From behind bars, hear three stories of transformation

What does it mean to make a change in your life — and what does it mean to make a total transformation?

It’s the kind of contemplative question you might bring up in a soul-searching conversation with a friend. In this case, it was being considered by a man serving a life sentence at a California prison.

“We talk about transformation in here, (and) we make a distinction between change and transformation, right?” James Jacobs said to fellow inmates during a group discussion earlier this year.

For Jacobs, change had been a slow and steady process over the 16 years he’d been in lockup. But it wasn’t until the 32-year-old was confronted with a life-and-death decision behind bars that he realized he wanted to transform, becoming someone entirely different than the person he’d been before.

‘Be ye transformed’

Jacobs was 15 years old when he shot and killed someone in an argument outside of a nightclub in 2004. He was sentenced to a total of 40 years to life.

By the time he was 20, Jacobs said, he was suicidal.

“Once I got through that period … I decided I was going to try to make something out of being incarcerated,” he said. He began to take advantage of rehabilitative programs focused on anger management and victim’s awareness, which are used to help prisoners understand the impact of their actions on their victims.

Five years later, Jacobs continued, those efforts were put to the test when he discovered that a fellow inmate he’d come to know was believed to be responsible for the death of Jacobs’ brother — an event that happened within days of Jacobs’ own crime.

When he heard this news, Jacobs said, he realized how easy it would be to reverse his progress. “I had the opportunity to change back into the kid who took a 20-year-old’s life for no reason, no justifiable reason,” he said. “I could live in the conversation that I’ve been having in my head since my brother died: Vengeance. Retribution.”

But more than anything, Jacobs said, he wanted forgiveness. “I want to be forgiven for what I had taken from this family when I was 15 years old,” he said. “And in that moment … I remember the (Biblical) scripture saying, ‘Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ The God that I believe in was not telling me to change (but to) be something new. Something completely different. Something you are not in this moment. Because in that moment, I’m mad. I’m vengeful. I’m retributive. (And) in that moment, I made the choice to transform.”

He chose to extend the same forgiveness he seeks. “Not only because he is entitled to be redeemed. Not only because I want to go home,” Jacobs said. “But because I want to be something new.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom commuted Jacobs’ sentence earlier this month to make him eligible to seek parole immediately because Jacobs “has dedicated himself to his rehabilitation and becoming a productive citizen” since he was imprisoned. “This act of clemency does not minimize or forgive his conduct or the harm it caused,” Newsom’s statement says. “It does recognize the work he has done since to transform himself.”

Jacobs shared his story as the CNN Original Series “This Is Life with Lisa Ling” filmed at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California, for an episode about a reading program that connects prep school students with prisoners facing life sentences. You can listen to Jacobs’ speech below.

His wasn’t the only story of transformation during the making of the episode. Below, hear from two other inmates who describe how they, too, have sought restoration.

‘A moral obligation’

For seven years, Palma School in nearby Salinas has partnered with the Correctional Training Facility on a reading program that brings together a small group of students and prisoners to learn from one another and foster empathy.

Earlier this year, two CTF inmates were given special permission to attend an assembly at Palma and share their stories with the private school’s students. One of the two was Alfredo “Freddie” Ortega, who was incarcerated in 2008 and is eligible for parole in June 2030.

In his speech, Ortega was candid about his upbringing and the decisions he made as a teen to join a gang. Now 37 years old and facing a life sentence, Ortega reflected on how past fears and insecurities led him to where he sits today, and how he wants to live his life going forward.

“Growing up, I allowed myself to develop an unhealthy desire to be accepted by my friends, who also became gang members. My childhood fears of being different, the fear of rejection, fear of not being liked, fear of not fitting in led me to seek acceptance, recognition and attention from my peers … (and) contributed to my violent behavior,” Ortega told the Palma students. “Today I am deeply ashamed that I became that selfish, impulsive and irresponsible person that cared very little for the right of others and cared nothing for their safety. Today I feel a moral obligation to live my life in a manner that displays compassion, kindness, respect and dignity towards others.”

Listen to Ortega’s story below.

‘I’m going to do something new’

Vincent Rivera, 35, spoke frankly about his path toward transformation. Along with Jacobs, he shared his history, and how he found himself in a space where he wanted to become something new.

“When I came to prison, I had a choice to make,” Rivera said. “What am I going to do? How am I going to fit in? … I thought like, man, this is it. I’m going to die in prison. I came to prison with 96 years to life.”

But, he said, “I made a decision for my future. I made a decision that says, ‘You know what? I’m going to do something new that I’ve never done before. I’m going to start making right decisions.'”

While the death of his father tested his resolve, Rivera said, he remains committed to his new direction. “It (was) an invitation to do one of two things: either I could backslide a little bit and justify it by my father’s death, or I could use it to motivate me to go forward.’

Rivera has been in prison since 2013 and is eligible for parole in April 2035. Listen to Rivera’s story below.

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