Stephen Davis spent 27 years in prison serving life without parole. He was commuted by Governor Brown and found suitable for parole at his second parole hearing. . He endured his sentence thanks to his wife and his desire not to let the system beat him
Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What have you been up to since you have been released from prison?
Stephen: So much. I have been working to navigate life as an adult because I’ve never lived life as an adult out here. I’ve been reestablishing and redefining the relationships that I’ve had from prison. Even though they were strong and are strong still, everything is being redefined now that I’m free. My relationship with my wife, my daughters, living at home, trying to keep pace with life and working. I’ve been working a lot because it’s something I’m good at and it’s something I know how to do very well. But I’m also finding time to relax and just enjoy a lot of the things that I wanted to do while I was incarcerated. And I’m now able to do that. I’m home.
Are there any specific accomplishments that you have that you would like to highlight in your story?
Stephen: I would say my accomplishments are doing what I said I was going to do. I said I was going to get out here and really involve myself with my family. I got a job and started working immediately. The job that I had originally got with Paws For Life led me to the job that I have now with Dogs Playing For Life, which is a small organization but it’s a national organization. And I was their first hire as a permanent resident embedded in the shelters to teach staff and volunteers how to socialize dogs. I feel fortunate and I enjoy my work. Aside from the job with DPFL, I also have private clients that I do dog training for. At one point I was working four jobs, but now I’m just down to two. I’m also happy to maintain a few relationships with guys that are still incarcerated and do what I can to help them.
The job that I had originally got with Paws For Life led me to the job that I have now with Dogs Playing For Life, which is a small organization but it’s a national organization. And I was their first hire as a permanent resident embedded in the shelters to teach staff and volunteers how to socialize dogs. I feel fortunate and I enjoy my work. Aside from the job with DPFL, I also have private clients that I do dog training for.
At one point I was working four jobs, but now I’m just down to two. I’m also happy to maintain a few relationships with guys that are still incarcerated and do what I can to help them.
What were your challenges after you were released?
Stephen: One of my biggest challenges is the way people interact. It’s very different, and I’d spent so much time incarcerated, I don’t remember whether people interacted the way they do now prior to incarceration. I don’t believe they did. But regardless, it’s taken some time to not feel like people are invading my space. Something as simple as the waiter coming over and leaning over to hand me my food or refill a drink. I feel immense pressure from that. Learning how to properly communicate with people especially my family and not getting defensive or not getting triggered by the way even my wife speaks to me sometimes, and she doesn’t do it maliciously, but there can be times where she will say something completely harmless, and my defenses go up immediately just out of habit and out of practice from being incarcerated for so long.
How do you overcome those challenges?
Stephen: I would say twofold. Trying to be mindful so I’m not reacting immediately. And then for those times that I do, try to not take offense by the way people talk to each other. Or even if they do intentionally mean to talk to me that way, to just not take offense to it, to remember what I’ve been through and that other people’s opinions don’t and won’t dictate how I live my life.
What kind of support did you receive upon your release? What support didn’t you receive that you wish you had?
Stephen: The support that I received was really just from my loved ones and the support network that I had built up—actually that my wife had built up prior to me being released. She had put me into contact with a large network of people that have been there for me when I needed somebody to talk to, have been there for her, and have worked with us to just create and strengthen our network. I received financial support and that also came from my family. As far as support that I wish I would’ve received: One of the things that has been a bit of a struggle is trying to find mental health support.
I’ve been out almost five months and I’ve yet to see a psychiatrist and I’m on medication. And so it’s a bit of a struggle. If you’re not continuously advocating for yourself, you will fall between the cracks.
Why did you choose to live in your current city or county after parole?
Stephen: Because that’s where my network of support is. That’s where my wife and my kids are. We were fortunate enough to have a house to live in, and so I’m going to continue to finish out my transitional housing mandatory stay before moving in with my wife and kids.
How long do you have to stay in transitional housing before you can move in with your wife and kids?
Stephen: A total of six months, which has both gone by fast and slow at the same time. Even though that’s paradoxical. I know. And they definitely don’t set you up for success because I’m living in the middle of South Central.
What motivated or inspired you to endure prison, fight for your release and then be successful afterwards?
Stephen: The enduring prison part. There was a point early on in my sentence where I didn’t want to endure prison. Five years into my sentence, I tried to commit suicide. After that, it was just basically out of sheer stubbornness. I didn’t want to let the system beat me so I was going to do whatever I needed to do to survive. I had really resigned myself to the fact that I was gonna die in prison. It wasn’t until my wife came into the picture— and we had known each other prior to my incarceration, were childhood friends, and had dated in high school and lost contact for the first half of my sentence. And I had resigned myself to the fact that I was gonna die in prison and she said that was unacceptable for her. And so I wanted to do what I needed to do to put in all the effort that she was putting forth into bringing me home. And after I got home, it’s really the same thing—to show my wife, first and foremost my wife and family, that all their efforts weren’t in vain, and by extension all the other people that had supported me over all the years—to show them that their support was warranted and that I appreciate their support. And I show that appreciation by being successful.
Is there anything else that you would like to share about how you were eventually released from prison?
Stephen: Well again, that really comes back to my wife. Like I said, my appeals were done. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was gonna die in prison.
And she had told me one day at visiting that as long as she was alive, that was not gonna happen. It was unacceptable that I was gonna die in prison and she didn’t know how, but she would find a way to bring me home.
And I have letters from the governor’s office all the way back from when Schwarzenegger was in office rejecting my commutation application. She had found that that was an avenue. And [she] stayed persistent and driven. And her drive is what really brought me home. She says I did what I needed to do to let her advocate for me, but really, she was the driving force that brought me home.
May I ask, how many times did you apply for commutation before you were released? What were those things that Adrienne told you to be doing to get you home?
Stephen: I think the actual turning in the application was really only twice but it was more of her writing the governor’s office and them replying that that was something that they didn’t offer, which on the books technically they did. But it was something that really wasn’t ever executed or fulfilled by the governor’s office. As far as the things that she had asked me to do is really, she just told me to program and I did 20 years on level four. So, other than cell time, you really don’t have much to do on level four unless you have a job. And having LWOP in the nineties and early 2000s, LWOPs weren’t allowed to have many jobs. So I found other things like correspondence courses. And once I was able to go to a lower level and they changed the rules for LWOPs, a lot more doors opened up to me and I was able to attend in-person computer classes and college classes and get jobs that I never thought I’d have – be a part of the dog program, be a part of the TEDx program at Donovan, just be involved in any programs that normally being a reclusive person that I am, I normally wouldn’t even have even tried out for or applied for. So just being more involved in my rehabilitation, my programming. And once I was able to go to a lower level and they changed the rules for LWOPs, a lot more doors opened up to me and I was able to attend in-person computer classes and college classes and get jobs that I never thought I’d have – be a part of the dog program, be a part of the TEDx program at Donovan, just be involved in any programs that normally being a reclusive person that I am, I normally wouldn’t even have even tried out for or applied for. So just being more involved in my rehabilitation, my programming.
Adrienne: Be ready. Stay ready. That’s what I always told him. But yeah, just persistence, persistence, persistence. Don’t ever think that you’re bugging anybody. I talk to whoever I would talk to that would listen. I emailed everybody that I could think of emailing. I got zero replies when I first started trying to advocate for him. But the more that I talked about him, people that I’ve never met before were like, Oh wait, I know that name. When we did his commutation, he had a friend of a friend of a friend that knew somebody at the governor’s office and she somehow asked the governor’s assistant about him and he’s like, Who is this guy that he has all these people calling about him? And that’s what you have to do. You have to be that name that everybody’s gonna be familiar with.
Is there anything that you want to share about how you were sentenced to LWOP? What happened in terms of the backstory, and then the court process?
Stephen: Well, really the whole reason—the circumstances that revolve around my case was drug use. I was simply going to buy some drugs and it turned into a disagreement which turned into the homicide. And I’ve heard that same story from a lot of different guys too. So I think a lot of that can be circumvented by early intervention with drugs. And so I worked with the DARE program when I was inside. I had an officer that was the DARE officer at the high schools that I went to. And so, I wrote to her and tried to just have a conversation with the kids, not warn ’em, scare ’em away, to just inform them of how simple drug use can escalate to something beyond your control very quickly. As far as the court process and how I was sentenced and everything, it seemed back in the mid-nineties, it very was much the tough-on-crime era. They were, for the first four months, trying to give me the death penalty, which seems crazy to try and give an 18-year-old kid the death penalty for the circumstances that surrounded my case. The robbery that I was charged with was robbery of a pager. And so, they said that I murdered somebody for their pager. And it just seems so outlandish when the police report says that he had $2,000 drugs, a car, all those things around him. So, it was really ridiculous to charge somebody with felony murder. And now you see the way that the laws are starting to swing back, the pendulum swinging back and trying to undo a lot of these laws that were put into place and so intertwined with the preexisting laws that it just made a mess of our judicial system. And then when you get to prison, it’s really just 20 year-old kids sentenced to life without I started out in Salinas Valley in the nineties right after it opened. It was one of the most violent prisons in California. So, it was just really lock ’em up, throw away the key and don’t look back.
What would you like to tell others who are coming home and what suggestions do you have on how they can succeed?
Stephen: First of all, that 99.9% of the plans that you make are gonna go out the window immediately. <laugh> I’m somebody who likes to plan incessantly and yet all the hard laid plans that I have will have to be amended. So that leads me into my second part is you need to be mindful of how fast-paced things are, how quickly you could fall behind, and how flexible you have to be with your decisions. You can make plans, but you need to be flexible to have things change because unlike on the inside where everything is so regimented and structured, it’s not like that out here. You’ll have time delays, you have traffic, you have appointments missed or canceled, you have issues with your phone, your internet service. Things that we just don’t deal with on the inside. And so being flexible and not being so one-track minded will probably serve you best down here. You have to be a bit malleable.
Why did you become involved in advocacy work? And then why do you think we need to end LWOP?
Stephen: Well, there’s actually quite a few organizations that I’m minimally involved with and that really just comes from the lack of time. As much as I would like to be more involved, getting out and starting over is basically an all-consuming thing. I’ve never lived as an adult out here, I’ve never had committed relationships, let alone, been in a marriage. All these things that are first, I’m trying to reestablish myself as a free person, so I can only dedicate so much time to advocacy. That’s not to say that I don’t give my support whenever possible. As far as dropping LWOP, I think that I met a lot of people in prison that deserve to be in prison. So, I think to say LWOP should be dropped I would say yes, it should be dropped, but it should be framed in the way that you earn your way back to society because if you are unable and unwilling to do the things that you need to do to survive out here when you’re incarcerated, you’re not gonna be successful out here. And so I think by giving people a light at the end of the tunnel it gets them started down a path that will help them build the skills that they need to be able to be successful when they get out here. So, it does two things, it helps them build themselves up in there and it helps them be prepared to be successful for when they get out. And that was my big shift mentally. I had a shift of “what can I do to make myself comfortable in prison?” versus “how can I do everything that I need to do and what can I do to prepare myself to be successful after I’ve been released from prison?” And so, doing that is going to be what’s going to help everybody be ready for when they do come home. And so instead of saying it like, “Oh we just need to drop LWOP”, instead we need to find a way for LWOPs to earn their freedom.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
Stephen: I would say that a lot of the work that goes on behind the scenes, all the work that my wife did on my behalf and the work that all these advocacy groups are doing goes unsung. As for myself, I’ll always be grateful, and I know I can safely speak on behalf of the guys inside. I tell them about going to the state capital and speaking to senators and the governor’s office on their behalf. I tell them about stuff that I’m hearing through advocacy, and it’s very much appreciated on the inside.
Adrienne: I went to the capital three times talking to senators, governors, whoever would listen. Most of the time it was just somebody’s office staff.
I always told him if there was anything that I could do to bring him [Steve] home, like anything and everything in my power I would do it. And I remember speaking to different wives, family members of those who had LWOP, and I told them, “Hey they can get a commutation through the governor’s office.” And they were like, “You’re crazy, that’s never gonna happen.” And then all of a sudden when Brown was in office, people started getting commuted. So, Steven was one of those that was commuted by Governor Brown. Just to kind of clarify how he came home. He was commuted from LWOP to 25 to life. We went to board a few months after that, and we just weren’t prepared for what to expect because he had mentioned he had resigned himself to die in prison. So, we weren’t really focused on how to go to board and what to say. So, second time around, thankfully they found him suitable, and he came home.
But it’s definitely a combined effort with the men and women on the inside needing to be programming and doing as much as they can to be ready for their moment, to have that opportunity to come home. Some of my best girlfriends in this movement, their husbands were coming home and it made it real to me. So, to know that when we share our story, it’s gonna make it real for someone else and then eventually they’ll be telling their story next.
So, I’m excited because so many things now have just kicked the door open for LWOP. So, there’s gonna be a lot of changes coming and everybody needs to be ready for it.