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On April 9, 2019, Juan walked out of prison after 29 years. He calls that Chapter 1.

It started when he was incarcerated at 17 years old. Sentenced to die in prison as a child, his father’s deep faith sustained him. “My father told me he prayed. The Lord said to him, ‘I got him in there, and I’ll get him out.’”

In some ways, Juan actually thinks prison was a blessing. “I had an anger problem. It saved me from a lot of things.” But prison offered him no opportunities for counseling. He didn’t trust people, and prison did nothing to change that. He began to focus on his own faith, and believe in the possibilities for his life outside of prison.

Erin Fennell, a YSRP Mitigation Specialist, stepped in to help Juan prepare for his resentencing hearing following the Supreme Court decisions that made his automatic juvenile life without parole sentence unconstitutional. With Erin’s partnership, they created his mitigation report, including a reentry plan. For a time, then-District Attorney Williams had offered a new sentence of 50 years. Then, District Attorney Krasner made a more reasonable offer: time served. Freedom became a real possibility.

Juan wanted to tell nobody. He wanted to surprise his parents by simply showing up at their home. Erin suggested he let his family in on the secret, and they were there as he walked out into his life’s second chapter.

He soon found a job working as a maintenance tech. He lived with his parents for his first two years home – a promise made to supportive parents that had missed him for far too long. He started saving for a new car. He wanted it to be brand new. Chapter Two, the transition, went incredibly well. Juan made his life about “showing people who I am, not what I’ve been through.”

photo by Naomieh Jovin

He participates in YSRP’s Intergenerational Healing Circles. Juan enjoys the experience, as it gives him the opportunity to “speak to people I know I can relate to.” He recognizes the change it brings to his life. Now, he’s taking advantage of the “opportunity to express myself…something I wasn’t doing before.”

2020: Juan appears in a film about the Intergenerational Healing Circles.

Chapter Three, it seems clear, will be the best one yet. Juan now has his own apartment and that car he was saving for. In 2021, he applied for a promotion from Maintenance Tech to Assistant Maintenance Supervisor. But, he was so impressive in the interview process that he was advanced several additional layers – to Maintenance Manager. He says, “we went from talking about an extra couple dollars to an extra lotta dollars!”

That job success made it possible for Juan to pursue a dream that had felt out of reach: home ownership. A month ago, he signed on the dotted line, officially making him a homeowner. Though “it’s still a mess,” he says, he’s filling it quickly. There’s the dog (Nabu), the cat (Niña), and the turtle (Celeste). Plus, his girlfriend is there, and he’s looking forward to having their families meet, in the new home, over the holidays.

As Juan grows older, he knows there is a lot of life ahead: “I did 30 years, but they didn’t do me.” He’s ready to work hard to achieve the things he wants in his life. “I want to do it all now, then relax,” he says. That relaxation will be the chapter that comes next. Whenever it comes, we know it will be well earned.

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