Kelly Savage-Rodriguez, a domestic violence survivor, was unfairly sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) in 1998 for a murder she did not commit nor intend. After a long legal battle, she was eventually commuted by Governor Brown in December 2017.
Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What have you been up to since being released from prison? Are there specific accomplishments you’d like to highlight?
I am in my last semester of completing both another associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree in communications. Not easy. I created a domestic violence group inside and I’ve continued that work outside. While incarcerated I completed over 378 hours of domestic violence and sexual assault training and I went through more domestic violence training out here in hopes to volunteer at a domestic violence center, but, of course, they discriminated against me. I was slapped with a lot of rejection, which was really difficult. I get it. However, there could’ve been ways where they could’ve worked with me. They clearly knew I was formerly incarcerated. I know there’s other ways I could be involved, just right now it’s still a sore spot.
Other things I have done: I’ve had opportunities to work at Alcatraz, educating tourists and different populations about what really happens in incarceration and what the hope could be if individuals have the possibility of seeing life outside the prison walls. And now also, besides working for California Coalition of Women Prisoners as a Drop LWOP coordinator, I work with participatory defense and parole prep to help people get out.
And then I also work with Human Rights Watch’s national leadership council. We are working toward educating about life without the possibility of parole in a different way than Drop LWOP. And the reason I say it’s a little different is because it’s formerly incarcerated people who served life without the possibility of parole all speaking about their own experiences on behalf of the people inside. It’s national. We’re working with people in Pennsylvania and Missouri. We’re giving them the opportunity to join us as they see fit. It’s a lovely opportunity to be able to engage in different ways and get the support from other LWOPs. That’s just a little bit of what I’ve been up to. I’m also newly married, and all these other things.
What were your challenges after release? And how did you overcome them?
I think the biggest was not knowing how to navigate all the technology stuff. Although, I did better than most. I had so much support that I didn’t have as much of a hard time. Family history is always a sensitive subject so I navigate that the best I can. I’m close with my family but they’re not necessarily the best support in this movement because they don’t have the same views. They’re the victims in a violent crime as am I. However,
I understand we’re talking about the whole, and I know that individuals will have to face their risk to safety, and not every individual, as we push for this movement, will, unfortunately, be healed and ready to join. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do the work to support them as they do this journey. So, my family is really scared in that area, so that causes a lot of difficulty. And I understand it. I would be afraid if he [my abuser] was out as well. It’s a difficult position to be in. I am fighting for a sentence that would potentially get him released. It’s hard.
What kind of support did you receive? What support didn’t you receive that you wish you had?
I worked with CCWP for 15 years inside and I was offered a part-time position once
[freed]. It was an [easy] transition, so I was really lucky in that way. I don’t think there was any area where I didn’t get support. There were so many ways people supported me. I had everything from a volunteer who helped pay half for a computer, people giving me tokens for BART, people taking me to different places. I just was very lucky. But I know I’m the exception to the rule. I’m here, I’m part of the movement. Everybody knows me because I’ve been involved. There’s so many others who don’t have that. Ihave several who just got out for resentencing under 1437 … and they’re flailing and trying to figure out a space and where they can get employment and where to move forward. Because it’s hard to move forward inside or learn a career or get a trade because as an LWOP, you’re considered last.
Why did you choose to live in your current county after paroling?
I came here because one, there was no way parole was going to allow me anywhere close to my family and I knew that. There was actually a stipulation in the beginning until we bugged my parole officer enough. And he was like, “Please don’t send me any more letters, I get it, your family wants contact, fine.” But the board wouldn’t have allowed me to go near them because they’re not all necessarily the safest. And two, I knew that it was better for me to go to the opposite side of the state and try to figure out “me.” And of course, most of CCWP was up here. I knew I needed to be where I could protect my own sanity and self.
What motivated or inspired you to endure prison, fight for your release, and then succeed afterward?
Honestly, it all started with my son. My situation is: I was leaving a domestic violence situation when [my ex-husband] murdered my son and was about to murder me and supposedly my daughter as well. My mom was formerly incarcerated. My entire life, she was in the system. So, everyone involved in the bad behavior I grew up with welcomed me with open arms when I entered the institution. It was actually a kinda scary experience. I understood it. But I couldn’t live like that. I had to do everything I could to make sure my life was different. So, I chose to kindly, respectfully say, “No, thank you.” That can’t be my life. My mom and I did time together. Unfortunately, she spent three years with me, and three weeks later she OD-ed and passed away. In that time, I was able to show her a different way and I’ve been able to assist a lot of her friends. She happened to be a repeat-offender but most of her friends were lifers and long-termers.
The LWOP work I did come from realizing how different we were, how excluded we are, how discriminated against, that we were treated unfairly. And I was just indignant—that this was the way life was supposed to be. I constantly tried to make my environment better right where I was, thinking this was home and this was it, even though I continued to fight with the court, after much persuasion from others. I believed that this was my home and I needed to make it better. So, I constantly worked. But the most devastating time for me—besides of course the loss of my son—was when I realized that I had lied to my LWOP sisters because I had believed CDCR when they sent us a letter saying that they would send us to board after 30 years, that I would go to board in June of 2028. I sent that around to all of the LWOPs, and there was about 77 of us at the time, and they sent it to their family, and we lied to them, and we didn’t mean to, it’s just the system is so screwed up. So that’s what kind of pushed me. And when I got out here, I think I struggled with others deserving it as much as me. I know I fought extremely hard inside and worked extremely hard, but I know there’s many who worked just as hard— others that I could name, that I have intimate relationships with, that worked hand-in hand with me the whole time in there. I constantly think about who I would negatively impact, who I would hurt, if I stopped, if I didn’t continue speaking on their behalf. Though fellow women claim they’re coming out here and they’re going to support and they’re going to be involved and they’re going to do this, a lot of them have disappointed me, let’s just say that.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about how you were eventually released from prison?
Basically, the intimate partner battery law came into effect, but it only affected people up to 2002. Then they changed it to affect people that were incarcerated up until 96. When that law was branched out, I qualified. I didn’t want to file, I felt very undeserving, I just didn’t want to do it. They pushed me and I did it, and I was absolutely blessed to have law firms fighting over the opportunity to take my case, which was absolutely humbling. I had this amazing crew that were picked to do my case, and they stuck with me. Most attorneys do not, to be super clear; most run off with people’s paperwork and never respond, leaving people thinking there were court dates when there weren’t. But I was extremely lucky. These two tax attorneys went in together to say, let’s learn this, we have got to support this; but we’ll bring in the ones that know how to defend a client when it comes to that phase; we’ll start the work and build up. I don’t remember them ever telling me they were tax attorneys; I found that out way later on. But they were badass. And they fought the whole time. They tried everything—going to the attorney general’s office, going to the governor. Sister Helen Prejean from “Dead Man Walking” actually wrote to her “friend” the governor back then, Governor Brown, and asked to have dinner to discuss me. I had 10,000 signatures in six months. That was just impossible to think about. And then we kept going back and forth to court. We were granted a review in 2012 by the Court of Appeals. Then I realized I’d have to go back to my county, and I immediately realized I was in trouble. My county kept making excuses, writing us off. It was back and forth for years. We were supposed to file again, and my lawyer got sick. He had fought cancer in the past; he knew he was passing away. And he was doing all of this work while on his deathbed. He received an email about commutation, and he was like, “Wait, do you know about this? We haven’t tried this? Why haven’t we tried this? Let’s try this now; I want it done now.”
That was November-ish. By February, we were ready to file it. They didn’t let me do any of it; they submitted it, and at the last second, I got this interview. They only had the application for three weeks in the governor’s office. When the person came to see me, I’m absolutely shocked. I’m the first person on our yard to be interviewed. This was my first and only chance to actually speak for myself. So that was in May. I didn’t know this then, but in June they were in full swing of investigating. On December 23, someone told me that I needed to go to the program office. I just literally had come from a visit with Colby and others from CCWP. I’m thinking, it can’t be about the commutation. And when it was, I was absolutely in shock. They had me call my sister-in-law and they three-wayed to my brother who was 60-feet high on a scaffolding because he does lighting for events and shows. So, he’s 60 feet high, absolutely losing it, talking about let me call you back, trying to get off the lift to go tell his boss that he needed to leave. But he don’t even know where he’s going to go. I told him I can’t leave yet; I still got to go to board. So, he’s a little bit deflated. But it’s still just mind blowing. And then I called Colby who was driving back from the visits. And I couldn’t say it a second time. It just wouldn’t come out. “Why would I be calling you at 4:30 from the program office?” I asked her. Because that’s all that would come out. I couldn’t even form words. I don’t know how we got through that conversation.
The whole walk back [to the yard], I just kept saying over and over again: “I’m not going to die in prison.” Because now I have what we were fighting for, which is the opportunity to go to board—what everybody else has. The opportunity to prove that you’ve done the work and you’ve got the healing. So, by the time I made it back to my gate … there’s people yelling for me. At the time, nobody had been commuted off of that yard. And so everybody was freaking out, “Oh my god, there she is, what’s going on?” And I literally couldn’t say anything. Everybody was trying to ask questions and I was trying to first tell my wife, who I had been with for 17 years. I wanted her to be the first person, but everybody’s surrounding me. It was an absolute mess. I don’t remember anything except somebody was handing me food, somebody else was asking me questions, somebody else was shaking me, somebody else was trying to get me on the phone. I remember four LWOPs looking at me, going, “I hope I get that one day.” One of them got it. But the other three, we’re still fighting for. So many [LWOPs] deserve to be out here, too. They’re family. We raised each other in there. It’s hard to know they’re still fighting, wondering, “Is somebody going to notice us?”
What would you like to say to others who are coming home? Suggestions on how to succeed?
Reach out. Don’t isolate yourself from what you left behind completely. Sometimes it can be healthy to do that, but if you find yourself struggling, you might want to look back just a little bit. It doesn’t mean you have to go back to the institution. It doesn’t mean you write to people in the institution. But reach out to the healthy people that you know can support and are going to be there for you. Because all of us want to see each other succeed. Most of the people I’m talking to who are struggling went to family and are disconnected from all the other movement spaces. Not saying that everybody can handle that movement space, and most didn’t get involved inside. But it’s isolating—especially for women—when you go from having a close-knit family inside to “I don’t see them and I’m out here and I feel guilty.” That happens a lot. I think it makes all the difference to connect. Most are trying to navigate where they didn’t have hope before. So now their dreams are either really big or not big enough or they don’t even know how to reach for it. Most are going big, like “I need a home right away” or “I need to get pregnant right away.” And the truth is, for our girls, that’s happening a lot It’s about figuring out “you” first. A lot of them, while they were incarcerated, didn’t have any hope. Most are focused on healing their past and are not torturing themselves with thinking about the potential future. Yes, you could dream, and yes you could set goals, but when your goals are unattainable, it’s a constant crushing feeling—especially when you see everyone else having an opportunity. A lot of families don’t fight so hard when you’re LWOP and you’re not coming home. It’s a lot harder to get visits and a lot harder to get that support. When you’ve lived so long with such a small vision, it’s hard to see past that.
Is there anything you want to share about how you were sentenced to LWOP? What happened in terms of the backstory, and then the court process?
So, as I said, I was trying to leave a domestic violence situation. My mom and I concocted an escape plan. Unfortunately, [my ex-husband] found out. He thought he would stop me from leaving and then he went too far, killing my 3-year-old son Justin. I immediately tried to call 911, fighting him off. I ended up incarcerated with him because at first they were “protecting” me. My lawyer was my judge’s college roommate who was hand-picked to work the case. He had two DUIs before getting kicked out of the DA’s office, then I’m his first big case after that, when he went into private practice. He had five DUIs by the time I was done with my trial, which was three years later. He was being followed by the police because he was selling methamphetamine, and he got busted with methamphetamine with my discovery, so I never got my discovery because it became their evidence.
End result: My lawyer did nothing. He set up private meetings where I had no representation with his lawyers to pressure me to take a deal. The judge’s bailiff got on stand to testify that he had been hearing them pressuring me on a daily basis that if I did not take a deal I could not see my daughter. Everything in the world, everything, if they could do it, they did it. And nothing happened. I could never remove my lawyer, and I got my sentence.
It even gets worse than that. But nobody cared. Luckily, the governor decided to do something because my county was never going to give in. The judge was retired but still does cases every once in a while. The DA was brought in at the last second to work my case and left shortly thereafter in a cloud of suspicion because of my case. They destroyed evidence. Cops put evidence in the back of their car for a week and a half. They did whatever they could to get me this [LWOP] sentence.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
If any former LWOPs want to get involved in the movement, please connect with us. We can use your help.