During the first days after John Rodriguez arrived at California’s Ironwood State Prison, located near Blythe, California, he was overcome by a bad case of the jitters.
He’d spent the first few years of his 22-year sentence in the highly restrictive Level IV yard in the Sacramento-located prison known as New Folsom. But through the unlikely intervention of Hollywood-producer-turned-criminal-justice-reform-advocate, Scott Budnick, Rodriguez had been transferred, as if by the unanticipated act of a Tolkien-esque wizard, to a unit of Ironwood that was known for its stellar college program.
At age 17, Rodriguez had been charged with attempted murder for shooting a man the spring of 2009, in the parking lot of a large, noisy nightclub, after his older brother and the man, whose name was Enrique Evangelista, got into a drunken argument.
When the criminal attorney Rodriguez’s mother hired—who would later be disbarred—couldn’t budge the prosecutor off of matching life sentences for each of the two brothers (although the elder brother shot at exactly no one), the mother scraped together enough cash to hire a second attorney, who persuaded the prosecutors’ office to make one more offer, which Rodriguez quickly accepted. His brother would get five years, of which he would do 4 ½. Rodriguez would be sentenced to 22 years, of which he would do 22 or more, according to most lawyers consulted at the time.
“This is something that I did, and this is something that I will have to do,” Rodriguez told his brother.
Rodriguez made what he could of the programs available at the high-security yard at New Folsom, to which he had been automatically relegated, despite his young age, due to the seriousness of his crime. He got his GED, began exploring his Native American roots, and joined a poetry group, run by a charismatic lifer.
And he struggled to come to terms with a future that consisted of indeterminate decades of lock-up, which now stretched before him.
Around two years into his time at New Folsom, Budnick had come to visit Rodriguez at the urging of the young inmate’s former English teacher, Dennis Danziger, who along with his author wife, Amy Friedman, considered his former student to be an unusually talented writer.
Budnick too saw unusual potential in Rodriguez and, a little more than six months after their first meeting, arranged for the transfer out of New Folsom to Ironwood and its college program.
At Ironwood, even the air the prisoners breathed seemed different.
“When he first got there,” said Danziger, “Johnny wrote me that the woman who was the intake officer was nice to him.”
When he was at New Folsom, Danziger said Rodriguez told him in one letter, he never felt that staff members saw him as human. Now he was suspicious of the intake woman and her friendliness.
“Why are you being so nice to me,” Rodriguez said he blurted to the woman staffer.
“You’re one of Scott’s boys,” the woman answered pleasantly, referring to Budnick.
Paradoxically, the unexpected positive attention added to Rodriguez’s anxiety. For one thing, he didn’t see how he deserved the startling upgrade in status.
Worse, he was afraid he’d blow the opportunity.
“And I knew I couldn’t mess up,” he said when we spoke recently, “because there were people who actually cared about me, Dennis, and Amy, and now Scott.”
Jitters notwithstanding, he decided there was nothing for it but to do as well as he could with this college business.
The college courses, which were administrated at Ironwood by Palo Verde College, had no physical classes. It was purely a correspondence situation. Inmates were given a placement exam and a list of classes, but after that, they were pretty much on their own, according to Rodriguez. There was no one to talk to if one, say, had questions about what course to take, or about what the word “unit” meant. His confusion about what he suspected were simple tasks if you knew what you were doing, made Rodriguez feel stupid and insecure.
“I wanted to say, ‘You know what? Screw it!’”
But he didn’t. Instead, he picked three classes, mostly at random—English writing, elementary algebra, and sociology.
Signing up for the classes didn’t end the confusion. “I was given three books, three syllabi, yet had no clue of what to do,” he would write later in an essay. “I didn’t know how to properly title my work or where to turn it in. I asked around, but received no help.”
Rodriguez felt the least at sea with the writing class because of Danziger’s mentoring when he was at New Folsom where, via letters, the teacher would give him writing prompts. Rodriguez would then send the teacher whatever he’d written, for feedback and comments. It also helped that he really and truly liked to write. At New Folsom, he’d written almost compulsively as a way to untangle his most painful thoughts and emotions.
Algebra, however, was a different story. “Right at the beginning I was stuck on this one algebra problem for about two days,” Rodriguez said. But he kept working and working at the thing. “Finally I figured it out.”
The single algebra breakthrough boosted Rodriguez’s confidence enough that he felt able to take on the next classwork challenge, and the next one. When he finished his courses and got his grades, he received two B’s and one A.
Interestingly, the A was in algebra.
“The grades surprised me,” Rodriguez said. “I knew I wasn’t stupid. But now I knew that I could do this college thing.”
Meanwhile, to learn more about the program Rodriguez managed to get a job as a janitor in the education department, which he used to observe as much as possible.
Struggle loves company
It further helped that, in the course his studies, Rodriguez met a friend who turned out to be an unlikely kindred spirit.
“He was two years older than me, “ said Rodriguez. “He had come down from a Level IV prison like me. He’d been locked up since he was 16 years old.”
The friend, named Hugo Sanchez, was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. “But he has two life sentences’ because of various sentencing enhancements, Rodriguez explained.
The Los Angeles prosecutor in Rodriguez’s case had also started out seeking a double life sentence for the then-17-year old.
“So, I looked at Hugo, and I thought, ‘This could have been me if I would have got convicted with those two life sentences.’”
Once the two inmates began talking, they found many areas of commonality. Sanchez had just started school as well, and had struggled with a learning curve similar to that of Rodriguez. “He said to me, ‘Hey let’s figure this stuff out.’ And so we worked together.”
At first they went to the prison’s education department, demanding answers to their remaining questions.
“But everyone still gave us the runaround.” The two began pouring over the college catalogs together, finally devising the detailed education plans they would need to achieve their respective goals. Rodriguez’s first goal was to get an associates degree. “My area of emphasis was arts and humanities.”
Now that he had a friend to talk things over with, Rodriguez began noticing that other young inmates seemed to be struggling with the same confusion that had plagued him and his friend Hugo. Rodriguez began acting as an unofficial college advisor for a few of the newer inmates. And then for a few more.
Eventually, Rodriguez and Sanchez got to know the man who was running the college program.
“He was an old Vietnam vet who’d been in prison for around 35 or 40 years,” said Rodriguez. “He saw how and my friend went out of our way to sit down with guys and explain to them what they needed to take, and set up education plans with them for their specific needs, and create a schedule, even though we technically weren’t qualified to do that. We just took it upon ourselves to say, ‘This is what you need to know, and this is how you go about it.’”
Eventually, the head guy hired Rodriguez and Sanchez as official tutors. As part of their tutoring, he and Sanchez explained the culture of the prison system and “the things one wanted to avoid and how to properly do that.”
Rodriguez also started a writing class where he used the writing prompts that Danziger had given him during their years of letter writing, coming up with more of his own. “We focused on creative non-fiction and memoir writing as a tool to revisit and to heal our past wounds,” he said.
“He went from nobody when he was in New Folsom,” said Danziger, “to someone who was teaching English, and literature, and creative writing to people who wanted to use their brains while they were inside.”
When it was time for Rodriguez to graduate with his AA degree, Budnick, Danziger and Danziger’s wife, Amy Friedman, came to the ceremony at Ironwood.
Danziger, who still corresponded regularly with Rodriguez, was blown away by what he saw.
“When I visited him at New Folsom,” he said, “it felt like I was seeing someone who had been beaten, metaphorically or literally. But the Johnny I saw at his graduation was gregarious, inquisitive, grateful, and proud of what he’d done—and interested in the outside world. He’d reconnected with his soul.”
Finding the inner geek
After Rodriguez got his AA degree, he went on to get two more, but each with a different emphasis. “One was in Social and Behavioral Sciences, and the other one was in Business and Technology. “
He’d also participated in whatever self-help groups he thought might help him sort out his emotions and his past.
“You know, things like anger management, and interpersonal communication,” Rodriguez said, ticking off some of the various groups and classes. “There was a cognitive behavioral therapy model that dealt with how the way you look at things can change your behavior.” A group called the Alternatives to Violence Project—AVP— was another important program, according to Rodriguez.
But, although he and his friend, Sanchez, saw the value of the various self-help programs they saw that the many of the younger guys, many of whom they were mentoring, were resistant.
They didn’t want people to look at them and think they were weird, he said. “Or wonder why they were going to these groups.”
Rodriguez and Sanchez decided to find a way to break that spell.
“We worked to make the group interesting to them, and make them want to grab on to it,” he said.
“We’d just say, ‘Let’s go! And if somebody has something to say about it…oh, well…!’ “
It helped, Rodriguez said, that by the time he was tutoring, he knew himself in ways that had earlier eluded him.
“I knew who I was. I knew what I wanted to do. I knew what I wanted to change, or help out with. I was okay with standing my ground.” And if sometimes that meant he’d have a target on his back in the eyes of certain inmates and staff, he said, so be it.
“It was mostly inmates,” said Rodriguez, people felt he should “cooperate with certain things.” In other words, inmates who were involved in what was known colloquially as prison politics. “But sometimes it was the staff too,” he said. It was, ‘You think you’re fucking better now? You think you’ve fucking changed?’”
Nevertheless, in this improbable environment, Rodriguez had learned what truly interested him. He knew that he liked school. He knew that he liked writing. “I also realized I’m a straight geek,” Rodriguez said. “I discovered my inner geek in prison.” He would do what it took to pursue those directions, and help others do the same. Targets be damned.
With his newly found geekdom in mind, Rodriguez started a Dungeons and Dragons group in one of the day rooms. “We’d role play, and people would say, ‘What the heck is wrong with these guys?’ But I didn’t care because it made me happy.”
Rodriguez, who was, by then 23 or 24, also saw the D&D group as another way to help new young inmates who were struggling.
“So, with some others like us, we set this atmosphere, this small, hidden community of geeks within prison. The idea was to say, ‘Look, you guys, there’s this world that exists that’s really fun. You can be kids there, even in this messed up place. But it won’t come for free.’”
To join, he said, one had to attend self-help classes, be drug-free, be in the process of earning a GED or enrolled in at least two college courses while maintaining a 3.0 GPA. ‘But if their grades dropped, we’d help them.”
Amazingly, most of the new young inmates he and Sanchez worked with went along with the rules. Pretty soon the group had a waiting list.
“Establishing such a group was uncommon in a prison setting,” Rodriguez wrote later in an essay. “Many inmates shot us looks of disgust, challenged our new way of living, but ultimately we created a separate community that valued change in the unlikeliest of places.”
Rodriguez still didn’t like prison, obviously. But he was at peace with his place in it.
Enter, the Governor
And so things remained until mid-2016, when Rodriguez unexpectedly got called to go the prison counselors’ office.
When he got to the office, a staff member handed him some paperwork.
“He said, ‘There’s somebody in Sacramento who has your caseload and they want you to fill out this petition,” Rodriguez said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh crap what is this?’”
It was a petition to have his sentenced commuted by Governor Jerry Brown, and he was to finish it over the weekend. On one hand, the petition only consisted of four or five questions, Rodriguez said. On the other hand, he realized it was something that could drastically change his life.
“So, obviously, you need to do a really good job”
He filled out the petition and sent it off, knowing it was the longest of all possible long shots. He told Hugo Sanchez, who was now his cellmate, about it, and a couple of others, who understood the unlikelihood of the petition coming to anything. But didn’t tell anybody at home, not his mother, not Dennis or Amy, nobody.
He figured Budnick already knew because Budnick knew everything.
Three months later, Rodriguez was called in again. He was going to be interviewed regarding the petition he had written.
Rodriguez knew getting past the interview was unlikely. But he’d also been told that getting an interview at all was already “very unusual.”
There were four inmates in total being interviewed. Two of them came out first and both said told Rodriguez the guy who had done the questioning was very nice and tried to make each of them comfortable.
Still, Rodriguez expected the worst. “I expected a guy who didn’t care who I was, who didn’t think I had changed, and who wasn’t going to believe in what I told him.”
And that’s exactly who he got. The man who interviewed Rodriguez was a former a parole commissioner, and acted like it.
But in a weird way, said Rodriguez, his interviewer’s demeanor made him more comfortable.
“I knew there was a guy sitting at the other end of the room who I had to convince that I was different. And I think I did it. I don’t mean I tried to bullshit him. I was just being honest and real with him.”
Or so he hoped. When he came out, he ran into an old older guy who had a sentence of life without, who was also being interviewed. When the older inmate saw Rodriguez’s nervousness, he suggested that he should ask himself one question.
“Do you feel like you forgot to say anything? Or are you uncomfortable with anything you said? At the end of the day are you happy with what you said?”
Rodriguez thought about it. Yeah, he said. He was happy about what he’d told the interviewer. No regrets.
“Then you have nothing to worry about.”
Letters and calls
An inmate with knowledge about the commutation petition process said Rodriguez could hear back, pro or con, within three months from now, six months, a year, or five years, or more.
“Do you have letters of support?” the inmate asked.
“You should get some letters of support.”
Rodriguez realized he was going to have to tell at least a few people what was going on. He wrote Danziger and his wife, who immediately wrote him the asked for support letters. Then he did his best to forget about the whole thing.
He still didn’t tell his mother.
Approximately three months later, he heard a call over the intercom that said that he was to proceed to the prison’s program office. Rodriguez proceeded to the office, but was instantly spooked.
A summons to program office usually meant one of three things. You were in trouble. You were in worse trouble. Or someone had died in your family.
Rodriguez knew he’d done nothing wrong. So that left the really bad news. Someone had died.
When he got to the program office, the warden was in the office, which was “not at all common,” he said. There was also a captain. He was the person who spoke.
“Did you fill out a petition some months ago?”
“You’re Rodriguez, right?”
Rodriguez said, yes. He was Rodriguez.
Okay, the captain said. At 3 p.m. we have a phone meeting with the chief of staff in Sacramento, because they want to talk to you.”
It was 2:55 p.m.. Rodriguez knew it had to be about the petition.
“I started thinking, okay, let me hear the bad news,” he said. “Let me hear, ‘We reviewed your case. And we’re going to leave your sentence as is.’”
He had to be self-protective, he said, because hoping was too painful.
Everyone got on the phone, and a woman was on the other end.
“We’ve been looking into who you are, and what you been doing, Rodriguez remembered her saying. “We’ve looked into everything about you. Yes, everything.”
The woman started naming things that Rodriguez had accomplished while in prison, including the fact that, in all his years of lock-up, he’d never gotten into trouble, not even slightly.
The governor, she said, was “really happy” to hear about his involvement in the Youth Offender college program—how he’d used it to change himself, but also to help other people.
“And so,” she said, “the governor has decided to commute your sentence from a 22-year sentence to a nine-year sentence.”
Rodriguez felt as though he’d been struck by lightning. He’d been in eight-and-a-half years. He was unable to speak.
Finally, the woman broke the silence. “You’re probably doing the calculations,” she said, which was exactly what he was doing.
“That’s probably an immediate release,” she added.
At first, Rodriguez too undone to be happy. Instead, he was flooded with conflicting emotions.
“I’m just thinking, ‘Why me? Why me when I’ll already get a second chance at life, when I don’t have a life sentence, when I have an opportunity to go home, eventually, because of SB 260.”
Signed in 2013 by Governor Jerry Brown, SB 260 allows people who were under eighteen at the time they committed their crime, and who have served at least 15 years of his or her sentence, to submit a petition for resentencing. If they are serving a sentence of 25 to life, they must wait until they have served 25 years of the sentence to make the petition. In neither case is the petition a guarantee. It is a chance at a chance.
“I told her, ‘Thank you. I wish I could have more words for you. But, right now, but I don’t even know what to say or think.’
“She tells me. ‘No, you don’t have to say anything. We’re just happy for you.’”
His emotions continued to flood as he walked back to his cell, where his friend Hugo Sanchez was waiting.
“Now I had to explain to my cellie, who is my best friend, I had to tell him, ‘Hey this is the good news I got. But you’re still going to be in here.’
“I remember him just crying with me, and saying he was happy because I deserved this.
“And I’m thinking he can’t go to board”—meaning the parole board—“until his 25th-year mark.”
Rodriguez received the phone call on August 17, 2017. He was released six days later on August 23, 2017.
His brother was the person who picked him up at Ironwood. Then, because Palm Springs was on the way home to Los Angeles from the Blythe, CA, prison, not sure what else to do, the brothers’ made their first stop at a Palm Springs outlet mall where Rodriguez was overtaken by a ferocious bout of sensory strangeness.
“I kept feeling the sidewalk was moving under my feet.”
The strangeness subsided somewhat when Rodriguez heard the ordinary sound of a baby crying.
“That’s a baby!” he said to his brother, as if pointing out the sight of a unicorn. “There is a baby here. There’s life here!”
Next, they drove through In-N-Out Burger. “Then after In-N-Out Burger, I called Scott.”
Budnick exclaimed in surprise, not because he didn’t know of Rodriguez’s sentence commutation, but because he didn’t know the now-26-year-old’s release would occur so soon. After a lively and emotional exchange, Budnick told Rodriguez to hold on. A few seconds later a third person was on the line.
“And he’s like, ‘Johnny, this is the lady that helped get your get your sentence commuted. She’s the one who reviewed the case.”
Indeed it was the voice he’d heard six days ago. The three of them talked for a few minutes. Finally, the woman told Rodriguez and Budnick to hold for a minute or two.
When she returned, she was joined by yet another voice. This time it was a man’s voice.
“Mr. Rodriguez. This Governor Brown. I’m the guy who commuted your sentence.”
Rodriguez said he told the governor that he understood there was a lot riding on how he handled this second chance.
“I know that there’re probably people waiting for me to screw up.”
Yes, said Brown. “But I trust that I made the right decision.”
He understood the responsibility, Rodriguez said. “And I’m okay with carrying that. I know who I’m representing. I’m representing the hidden people in prison who have actually changed, and who deserve to be out. And I’m not going to screw it up for them.”
In fact, Rodriguez said more recently, the one fear he did not have, was a fear of going back to prison.
“I knew for me it wasn’t an option. It wasn’t even a thought. I knew that 100 percent.”
Instead, he said, his fear, in the beginning, was going back to a place that he’d only known when he was 17. “I had missed out on so much, and now I had to play catch up.”
And in the first week or so, as is true of many prison inmates after release, Rodriguez also found it strange to be alone.
“I know that being alone was the healthiest thing for me,” he said. “But like me and Hugo, he looked out for me so much, I looked over him too. Now we weren’t going to have each other anymore.”
Still, he talks to Sanchez around three times a week, he said.
Fears aside, in the slightly over four months since his release, Rodriguez has mostly been busy.
A week after he left Ironwood, he flew to Sacramento to meet Brown in person, and also Brown’s dog, Colusa, who lay near to the governor has he put off signing a pile of bills, but chatted for nearly an hour to Rodriguez instead, while the gubernatorial staff pestered the state’s chief executive to move along with his already overcrowded day.
“But when his wife called, that was the call he said he had to take,” Rodriguez remembered.
Rodriguez is enrolled at Santa Monica College where he is taking several upper division classes to get a jump start on a bachelor’s degree. With that in mind, Rodriguez has already sent applications to four Cal State Universities, and also to his dream school, UCLA, where he hopes to study creative writing.
To pay his bills, he has a job assisting with the cooking at a local cafe.
In his non-school, non-working hours, he volunteers for Budnick’s non-profit, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, or ARC.
He is also a regular speaker at the various LA County high school-based clubs that are a part of POPs, the non-profit that Amy Friedman and Dennis Danziger founded as a way to support teenagers with incarcerated loved ones.
“Johnny was one of the main inspirations to start POPs,” said Danziger.
His goal, Rodriguez said recently, is to teach writing. “I want to teach in a high school. But also in a juvenile hall, or in prison.”
He gets a lot from talking to adolescents at the POPs clubs, he said. “I’m learning a whole bunch from them.”
As for other people’s hopes for him, Scott Budnick said that, aside from wanting Rodriguez to be happy, “I feel like Johnny’s commutation is actually a huge benefit to public safety. I think he’s going to help so many kids deal with their tough childhoods, or home dysfunction, or to steer them away from gangs, or help them find good lives for themselves.”
Danziger and Friedman had similar thoughts. “It seems like he’s laid out his path,” Danziger said. “And I’m so confident he’s going to accomplish it, I almost don’t need really to hope about it.”
John is one of those rare people who seems now to treat each day “as the best possible day to be alive,” said Danziger.
That isn’t to say life is always filled solely with sunshine, he added.
For example, when people ask Rodriguez, now, what he was in for, said Danziger, “he doesn’t hide anything.” Pain is still evident. “He says, ‘I was in for attempted murder. I shot a guy.’”
The non-fiction story above is part of what has now become a six-part series, the first four chapters of which were written for WitnessLA in 2010 by author and former LAUSD high school teacher, Dennis Danziger.
The series is called “The Writer.”
It explores what happens when an otherwise decent, very talented kid does something terrible.
We decided to republish Chapters 1-4, when we became aware of a new and surprising turn of events in the life of John Rodriguez, the subject of this series.
Chapters 5 & 6 were written recently, after I received an unexpected email from the now-26-year-old Rodriguez this past Thanksgiving telling me how the 2010 series had helped to change the direction of his life.
Here are the links to the first four chapters of the story in case you need to catch up.
And here is Chapter 5, which begins the newest part of the tale of a talented young writer, a shooting, a 22-year sentence, and miracles in the unlikeliest of places.