What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Storytelling is this former lifer’s gift

Troy Williams did his time — 18 years of a life sentence in California prison — and he survived by using his experiences as bases for podcasts, videos and other valuable documentation on the inside. Continuing these pursuits after an unexpected parole in 2014, his acclaim and contributions have only grown, most recently as a Soros Justice Fellow. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Joanne Elgart Jennings reports. This is part of an ongoing series of reports called ‘Chasing the Dream,’ which reports on poverty and opportunity in America.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    As the sun rises over San Francisco Bay, the imposing San Quentin State Prison comes into view. Birds chirping, waves lapping against the shore right outside the prison gate. Filmmaker Troy Williams is trying to capture video of these contrasting scenes. Just four years ago he saw a similar view from inside the prison walls.

  • TROY WILLIAMS:

    Beneath death row is the fifth tier of North Block and there's a little slit in the window that you can see out of. And prior to paroling I would go up to that tier and you can see these trees right here and that was like a symbol of freedom. I would just go sit there and just like dream about what it would be like to be crossing that bridge on my way home.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Williams, now 51 years old, had his first brush with violence when he was 13.

  • TROY WILLIAMS:

    When I was confronted by some guys in the gang at the store and um, they chased me and they beat me up. They stomped me out. That was a turning point for my life because soon thereafter I joined a gang.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    At 15, he was convicted of killing a rival gang member. He served 6 years in juvenile hall. In 1997, at the age of 30, Williams was sentenced to seven years to life in prison for kidnapping and robbery. He didn't hold out much hope of ever being paroled.

  • TROY WILLIAMS:

    I remember the fear from that day that like I could actually just die in here and spend the rest of my life in here without ever having the opportunity to go repair some of the harm that I've caused to my own community.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    At San Quentin, they're trying to repair some of that harm. There are more than eighty self help groups here. One of them is the victim offender education group in which inmates are matched with victims of crimes similar to the ones they committed.

  • TROY WILLIAMS:

    I remember sitting across from this lady and I saw how fear paralyzed her life. I saw how the fear of her being robbed at gunpoint like actually froze her. I saw her, how she sort of cowered in, right? And I connected that in a way in which I saw how fear drove me to cower out. So that bridged the big connection for me on how my actions had potentially harmed the victims of my crime.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Williams also participated in other self-help and educational activities, everything from restorative justice to creative writing. And when the Discovery Channel came to San Quentin to shoot a reality TV show, Troy Williams was one of nine inmates taught to shoot, edit, and direct their own videos.

  • TROY WILLIAMS:

    I want to take our experiences and turn them into something positive. I want to take things that we've been through and prevent people who may be in that scenario from going there.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Over the next seven years, Williams created an in-house prison TV newscast.

  • TROY WILLIAMS:

    Good evening San Quentin. I'm Troy Williams out here with Father Boyle.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    It later morphed into a local public radio program.

  • VOICE OF TROY WILLIAMS:

    Ron Everett has been incarcerated almost 31 years. Everett was arrested soon after the birth of his son.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    After serving 18 years Troy Williams was released on parole in 2014. In 2016, he returned to San Quentin to speak at a TEDX event inside the prison.

  • TROY WILLIAMS:

    A little over a year ago I was serving a life sentence with many of the men in the room today.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    The event was directed, filmed, and edited by inmates, including Brian Asey. He has served thirty years of an 83-years-to life sentence for kidnapping and rape.

  • BRIAN ASEY:

    So Troy Williams was the person who was extremely instrumental in my change and, and in me finding out who I am as a person. He really turned the light on in my head about, you know, about what I could do, who I could be.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Billie Mizell runs several self-help programs inside San Quentin.

  • BILLIE MIZELL:

    So the trauma healing work that we do is definitely rooted in storytelling because it takes empathy to tell someone else's story and self reflection is critical. There are a lot of exercises that really go back through one's life. And that is, that is how you build empathy.

  • JENNIFER SHAFFER:

    I think that's the first step is being able to grapple with what you did and be able to tell your story and how you're different today.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Jennifer Shaffer is the Executive Officer of California's Parole Board. During her seven year tenure, the Board has approved more than double the number of inmates for parole than in the previous seven years. In 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that an inmate can only be deemed "unsuitable for parole" if he or she "poses a current threat to public safety." JENNIFER SHAFFER: The Supreme Court basically said that we could no longer deny somebody based solely on the significance or the severity of their crime. So instead of asking somebody merely what did you do, now we were asking who were you then, who are you today, and what is the difference?

  • TROY WILLIAMS:

    I'm Troy Williams. I did 18 years. I've been out 3 1/2.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Inside the Alameda County Parole Office, a group of former lifers are gathered for a monthly support meeting.

  • MR. EDWARDS:

    My name is Edwards. I've been in prison 40 years and 8 months.

  • WESLEY:

    I've just been out a week today. I'm trying to figure out, you know, everybody's been calling me. They want to see me. I got grandchildren I've met never met; great grandchildren I've never met.

  • SAM JOHNSON:

    I know you're anxious to see your family and your family mean the world to you. 40 years. But everything is a process and it takes time.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Williams reminds his fellow parolees to keep things in perspective.

  • TROY WILLIAMS:

    I was driving about two months ago. It was raining. I'm in a suit, I'm fresh, I hit, tire on the flat, it's raining, pouring down raining. I jumped out the car. I'm frustrated, right? And then I started laughing to myself like, you tripping. First. I'm like, man, I got a flat tire. And then I started thinking, I'm like, I'm starting laughing. I'm like, man, I get to have a flat tire and I can pay for it. Right, so it's perspective.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Troy Williams often returns to the San Quentin gate to greet friends as they are released from prison.

  • TROY WILLIAMS:

    Glad to see you on this side, man. When I came to prison, I was a gangbanger, but for the amount of programs, the amount of things that I was able to participate in, I wouldn't be who I am today.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    He says all prisoners should have access to the type of education and professional training he had.

  • TROY WILLIAMS:

    The question society has to ask themselves is, who do you want coming home? Do you want the same individual who went to prison coming home? Or do you want somebody that has, um, had the opportunity to work on themselves to understand what led them down that path in the first place?

Editor’s Note: Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest