What It's Really Like When A Prison ‘Lifer’ Gets A New Shot At Life

Ricardo Sapienza served 25 years for a crime he swears he didn’t commit. His hardest challenge began when the parole board finally said yes

On the breezy patio of an upscale Brazilian steakhouse overlooking Redondo Beach, Ricardo Sapienza celebrates his 46th birthday with thirty close friends and family members. Presents pile up, balloons float in the air, meat is carved from rotisserie skewers, and later, feather-headed Samba dancers will shimmy through. Forty-six is not a milestone for most, but this is the first time in 25 years Sapienza is celebrating his birthday as a free man. For a quarter century he was inmate #H28469. Convicted of second-degree murder and attempted murder at the age of twenty in 1991, he was paroled on April 8, 2016. Tonight he also celebrates his last weekend in a six-month court-ordered transitional housing program.

He's wearing a light blue suit that was given to him by a cousin, like most of the other clothing he owns. It hangs from his compact frame as he makes his way through the crowd, greeting friends, some for the first time since his release, with a mustachioed smile. They fist-bump and hug one another. He makes sure his mother has a seat of honor at the head of table. She touches his face, saying how handsome he looks, adding, "some people have told me you look like a detective." He moves with a soft-spoken confidence, without the puffed-up exterior of some who have done hard time. "This is the second time in my life I've ever worn a suit," he laughs. "The first time was when I took my girlfriend to her junior prom." That was when he was eighteen, a year after he joined a gang and dropped out of high school – a year before his life would drastically change.

Sapienza grew up in the Gateway Cities area of Los Angeles, a kid who was into drawing and sports. His dad returned from the Vietnam War with a drug problem and left his mom with three kids when Sapienza was thirteen. That's about the time he got into graffiti, running the streets with his crew while his mother made ends meet as a bank teller and check cashier. His family bounced around from place to place, even living in a motel at one point, using the nearby public telephone as their own.

By nineteen, Sapienza was a member of a gang in Bell Gardens, a largely Latino city in southeast Los Angeles County. He had already fathered two children, been arrested once on a domestic violence charge and survived two bullets to the head from a rival gang, leaving him deaf in his left ear. On August 16, 1991, he and his fellow gang members rolled up to a public park in San Pedro in five cars, looking to settle beef with one gang when they accidentally ran into another. Words and bullets flew, and at the end of it all one sixteen-year-old lay dead and another, an eighteen-year-old, was injured.

Read the rest of this story at Narratively.

Narratively is a digital publication and creative studio focused on ordinary people with extraordinary stories, such as this former inmate who's changing his life after years behind bars andlife inside America's most unique detention center.

Cover image by Isadora Kosofsky

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