Curtis Roberts of Springfield could be a bitter, angry man. He is not, even though he spent 29 years of a 50-year sentence in prison in California. It is hard to believe this slight-built man with sandy hair and a gentle voice was ever in jail. Shockingly, his crimes consisted of stealing a total of $116 in three separate, nonviolent incidents. How could the sentence of 50 years be imposed on such offenses? Roberts (with writer Taryn Hutchison) presents a powerful and compelling story in Sentenced to Life – the Path to Redemption and Freedom for Prisoner E-25212. (2022, $15.99, Amazon).
Roberts fell under the California three-strike law, passed in 1995, which stated that a person convicted of a nonserious and nonviolent crime who had two prior serious convictions must be given an increased sentence. That law mandated that the typical sentence for the third crime committed must automatically be doubled.
Roberts acknowledges his guilt in stealing money and believed telling the truth would convince the judge to give some leniency. It did not, and he discovered he'd been accused of armed robbery, which he vehemently denied. That put him in the three-strike definition of committing a previous serious crime, thus mandating a longer sentence.
He writes about his upbringing, with parents who fought and called him "Ugly," an unloving mother who left when he was seven, a father who sexually abused him and later abandoned him. Roberts bounced from one relative to another, focused on graduating from high school, and was determined to stay off drugs and be positive. After high school, when he contacted both parents, each rejected him. He gave up, going from a clean life to using drugs.
The habit led to the need for money. Seeing two $20 bills in an open cash register was too tempting. He next drove through a fast-food taco place and asked the cashier to add money in his bag. These – plus being accused of stealing a TV from a relative's cabin for which he had been given access and the key – were his crimes.
An invitation to go to church changed him before his prison sentence. For the first time Roberts felt the love he desired, that of the word of God. He married and had a daughter, but then he succumbed to drugs and stealing and landed in jail. His wife divorced him, and he lost all contact with his 5-year-old daughter.
Prison, in several locations including San Quentin State Prison, was brutal. He endured lows, including solitary confinement after he was accused of touching a woman (who later admitted she lied), suicidal thoughts and overwhelming feelings of uselessness. And being raped.
The occasions of highs helped – helping others find God, connecting with a couple as pen pals, and hearing from his daughter.
Throughout he vacillated in his faith. Sometimes he was a strong believer; at other times he was angry at God. Being strong in his faith sustained him as he ministered to others. He played baseball and served as a tour guide of the prison when school groups and others visited. He kept a diary, writing to his daughter.
Years passed. He watched murderers, who had received a lesser sentence than he had, leave prison. With 18 years served, he calculated that his incarceration had already cost the state of California $1 million.
In 2012, California voters passed some reform to the three-strike rule, but it does still exist. Roberts was hopeful that this might mean he could be released, but more years passed. In 2017, a podcast, "Ear Hustle," aired an episode called "Left Behind" in which Roberts discussed life behind bars. The producers thought he must be lying and found his records, which showed he was being truthful. Then, Ted Koppel interviewed him for the "CBS Sunday Morning" show in 2018.
Finally, he was released on New Year's Eve, 2018.
Life after prison was hard, but he met a wonderful woman. They married and now live in Springfield. Roberts works, follows his religion, and speaks at many engagements here and around the country.
Sentenced to Life is a fascinating look at the criminal justice system and the volatile and scary life in prison. But it also shows that love and joy can exist behind bars, and that faith can provide the light that helps one survive. Curtis Roberts could have been an angry man for the long, arduous sentence he served, but his faith has given him peace, forgiveness for himself and others.
Cinda Ackerman Klickna has written many book reviews and interviewed many people over the years. This book had a profound effect on her.