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Friday, November 3, 2023

26.2 to Life

The San Quentin Prison Marathon has an unconventional route: 105 dizzying laps around a crowded prison yard. 26.2 TO LIFE is a new documentary that tells the story of incarcerated men who are members of the 1000 Mile Club, the prison’s long distance running club. They train all year for this 26.2 mile race. For the men who take their places at the starting line on a cool, sunny November morning, completing the marathon means more than entrée into an elite group of athletes. It’s a chance to be defined by more than their crimes. Cheering them on are a small staff of volunteer coaches, veteran marathoners who train with the runners throughout the year. The bonds they forge on the track create a community that transcends prison politics and extends beyond the prison walls as members are released. 26.2 TO LIFE is a story of transformation and second chances. The film offers a rare glimpse into a world out of bounds, as the men navigating life sentences seek redemption and freedom… or something like it.

This resonates with me personally. I had a dear friend who did time initially in San Quentin for murder. He spent 36 years in the California penal system (originally sentenced to death, subsequently commuted to 12-to-life). I'd go see him in the joint, and I was there for him the day he was finally paroled.
Four decades after fallen funk singer Rick Stevens killed three men in a botched drug deal, he is going back to prison. This time, it's to entertain — and share his story of redemption.

On Friday afternoon, the former Tower of Power lead singer, who spent 36 years behind bars before being paroled in 2012, will return to California Medical Facility in Vacaville, outside Sacramento, with a 12-piece band and a message: It's possible to go home again…
From another of my blogs, in 2009:


Last Thursday I drove over to Walnut Creek. On Friday I hopped the BART into the city, whereupon I hooked up with my old drummer from more than 40 years ago, Fred Abruzzo, and Gail Simon, the widow of the bassist in our late '60's SF band (below). Rick Stevens was our lead singer. An Irish white cat (me), an Italian (Fred), a Mexican (Jose), and a black dude (Rick). We called our band "Four of a Kind" (and, jokingly, to ourselves, "The Spic, the Spook, the Wop, and the Mick").

Jose Simon died last year (way too early, sadly, of lung cancer) after a wonderfully productive career during which he became a revered contributor to the San Francisco arts scene. I am now immeasurably regretful that we had lost touch. Joey founded San Francisco's "Comedy Day," basically an annual free "concert" for comics. He became a fast friend of esteemed comics such as Robin Williams (and the list goes amazingly on and on and on, to include most of the major comedians you ever heard of).

I principally knew him as a musician, though aware that he had this comedy schtick on the side (which subsequently became his priority). Gail has a huge archive of his life's work down in her warehouse. It is amazing.

Joey was a degenerate gambler. As I recall, he chronically stayed into a 2-week advance draw from our gigs to cover his bets. And, routinely, after we'd get paid from our weekly gig out in a club in the Mission District, he and Fred and the club manager Perry would play poker 'til daybreak. On the rare occasions when he walked away flush, he'd be straight away over to Bay Meadows, where he'd usually lose it all on the horses. But -- every now and then some long shot in the 9th race would become the object of what he had left of his wad, and he'd win big. LOL! Next bus to Reno, from where we'd shortly get a call asking that we wire him some cash for a bus ride home.

That ever-elusive Easy Street score...

He was a good man. I am now, however tardily, blessed to be hooked back up with Gail and Fred after four decades. I will henceforth take this reunion seriously.

And that includes Rick, our former SF local band lead singer.

I was anxious that I was gonna be terribly creeped out. I could not have been more wrong. I got to Mule Creek State Prison in Ione CA about noon on Saturday, about 82 miles from Cheryl's apartment. The guard who took my ID and visitor form came back and smilingly said "oh, you're here to see Elvis."

"Is that what they call him?"

"No, that's what he calls himself."

Probably a resigned allusion that "Elvis has not yet left the building."

Donald Stevenson (a.k.a. "Rick Stevens," former lead vocalist for Tower of Power), CDC inmate B79550, B-8-130, has been in the California Corrections system for by now nearly 35 years. He's 70 years old, walks with the stiff, halting gimpiness of an arthritic hip and bad knee.

He and I had a glorious visit on Saturday. 40 years have passed since I last saw him. It was good.

He was utterly, explicitly frank and remorseful regarding the ghastly events that landed him where he remains today (I didn't inquire; he offered). He is not the same man who committed those terrible crimes. He has done all that he can in pursuit of redemption...
After Rick got out, I covered a couple of gigs he did.


So, I combined a number of pics I'd been taking of Rick and .GIF'd 'em, as he was mowing his first civilian meal in more than 36 years. 

September 30, 2009

Robert E. Gladd

Classification & Parole Representatives

Mule Creek State Prison

PO Box 409099

Ione, CA 95640

In the matter of Donald Stevenson, inmate B-79550, B-8-130

I ask that you grant Donald Stevenson parole. I knew him as “Rick Stevens” during our brief musical collaboration and friendship spanning the years 1967 – 1969. Via all accounts that I can glean from numerous others more closely connected to him across the past several decades, Mr. Stevenson seems to me a proper candidate for successful supervised release in accord with California law.

I will not redundantly cite the necessarily second-hand evidence I might proffer regarding his parole suitability based on his behavioral record while in the custody of the state. You have his record before you, in what I assume to be exhaustive and accurate detail. I have yet to see him or speak with him during his incarceration (we had lost contact with each other quite some time prior to his crime), and we have at this point recently exchanged but one set of letters. I look forward to one day soon seeing him in person.

In mid-1967 I had been seriously ill for a number of months, living with my in-laws in the Seattle area. I had lost access to all of my possessions (including the tools of my trade, my musical instruments) save for several changes of clothing, owing to past due freight charges due United Airlines. A bassist I’d met during a prior stint in San Francisco was involved musically with Donald at the time and told him about me. Mr. Stevenson arranged for me to fly to San Francisco once I was again well, and further arranged for both a place to stay and rented musical equipment. We thereupon commenced working together in a successful new local band, and I was subsequently able to scrape my life back together in short order.

During the time of our acquaintance, I only knew Mr. Stevenson to be a generous, gregarious, kind, and productive individual of great energy and talent. That his life eventually descended into terrible tragedy has been a source of ongoing sadness for me since the day I first learned of it.

Based on the totality what I know of him personally and what I have learned of Mr. Stevenson’s record since his incarceration – and assuming the latter to in fact be true – I have to believe that this man has fully paid this portion of his debt to humanity, and can henceforth be a positive, productive, and successful force in society once paroled. I can state without reservation that I would be there for him as a friend and mentor.

Whatever your decision, I thank you for the difficult work you do on behalf of the public.

Robert E. Gladd

cc: Donald Stevenson

December 26, 2010

Robert E. Gladd

Classification & Parole Representatives
Mule Creek State Prison

PO Box 409099

Ione, CA 95640

In the matter of Donald Stevenson, inmate B-79550, B-8-130


I again ask that you now grant Donald Stevenson parole. I assume that my September 30th 2009 letter in support of his supervised release is part of the record before you, and I simply stand by and refer you to my statements of fact and opinion made on his behalf therein at that time.

I have known Mr. Stevenson since 1967. I have been to visit him at the Mule Creek facility during the past two years and have corresponded with him by mail. He was a consistently kind and good man prior to the time his life descended into criminal tragedy, and in the decades since the time of his conviction and incarceration it appears to me – necessarily from my limited vantage point, albeit one buttressed by the testimony of numerous others both within and outside the CDC – that he has done everything humanly possible to atone. His awareness of and remorse regarding the gravity of his offenses could not be more acute and indelible. His conduct within the confines of the CDC all these many years speaks clearly and compellingly to the now-just realization of the possibility of redemption that was a stipulation of his sentence.

I do know that he has broad and deep support in the community ready, able, and willing to serve to help ensure that his way forward during the remainder of his life is one of consistent probity and constructive service back to society. I am one of those people, and I ask that you grant Mr. Stevenson release on parole in a manner consistent with California law and the interest of its citizens.

I again thank you for the difficult work you do on behalf of the public.

Robert E. Gladd

cc: Donald Stevenson, c/o Peter J. Boldin, Esq. 
The parole board finally ruled unanimously in favor of his release (even his original trial judge had recommended him for release). Guv Brown Jr. opted to keep his political fingerprints off it and let the request prevail absent his signature. Fine, worked for me.
I did not take any of this stuff lightly. 
More on Rick here.

I helped promote this documentary. See here, here, and here for pics I shot. I am so grateful that NPR Affiliate KQED picked it up. (Note: Jose Simon appears at 6:17 onstage aside Robin Williams.)


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