“At the beginning, I was all kinds of mad at my father. I thought it was his fault, us being in prison.”
“My earliest memory was in the projects,” says Melvin Smith, sitting in a family member’s house in Compton, California. The setting of his earliest memory, Watts’ notorious Nickerson Garden Projects, is about a 10-minute drive to the east from where he sits.
As a child, Melvin lived there with both parents, as well as three brothers and three sisters.
Melvin was a good student up until 10th grade, when he became the “trouble guy.” He says he did small crimes to earn neighborhood respect and express his anger: throwing rocks at cars, snatching purses and the like. “I went to youth authority,” says Melvin. “And then after that, I didn’t go back for a while—until this case right here.”
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In 1984, Melvin’s father used Melvin’s gun to shoot and kill a man during a confrontation outside of a liquor store. Melvin, reportedly unaware of what transpired, was coming out of the store when the fatal incident occurred. “So they gave me accessory to a murder,” says Melvin.
He was just turning 18. Following his public defender’s guidance, he pled guilty. “They said I could do seven years and get out, so I did that,” says Melvin. “I wound up doing 31 years, six months and five days in there.”
Melvin thought he’d never be released, so he acted out. He says he fought people and started riots. He was always in trouble.
He served the majority of his time in San Quentin, but bounced around from prison to prison along the way. During two years of his stint, he and his father were cellmates. “We were in Tracy together… we were crimeys,” says Melvin. “I was kind of embarrassed to say that my father was my crimey.”
About 15 years into his sentence, Melvin got involved in a few programs, one specializing in helping people find alternatives to violence. His behavior started to change. “They wanted to know my triggers—anything was my trigger,” says Melvin. “I thought everyone else had a problem, but no, I had the problem.” Melvin says he learned the three R’s: relax, relate, release. “That’s what I still do everyday.”
Prior to ever attending a class, Melvin says, he approached the parole board without caring. “I went in there with a big old Jheri Curl and sat in the chair. The prosecutor told me to sit up straight, but I was being rebellious,” says Melvin. He cursed at the prosecutor and was denied parole for the next five years.
He returned with a new haircut and a more positive mindset, but the outcome was the same. Denied. The pattern continued for 10 more parole hearings. “The 11th time, I thought I was having a heart attack,” Melvin recalls. “That’s when they told me, ‘We find you suitable for parole.’”
In the rush of emotion that overcame him on his release date, Melvin forgot some vital identification information. But the guards knew who he was. “They were like, ‘Go ahead, Boom’”—they knew him so well they used his nickname.
Leaving the prison gates, the first thing Melvin noticed was how deeply people were into their cellphones. “They had their heads down and they weren’t even paying attention to me,” says Melvin of his family members who brought him home. “It was a trip, getting out.”
One of the biggest adjustments for Melvin was his health. “I gained like 90 pounds since I got home. I’ve gotten so big,” says Melvin.
Spending the first six months in a transitional home around other people who served similar amounts of time proved to be of assistance. “It was all ex-lifers in there,” says Melvin. “A lot of them had been out for a while, so they helped me out.” The first major hurdle Melvin had to overcome was finding employment. But employment soon got put on the back burner, replaced by health concerns. “I’m not able to work now,” says Melvin.
“I have a bulging disk in my back and I have a torn ACL in my knee.” After pointing to the location of those two injuries, he adds: “And I have arthritis in my other knee.”
“I can’t sit down too long because my back will start hurting, I can’t stand up too long because it’ll start tightening up,” says Melvin. The injuries all occurred after being released from prison—including one sustained on the blacktop. “I tore something in my knee trying to be young again and shake somebody in basketball,” Melvin admits.
He’s currently caught in a holding pattern. His insurance has allowed him to have two MRIs on his knee and the bulging disk in his back examined, but now he’s awaiting surgery.
“The hardest part about transitioning back is not being able to do things for yourself,” says Melvin. “Not being able to have your own money, your own car, your own everything, you know what I mean?”
Melvin has dreams of returning to work and applying the skills he learned while incarcerated: “upholstery, sewing, or dry cleaning,” says Melvin. He admits that he sometimes gets down on himself, but he’s learned to accept the current situation. His frustrations audibly mix with optimism as he says, “I try to make the best of everything. I’ve got my health, so I’m alright.”
Despite having the health issues, Melvin has friends and family to lean on during this time of transition. Plus, he recently stepped out and married his girlfriend, Lynn. The two are now happily living together.
“They gave me life in prison. After that, they gave me life on parole,” Melvin says, adding that life presents you with choices, and the outcome is up to you. “Hopefully you make the right choices … because the wrong one could cost your whole life.”
Melvin, who in early 2021 was notified that he is no longer on parole, says he’s even patched up things with his father—well, as much as possible. “At the beginning, I was all kinds of mad at my father. I thought it was his fault, us being in prison,” says Melvin, who notes that his father has apologized. “As time went on, I see it wasn’t his fault. It was my fault too.”
Melvin didn’t know his dad was going to shoot anybody, but it was Melvin’s gun. “If I wouldn’t have brought the gun, it wouldn’t have happened,” says Melvin. “I had to take responsibility for my part.”
Melvin went to prison at 18 years old and was released at 50. “I had to become a person—a man—in prison,” Melvin says. “Prison is like the woods, bro. They just throw you out there and I had to adapt to that." And now he’s learning to adapt again.