By Martha Shirk
For the first time in his 52 years, Norman “Will” Williams has a job, his own apartment and a car, symbols of self-sufficiency that he never dared to dream about when he was serving a 25-years-to-life sentence under California’s former “three strikes” law.
In 1994, following the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old in Petaluma, by a parolee, California voters had overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative that mandated a sentence of 25 years to life in prison for a third felony conviction, even for nonviolent crimes. It was the harshest “three strikes” law in the nation because it was the only one that imposed a life sentence for three even minor crimes.
Williams had been convicted of burglaries in 1982 and 1992, and in 1997, three years after the “third strikes” law was enacted, he was convicted of stealing a floor jack from the back of a tow truck in Long Beach. At age 34, he was sent to a 54 square foot cell at Folsom State Prison for 25 years to life.
During his years in prison, Williams never had a single visitor; the ties between him and his 12 siblings had unraveled when they were put into foster care at age 9 because of brutal abuse. Because he was a lifer and regarded as unlikely to get out, the prison provided him with no educational or vocational training options beyond a janitorial course.
But he did get out. Eight years ago, the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project, then called the Three Strikes Project, took up his case. The project works to release prisoners who are serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes. The Stanford lawyers argued that Williams’ background made his sentence excessive; he had serious learning disabilities, had suffered terrible abuse as a child and had been homeless and addicted to cocaine when he committed his crimes.
Williams got out in the spring of 2009. Many former inmates face insurmountable challenges once they’re out, including homelessness, joblessness and friendlessness, which sometimes combine to lead them to re-offend. But the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project made sure Williams had a safety net. “They were the first people to show me that there was somebody out there who cared about me,” he said recently.
The Stanford folks introduced Williams to Eileen Richardson, founder and executive director of the Downtown Streets Team, which provides job training and assistance with housing, transportation and emergency expenses to homeless people. From the moment he got out, Richardson and the Streets Team’s case managers began helping Williams understand how the contemporary world works and facilitating his re-entry into the community.
Two days after Williams arrived in Palo Alto, he began volunteering for the Streets Team, sweeping the downtown streets, sidewalks and spaces between doorways where homeless people often sleep at night. He slept for three months at the Hotel de Zink, an emergency shelter that rotates monthly among 12 Palo Alto churches.
Streets Team caseworkers also helped him apply for Social Security Disability benefits. Besides learning disabilities, he has a back problem and a limp that he attributes to donating a kidney to a brother when he was 17 so that he could get off of dialysis. The Streets Team helped him move to an apartment in Sunnyvale and then, in 2011, to a subsidized apartment at the Opportunity Center in Palo Alto, for which he pays a third of his income.
For several years, Williams volunteered on a Streets Team crew at the Montgomery Street Inn, a shelter for veterans in San Jose. To get there, Williams had to get up at 5 a.m. every day and ride a bus for 90 minutes.
Then last year he returned to Palo Alto as a team leader, focusing on keeping the downtown parking garages clean. All the while, he attended the Streets Team’s weekly meetings, which combine pep talks and access to resources with comradery and a sense of community.
Early last fall, his Streets Team job counselor urged him to apply for a part-time job at Enterprise Car Rental, and he got it. “It’s my first job, really,” he said. He earns $10.50 an hour cleaning cars and shuttling renters back to their homes.
Last December, Williams graduated from the Streets Team’s work experience program. Graduation is met when a Team Member becomes housed and/or employed. When they first join the team, they receive a Yellow Shirt, signifying change and a new beginning. Graduation is marked by receiving a gray shirt with the word “Graduate” proudly displayed across the back.
“It took me a long time to get to a gray shirt,” he said, “but I hope I wear it proud.”
“I’ve been out of prison seven years, and I haven’t gotten into any trouble,” he continued. “The Streets Team has made a very huge difference in my life. It made me a better person. Without them, I probably would have been back in the penitentiary. With their support, I was able to get on my feet and stay on my feet.”
At his graduation ceremony, several staff members and volunteers with whom he has been paired spoke about their respect for him.
“One thing that the Downtown Streets Team has taught me is that all lives matter,” said another volunteer. “They gave him a big chance, coming from the place he did. They could have kicked him to the curb, and we don’t know where he would have been. It has been an honor to watch him grow up. I remember training him to be a team leader years ago, and when he got his first team, he pushed them. A lot of these folks have done very, very well because of his leadership. He’d do anything in the world for them.”
His most recent Streets Team partner said, “He has been my mentor. He showed me how to do stuff properly, how to lead properly, to lead by example. He’s a great man. It’s been a pleasure to call him my partner.”
In 2012, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36, the Three Strikes Reform Act, which modified the 1997 three strikes law to impose a life sentence only when the third felony conviction is “serious or violent.” It also authorized re-sentencing for offenders serving life sentences if their third strike conviction, like Williams’, was not serious or violent and if the judge determined that the reduced sentence does not pose an unreasonable risk to public safety. Since then, Prison Legal News estimates that more than 1,000 former lifers have been released from California prisons and jails, and more than 2,000 have petitions for release pending.
Martha Shirk is a journalist in Palo Alto and the author of several books, including “Lives on the Line” and “On Their Own.”