like one. I got locked up when I was 18, and it took two more years before they let me start my transition. It was a battle the whole way.”

KC’s experience in prison is a common one. In 2019, many US prisons still have strict policies that prohibit access to hormone therapy and surgery for trans and nonbinary inmates. And that’s just one of challenges that many trans and nonbinary inmates face: According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender and nonbinary inmates are up to ten times more likely to be physically or sexual assaulted while in prison. They are also more likely to be denied medical care and put in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. To persevere, KC had to look deep inside.

“Even though my body was incarcerated for 10 years, my mind never was. My mind was always out here. I was already writing down songs I wanted to hear and movies that I wanted to see, tattoos I wanted to get and shoes I wanted to buy. I kept a notebook full of these lists. I visualized the future as if it was a NASCAR track—I imagined that once I got out, I’d just get back into the flow of cars, zooming around and around.

“I was already writing down songs I wanted to hear and movies that I wanted to see.”
0:00
Listen to KC...

“A month before I got out of prison, while I was looking for housing, I heard about the Homecoming Project—it was a completely new program at the time. I was very nervous about the whole situation, but after my first phone call with my host, Terri, a lot of the stress and anxiety went away. She accepted me for who I am, and told me that she had also considered transitioning at some point in her life.

“On my ninth day out, I got a job as a maintenance technician. I do repairs and some janitorial work. My boss, she loves me, says I’m an asset to the company. I even drive the company vehicle now. I’m studying to be an electrician—that’s my goal. I tell my friends on the inside that I haven’t forgotten about them.”

“Who you are doesn’t matter.”
0:00
Listen to KC...

Along with his work toward becoming an electrician, KC also plans to start working with foster homes and agencies across the country. He wants to ensure that transgender kids in foster care aren’t forgotten, neglected, or abused. He also wants to share with kids his own fears and anxieties about life as a transgender person, issues he’s still grappling with today.

“I pass as a man now, which is what I wanted—but it’s is a bit of a double-edged sword. If I’m walking down the street someplace, I may see a gay couple or a lesbian woman. But when they look at me, they see a cisgender, heterosexual man. Telling people that I’m trans is still one of my biggest fears. It’s always a dilemma, whether at a new job or in a new relationship. Do I want this person to know? Are they going to accept me? And if I don’t tell them, will they find out anyway? I’m not a deceitful person, but it’s still difficult.”

“I do want to be a part of some community.”
0:00
Listen to KC...

KC is not only the the first participant in the Homecoming Project—he’s also now its first graduate. As he prepared to move out of his host’s home and into an apartment of his own, he faced his fears about the unknown.

“Those emotions that people say you’ll experience when you get out of prison? I didn’t feel those in the beginning. I was expecting them, waiting for them, but they never came. But this last week after my six months with the Homecoming Project are up—it’s all just hit me. I suddenly feel everything, a whole roller coaster of emotions: anger, frustration, happiness, joy, anxiety. It feels like foster care again. After finding that one foster parent who accepted and loved me, I have to leave.

“But this time, it’s different. Change has always been hard for me—it’s the not knowing, the loss of control, the fear of what’s to come. But I also know that this change is good, that I’m moving forward. I’m living with a new roommate now just five minutes away from Terri’s house. Once I’m settled in, I think I’ll be okay.”

“Once I’m settled in, I think I’ll be okay.”
KC Matthews
”Once I’m settled in, I think I’ll be okay.”
KC Matthews
Impact Justice is committed to fostering a more humane, responsive, and restorative system of justice in our nation. Interested in becoming a Homecoming Project participant or host? Learn more here.
Photography by Barbara Kinney & Emerson Collective
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