Los Angeles, California
“I basically went from living in a fishbowl ..., which is the prison yard, to swimming in an ocean.”
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“Me and my sister always tell people that we had a ‘drug’ problem growing up,” says Travielle Pope. “Because my mother drug us to church.” At an early age, Travielle recalls, he and his sister thought that church was their second home.
But when his mom “fell out of the church,” the influence of the neighborhood took hold of him and his sister. The violent mentality that came along with the streets, coupled with one of the most well-known examples of police brutality in American history, led to one evening that would change his life.
On April 29, 1992, four LAPD officers were acquitted of all charges related to the beating of Rodney King. Travielle watched the news that Wednesday afternoon in his bedroom. And then, like thousands of other African Americans who felt no justice was served, he took to the streets.
After accosting a Latino man with a group of friends, Travielle attacked him with a wooden board. The man later died from his injuries.
Travielle, 17 years old at the time, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Travielle gave his life to Christ in 2000, after just over eight years of being incarcerated. His “fork in the road” moment came when a big gang meeting was scheduled at the same time as a religious gathering.
“You know I’m a Christian now,” Travielle told his former acquaintances. “I don’t have your back, and I don’t need you to have my back. God’s got my back.” He was threatened, but Travielle was a firm believer in the Bible scripture, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”
In April of 2017, actor and rapper Common was scheduled to make an appearance at Lancaster State Prison, where Travielle was housed. Because of Travielle’s improved behavior and involvement in classes, he was able to attend the event. He sat at a table next to the late Nancy McFadden, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, among others.
Travielle wasn’t familiar with her connections to then-Governor Jerry Brown. But, he says, “she asked me questions about my rehabilitative efforts. As I began to explain everything she wrote my name down in her book.” One month later, Travielle was interviewed by a parole agent for the possibility of having his sentence commuted. “Well, I guess I impressed them,” says Travielle.
In August, his sentence was commuted and he became eligible to go before the parole board. “I showed them that I had developed tools in prison from the various self-help classes and my spiritual beliefs,” says Travielle. “And that I will not kill again.”
“I basically went from living in a fishbowl, you know, which is the prison yard, to swimming in an ocean,” says Travielle, on his reentry process. “Everything was moving so fast.”
His first day out was hectic. He was pulled in a lot of different directions by friends and family eager to see him. On top of the social stimulation, he had to unlearn the mindset that comes with being incarcerated.
“I was overwhelmed, because in prison, if someone walks up close to you, that means they’re trying to harm you,” Travielle explains. He had to catch himself a few times, he says, but fortunately he had the support of his wife, Hope. During their first meal out, Travielle nervously grabbed a steak knife. Hope reacted by patting his balled-up hand and saying, “It’s going to be OK.”
He soon found that others were willing to help him too. “I went to the DMV to get my I.D. and I didn’t know how to fill out the application,” says Travielle. The woman behind the counter gave him a hard time for fumbling around. He explained that he didn’t mean to be difficult, but that he’d been incarcerated for 26 years, and it was all new to him.
"I haven't even been out of prison a week yet, so I don't know the process,” Travielle admitted to her. “Will you please be patient with me, and help me?” he asked the lady. “She looked at me and said, ‘Baby, I'm so sorry. Welcome home.’"
“What I like the most about driving is that I’d never done it,” says Travielle. “Before going to prison I was 18, I never had a car, never had a driver’s license.” Now, over three years since his release, he still takes random road trips to enjoy the feeling of liberation.
But other aspects of being free, like paying for gas, insurance and rent, make for an unpleasant reality check. “My money’s got wings on it,” says Travielle. “It lands today, flies away tomorrow and never comes back!”
He’s worked five jobs since his release, all of which have involved physical labor in one form or another. Like many returning citizens, Travielle found work through temp agencies, working blue-collar jobs and graveyard shifts. That labor takes its toll; he’s currently recovering from a workplace injury.
Travielle says he expected more of a variety of job opportunities after getting out of prison. “Coming home, I thought things would come left and right,” says Travielle. “A lot of the people I met while incarcerated made all these grand promises. When it was time to fulfill those promises they all ducked their heads in the sand.”
Despite the setbacks, Travielle is now off of parole; he says his plan hasn’t deviated—it’s just taking a little longer to get there.
He’s still learning the small things, like “controlling his normal face,” because some people might perceive it as a mean face. He once read that it’s a common byproduct of Post-Incarceration Syndrome in one of the classes he was made to attend. When asked if the classes worked, he quickly whispers “no.”
“The people aren’t really equipped to meet the needs of the prisoners,” says Travielle. “I do think that the best help for formerly incarcerated folks is other formerly incarcerated folks.” There’s nothing like the empathy that comes from someone with similar struggles, he says.
When he was younger, it was the guys in the neighborhood who gave him that initial sense of validation. That led to him being sentenced to life in prison as a teen. Through restorative justice work and self-help assessments, he learned to deal with the root problem: the decisions he’d made, including the circle he chose.
Now Travielle, who has recently been ordained as a minister, says the most important things to him are family, serving God and serving his fellow man. He smiles as he says that he doesn’t drag his kids to church. They go to church, he doesn’t force them. And he’s glad they have a relationship with God.
“They’ll come to find out,” he says, “that when God is all they have, God is all they need.”
Fifty & Fifty