Roy Camenisch

Roy Camenisch was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) in 1983, what he called “a slow death in prison.” In 2018, Governor Brown commuted Roy’s sentence to 37 years to life; Roy was found suitable for parole at his first parole board hearing a few months later. Upon his release from prison in 2019, Roy chose to resettle in Los Angeles County.

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?

Believe it or not, there’s two, as far as accomplishments. I got my [driver’s] license at the age of 57 years old—my first license. The other one was actually opening a bank account because I never had one before. I didn’t have any use for it [back then]. I was young, I was only 18 years old. Now I’m learning things I need to have, such as credit cards, which I will be trying to get soon. As far as what I’ve been up to since I’ve been out—doing the leg work. Going down to get my ID, get my social security card so I can get to work. I had to have some sort of money coming in. Right now, I’m currently working at a job that I enjoy doing: working on construction sites through an employment agency. I’ve also gotten in touch and reconnected with my family since I’ve been out.

What were your challenges after release? And how did you overcome them?

I’m new to Los Angeles. The last time I’d been here was in 1980, and that was just passing through. But since living here I’ve had to get familiar with the bus routes, metro, the trains, subways. Had to learn my way around. As far as how I managed to deal with it: If I had an address, I would do what I would call a “test run,” prior to actually going there for a job interview, so that I knew exactly how long it would take me to get there. I’m still learning it even today, and it’s been almost three years now.

What was the reason you came to Los Angeles?

I didn’t want to parole to Bakersfield; I felt that there would be a potential conflict of interest being that the victim’s family lived there as well, even though that’s my hometown. I did not know how the police department or the sheriff’s department would react to me being back in Bakersfield. Let alone the district attorney’s office. I thought, in my best interest, I would try to go to Los Angeles because that was the place where I received two support letters from.

What kind of support from family/friends did you receive? What kind of support from the state did you receive?

My brother Wayne, who lives in Arkansas, and my sister Ramona, who lives in North Carolina, are encouraging me that they would do whatever they can to help me with my new life. I have two other sisters and a brother still here in California, but I have yet to see them. I’ve been having to manage and do things on my own; which for me, I think, is better, because that is my road to independence. As far as the state, the only assistance from them was the parole board seeing to it that I got to Los Angeles. Any other assistance I received was through the County of Los Angeles’ social services. They helped me get my food stamps, until I found employment, and my housing. To gain my own independence is what the board is looking for. They want to know that I can do it on my own. It’s something I have to learn how to do: adapt to society, if I intend to be successful.

What support didn’t you receive that you wish you had?

I wish I had received more support from the parole department. As a matter of fact, as of recently, I tried to enroll in a truck driving training school, CRST, in Fontana. Believe it or not, truck driving has been a childhood dream. People ask me why I want to do that. I say, well, it’s a lifestyle that suits me right now. I don’t have a wife at home. My daughter is fully grown with a family of her own. Why not get paid to see the country?

Drive a truck? Why not? It’s good money. CRST has a training facility, where you also live on the grounds to take your training to get your class A license. But my parole agent denied my request, saying that “they could not supervise me that way.” With CRST, they want you out over the road for up to 3 weeks during training, going over state lines. I’m not high risk, I know that. I contacted my parole agent’s supervisors, appealed to them, but it still came back denied. I would’ve thought that parole would’ve encouraged it because upon completion of the training, and obtaining my class A license, it comes with a guaranteed job with CRST.

But even so, they still denied it. But I did talk to the CRST recruiter and requested if she could hold onto my application until I’m off parole, and she said that she would. November [2022] marks my three-year minimum [on parole]. My current parole agent told me that he is confident that upon my next review, I will be discharged. That would be the official breaking of the chains, and my CDC number will be retired. I can come and go as I please, when I want, as I so choose. I can go from the east coast to the west coast and back without any problem.

What motivated or inspired you to endure prison, fight for your release and then succeed afterward?

My mother, my daughter, and my grandkids. My mom made a comment on a visit that made me take a long hard look at myself in the mirror. And I didn’t like what I seen looking back at me. The comment that my mom made on that visit hurt worse than the day I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. She told me that she blamed herself for me being in prison. I had to tell her no, it wasn’t her fault or anything she’d done. You did the best you could. I just didn’t listen. Had I listened more, I probably wouldn’t have ended up in prison. But I went back to my cell that day and looked at myself in the mirror and didn’t like what I seen looking back at me because the words that my mother said to me kept coming back. This was 1993. It was then that I made a conscious decision to change my way of thinking. Since then, I have yet to receive any disciplinary [write-up]. I never got a 115 a er that. I wanted to see how long I could go without getting a 115 or getting into any trouble. I have my mother to thank for that. And I thank her every day. Even though she’s no longer with me, she was and is still today my rock. I’ll look at her pictures and think about what she had to go through knowing that her son was in prison. But I’m just glad that when she passed away, she passed away with a clear mind that it wasn’t her fault that I was in prison. As I explained to her, no one put a gun to my head telling me I had to do it, this is all on my own. My own fault. I have no one to blame but myself for my actions. But she was key to my change. And my daughter, who I’ve only seen in a visiting room, because I was locked up before she was born.

She’ll be 41 years old. I’m looking forward to getting to know her outside of the prison walls. My oldest granddaughter, she’ll be 21. My grandson, he’s 18. And my youngest grandson, he’ll be 17. They’re all teenagers and one is an adult, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them. My family, having their support and encouragement was my main source of motivation.

Did your mom get to see you released?

No. She passed away in January of 2000. Even though she’s not with me, I still continue to make amends to her, even today. And when I went through my parole hearing, I believe she was in that room with me. She was looking down on me from up above with a smile on her face knowing that her baby boy has been released from prison. She was my rock and my supporter all these years, she didn’t waver at all.

People would ask her, “How could she go to see her son in prison?” I remember her telling me, she said, “That’s my son and I love him.” That means a great deal to me.

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?

[From] July of ’81 to April of ’83, I got tired of going through the court. I knew I was going to be convicted of it because of the circumstances. To save any more time, I pled guilty to my charges to murder, for life without possibility of parole. I didn’t realize at the time what that all entailed. The board actually asked me a question about that as well. The deputy commissioners asked me, “Let me get this right, you pled guilty to life without?” I said, “Yes, sir I did.” He asked, “Why?” I told him, “Quite simply, one was to avoid the death penalty, which I was looking at if convicted. And two was so that I would live every day waking up each morning with the knowledge of what I had done.” I don’t think the board had ever heard somebody say that to them before. I think that’s one of the reasons they found me suitable at my first parole hearing. In the years since I pled guilty to that sentence, I adapted to it, and I learned that it is a walking, breathing, living death sentence. You’ll die in prison, a slow death. But I came to terms with that because that was the decision I made when I pled guilty. My main concern was employment within the prison system so that I could support myself—so that none of my family or friends would have to send me money to support me. They got bills out there to pay. They can’t afford to be sending me no money, supporting me in prison, when I’m the one responsible for being here. The board [commended me for] doing it on my own while in prison.

 [Many years later] I took the time to sit down and fill out the application for a commutation of sentence—in very short and simple terms. I didn’t have any certificates to submit with it. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea, but something about my application stood out to them. Whatever it was, I’m glad it did, because they sent an investigator from the board of parole on behalf of the governor to Pelican Bay. This was on the 6th of September 2018. I answered all the questions that the investigator asked. At the end of it, the gentleman shook my hand. That kind of took me by surprise. He told me, “This is one of the best interviews I’ve had.”

A few months later, I was called to the program office on a Sunday. I was thinking, “This can’t be good. What do they want me for?” I go in there; they make a phone call on a private line. It was the lady at the legal affairs office, telling me that Governor Brown had reviewed my file, and after careful consideration, decided to grant my application. He reduced my sentence from life without to 37 years to life. She asked me if there was anything I would like to say to the governor, I told her, “Yes ma’am. Please tell the governor that I will be forever grateful that he took the time to consider my application and grant it. I will do everything in my power not to disappoint him and let him down in his decision.” She told me that she would relay the message to him. They gave me a low risk for violence, even though my crime was extremely violent, [and I passed my psychological evaluation].

At my first board hearing, I was found suitable. That just blew my mind. It took me a little bit to actually comprehend that they found me suitable. On the 21st of November, I signed my parole papers. On the 22nd, I was released. Just that quickly. I was in disbelief that it happened that fast. I’m sitting on a bus, in my sweats, I ain’t got no chains on, I ain’t got nothing. I’m looking at the ocean, going down the 101. I’m thinking this is a dream. I consider myself very fortunate that I’ve been given a golden ticket and the opportunity of having a second chance at life outside of prison walls. There were a lot of people who attached their signatures in support of me—the investigator who came to interview me, Governor Brown, the two commissioners at my parole board hearing, the psychologist who evaluated me, Governor Newsom. It is all of these people I will be forever grateful for because they gave me support and encouragement, telling me directly they believe in me.

So, I owe it, not only to myself and my family but to those that attached their signatures, to not ever return back to prison and disappoint them. I was in prison from the time I was 18 years old until just a er I had turned 57. So no, there is no chance of me ever re-offending, doing something stupid, and returning to prison, after being given the opportunity that I have. And here I am now, almost three years later, working. I got a roof over my head, I got clothes on my back, and I’ve got food in my belly. And I’ve got my family. What more can I ask for?

What would you like to say to others with LWOP who are coming home? Suggestions on how to succeed once they’re released?

Set your goals. Set your priorities. That’s key. If you can’t do that, you’re going to end up right back in prison. For me, failure is not an option. I know where I came from. I know where I want to be. Within 5 years, I want to be able to be fully employed for the long-term. I want to have a place to stay that I can call home. I want to be certain that I have my own reliable transportation. For those that are getting out, if you could survive that many years in prison, take what you’ve learned in prison, and continue to put it into play out here. It’s just a bigger yard. You have no boundaries now. The only things you have out here are your parole conditions which you have to meet. Meet those conditions, keep pushing forward, do what parole asks of you.

My advice is to do whatever you need to do, that is above board and you’re not breaking any laws, to achieve what you want to. Try to be the very best you can to be the better person. Be the person that you wanted to be, that you knew you could be. Be a better person than you were as a teenager. Get rid of the hate, anger, resentment, whatever feelings you had at the time you went to prison. Let everything go. Live for the future. Let the past go. But always keep in mind, at the back of your head, of where you’ve been and where you don’t want to be again. For me, I’m going to put the letter of my commutation in a frame next to the door, and it’s going to serve as my daily reminder whenever I walk out. Whether I go to the store, whether it’s to go visit a friend, whether it’s just to go out to the yard. That’s going to be the last thing I see and that’s going to remind me of how fortunate I am of what I have. And I don’t want to go back.