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Freedom

A prison van drops Fields off at the Salinas train station. It is 16 April 2017 and he is out of prison after 32 years, six months and 11 days.

I’m free, I’m finally free I get to sleep somewhere else tonight instead of being in a cage.”

He smiles. It is something he couldn’t do in prison. Inside he had always to maintain his “mean face”. He smiles again thinking about the first meal he wants to eat: a double cheeseburger, large fries and vanilla milkshake from the fast food chain, Carl’s Jr.

 

He has been warned that his body may not be ready for real meat after decades of processed meat.

He worries slightly about the long bus ride to Los Angeles – and the risk of getting sick or dizzy – because it has been so long since he has been on a trip. He has heard Los Angeles has been “rebuilt” and isn’t as gang-riddled as he remembers.

He was 24 when he got locked up. Now he takes medication for high blood pressure. All he has in the world is a debit card with $978.33 on it and a plastic tub filled with personal items. The money comes from three decades spent making furniture in the prison for 30 and later 80 cents an hour.

The tub contains a portable CD player and CDs: The Intruders, BWB and David Ruffin. There is also a chess set, photo albums, a very small television and a leather-bound Bible. The Bible is from Jim Taylor. It is the Taylors that Fields credits with his freedom.

I could still be in that prison right now probably for the rest of my life had they chose to oppose my parole and fight to keep me in here as hard as they fought to get me out. I’d probably die in that prison.”

He isn’t sure if he could have done the same if the roles were reversed. When Denise Taylor first came to visit, he says his supervisors warned him not to meet her. They told him it would just upset him. He knew that, he knew she might try to hit him or yell at him. He decided he wouldn’t fight back if she did. He felt he owed her at least that much. But she was pleasant and after that first visit she kept coming back. In time it became clear she and her father weren’t visiting him because they hated him but because they cared about him.

It just made me feel more human, less lost and more civilized, how these people were looking at me.”

For years they were his only visitors. His grandmother died while he was at Folsom State Prison, one of the five prisons where he served time. His father died in 1993, his mother in 1994. His sister is dead. He has lost track of his brothers, all of whom have also spent time behind bars. He has two sons and a stepson. He has never seen his seven grandchildren or two great-grandchildren except in photos.

On his prison paperwork Denise is listed under next of kin. He sent her his guitar years ago, along with the clothes he planned to wear when he got paroled. When he learned he was finally getting out he called her and asked her to send him the jeans he is now wearing. Jim offered to let Fields live with him, Denise promised to take him shopping for clothes. He appreciates everything they have done, but sometimes it is hard to be with them.

We try to have the best time. But it’s always in me, that guilt is always in me that I took their loved one away from them.”

Fields doesn’t blame the parole board for denying him parole so many times. “I’m a killer,” he says. “They ain’t changed. I have.”

When he went in he might have taken what wasn’t his, but now he says he wants to work for his money. He hopes to get a job operating machines used to make furniture, the same job he performed in prison.

He plans to sign up for government assistance for housing, food and healthcare. But his immediate concern is how he will get from the bus stop to the transitional home where he will be living when he lands in Los Angeles later tonight. A fellow bus passenger offers him her mobile phone so he can call someone to ask for a ride. He looks at the phone.

“How do you use this?”

He doesn’t know how to dial or how to hold it. Finally he punches in his son’s number.

“Hi,” he says. “It’s your daddy.”

Fields meets his granddaughter, for the first time later that night. She is already a young woman. There are other grandchildren, many of them also already grown.

Ronnie with his granddaughter

Ronnie with his granddaughter

Three cars filled with relatives are there to greet him when he arrives in Los Angeles around 10pm. A young man jumps out of one of the cars: “Grandpa, I got a 9mm (handgun) and a .45 (pistol) in the car”.

“Which car are you riding in?” Fields asks. He wants to make sure he isn’t in it. That’s how he remembers the conversation. He is on parole for life. Twice a month he has to check in with his parole officer. He has to pee in two separate cups: one to test if he has been drinking, the other to test if he has been smoking marijuana.

Ronnie with his grandson and his son

Ronnie with his grandson and his son

He calls Denise Taylor almost as soon as he is out. They “friend” each other on Facebook and make plans to meet. Then Fields’s parole officer steps in and says Taylor needs to fill out paperwork before being allowed to communicate with Fields.

In July, permission is given and Taylor makes plans to visit. Fields cancels. They reschedule. A week or so before the meeting, Fields calls and insists the meeting was for a different date and his weekend plans have now been ruined. His impatience is no surprise to the Rev Camira “CC” Carter, house manager of the transitional home where Fields lives. At The Martin Home, most of the 15 male residents are lifers, men who have spent 20 or 30 years in prison.

The challenge I think they face is they want everything quickly. They just want to get so much done, they’ve lost so much time.”

Ronnie and family

 

Ronnie and family

When Fields arrived at The Martin Home he was very quiet, Carter says. He kept to himself. Three months later he still stays out of things, especially conflicts, but he is opening up a bit more. A few weeks ago he got a job packing macadamia nuts. He gets up at 03:45 in the morning in order to catch a bus to get him to work by 06:00. He attends all the home’s programmes and meetings and steps up when he sees something needs to be done. Carter believes his relationship with the Taylors has helped Fields stay focused.

“I think it motivates him to say, ‘I’m going to be the best person I can be for as long as I can. Look what I did, and these people have shown me love and mercy,’ and I think that drives him,” she says.

 

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