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Story Publication logo April 27, 2022

Facing Life: Jose Espinoza

Melvin Smith stands outside his childhood home in Compton, California.


Facing Life

"Facing Life" is a multimedia project focused on the struggles of recently paroled people.

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“I didn’t really become a man ’til I went to prison.” – Jose

Stockton, California

“During summer vacations,” says Jose Espinoza, “we had to work in the fields to help my mother and father.” Jose grew up in the Cera Vista Projects in Stockton, California. He says his mother was loving, but his father was an abusive alcoholic; that heavily influenced Jose well into adulthood. 

Jose started “running with the wrong crowd” when he was in middle school. The first time he got arrested, Jose recalls his father telling the Police, “No, keep him there. I want him to learn a lesson.”

He had a “gang mentality” at the time. But coming from where Jose was coming from, that was the norm. “That’s how we protected one another,” says Jose. “And I became a product of that.”

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He soon moved on to carjacking and selling drugs. The counselors at juvenile hall began to know Jose as a regular. “‘This is going to be your home for the rest of your life,’” Jose recalls them saying to him. “And I believed that.” 

Jose says that during that period in his life, it was “easy to do bad and hard to do good.” It didn’t help that he found a certain sense of freedom behind the gates of the detention center. “It was the only place I felt safe. I didn’t have to worry about my father hitting me in there.”

“I used to sell drugs, that was part of the lifestyle I was living,” says Jose, sitting in his cousin’s house in Stockton. “I never thought once that I was victimizing people.”

One night a guy from a different neighborhood was on Jose’s block. “How is this guy going to come into my neighborhood … Knowing that this is our neighborhood?” Jose questioned. He pulled out a gun and shot the man in cold blood. 

“I didn’t try to run, I didn’t try to hide,” says Jose. He was picked out of a photographic lineup a few days later. He claims that his “gang mentality” is what pushed him to pull the trigger, calling it a “senseless murder.” 

He says he often reflects, thinking that he never would’ve killed the man if he wasn’t selling drugs. And wouldn’t have been selling drugs if he wasn’t in a gang. And ultimately, he lands back on the way he felt about himself at the time—based on his home life—as the catalyst for all of his actions. “I didn’t have any respect for the law … I didn’t even have respect for myself.”

He received a sentence of 19 years to life. At the time, he thought the sentence was unjust, but today he says it was fair. “I have a second chance,” says Jose. “My victim never did, and I understand that today.”

On his first night in prison, Jose thought, “This is going to be the rest of my life. This is the bed I made and now I've got to lay in it.” He says he was frightened, but he grounded himself by saying, “This is what I chose for myself.”

Jose says that part of prison life is “prison politics.” He had to pick a side, “North or South, or Border Brothers.” He remained active in the gang life through the majority of his sentence. But in 2009, a visit from his daughter changed his mindset forever. 

She paid him a visit just after her birthday. As a gift, Jose says, he gave her some prison artwork—a jewelry box made out of paper and Saran Wrap. She appreciated the gift, but Jose recalls his daughter saying, “I wish that when I blew out the candles and opened my eyes it was you on the other side of that cake.”

He cracked. 

“That’s when I realized that I need to change,” says Jose. “My heart don’t beat just for me, my heart beats for someone else. And that someone else wants to see me come home.” Jose began attending AA classes, self-help groups, and restorative justice circles.

He recalls one guest lecturer saying, “God didn’t make us this way. Something happened to you at a young age to make you resentful, to make you have all this hurt inside. Something happened to you.” That pushed Jose to start unpacking his childhood trauma.

“I didn’t really become a man ‘til I went to prison,” says Jose, now 52 years old. At the time of his crime, he was 24. With the combination of his rehabilitative efforts, time served and the passing of SB 261 and AB 1308, Jose became eligible for parole. 

In approaching the board for his fifth and final time, he told his story of his upbringing—with a special focus on the adversarial relationship with his father. The parole board found Jose suitable on the grounds that he was more forthcoming about the truth than they had asked. 

After waiting 120 days, a period that Jose says was “like starting his 26 years all over again,” he was released. “They went and got me some ‘dress outs,’” Jose says, referring to the attire given to people when they’re exiting an institution. Donning those state-issued clothes, he walked out the gates of Corcoran Correctional Facility to find his daughter waiting for him, all by herself. 

As they both shed tears, a voice of wisdom came from an unexpected source. Jose says the woman officer at the gate pointed to his sobbing daughter and told him, “You see that face? Every time you think about doing bad, remember that face.”

The first stop Jose and his daughter made was Red Lobster. His daughter told everyone within earshot that Jose was fresh out of prison. “I was like, ‘Why are you telling everybody?’” She replied, “I want everybody to know I'm excited, I'm happy. My daddy came home!”

Jose lived at a transitional home before staying with family members for a short period, and eventually moving in with his fiancé, Sabrina Flores. 

He took up a few odd jobs for income, until one day he volunteered to do some security work at the Civic Auditorium. “It was a Delfonics and Blue Magic concert,” says Jose. Not only did he get to see the R&B legends for free, he also landed a job. 

But the gig didn’t last. Jose, who had multiple battles with pneumonia and suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, developed blood clots in his legs. He used his recovery time to heal and get to know his family better. But in the fall of 2020, Jose contracted COVID-19 and battled it for months.

In April of 2021, Jose’s fiancé, Sabrina, found him on the bathroom floor, dead. 

“He was always locked up,” says Sabrina, who had known Jose since they were teens. “He didn’t think he was coming home, so he was doing whatever he wanted in there. When he got out, his body reacted differently.”

Sabrina says that Jose had one request in the event of his death: to be buried with his father. And that request has now been fulfilled.



Criminal Justice


Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice

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