The Sister and the Lifers

Father Greg Boyle famously reaches out to gangbangers. Few know Sister Mary Sean Hodges, but her ministry is just as critical—helping men sentenced to life terms reenter the world

Sister Mary Sean Hodges, who wears a long flowered dress in lieu of a habit, paces in front of three men serving life sentences at the state prison in Lancaster. An enclosed catwalk with gun slots for the guards hovers above them in the dingy gym. Printed on the walls, in bright red letters, is the admonition NO WARNING SHOTS FIRED IN THIS BUILDING.

The three men sit on metal chairs in front of 30 other prisoners, all lifers who have yet to appear before the parole board or who have gone before the board and were turned down for release. Sister Hodges is here to prepare the inmates for their next hearings. She turns to one of the lifers and asks, “Can you name a moment of transformation in prison life that led to change?”

The lifer, Raymond, wears a blue shirt and pants with CDCR PRISONER stenciled in big yellow letters. Now 53, he has been incarcerated more than 30 years for murder, his appeals for parole denied numerous times. “I told my mom a while back that I got into trouble again, and they added six more years before my next parole hearing,” he says. “She asked me what happened, and I told her it was about the homies. She said, ‘When’s it going to be about me? The homies didn’t get you a lawyer. The homies don’t send you money for your canteen. The homies don’t write you.’ It made me look into who I am.”

Several prisoners nod. A few take notes.

Sister Hodges takes a step toward Raymond. “What’s the next thing you did?”

“I told my mom that it’s her turn now.”

“And then?”

“I told the homies that now it’s about my family, and now it’s about me.”

The mock parole board hearings like the one at Lancaster are just a portion of Sister Hodges’s unique prison ministry. The preparation program, called Insight, focuses on helping inmates recognize the reasons for their crimes and express personal change. But her overarching Partnership for Re-Entry Program (PREP), founded in 2002, also takes on the bigger challenge of looking after the lifers if they’re granted parole, guaranteeing housing and other support upon their release. At the time Sister Hodges opened her first home for the newly released convicts in 2008, there was nothing else like it anywhere in California. By 2011, there were five PREP homes, all in South L.A.

The South L.A. house from which Sister Mary Sean Hodges runs her program

Photograph by Pamela Littky

The creation of her program couldn’t have been more fortuitous. For decades California inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole were rarely released. But with new laws—as well as a state Board of Parole Hearings and a governor responsive to these changes—lifers are walking out of prisons in record numbers. About 3,000 have been approved for parole during the tenure of Governor Jerry Brown, compared with the 2 released by Gray Davis during Davis’s four-year gubernatorial term. Now inmates in 34 California prisons, along with those in ten other states, participate in PREP.

“I don’t believe everyone should get out of prison, but I do believe that everyone is redeemable,” says Sister Hodges, who is 76 and has vivid blue eyes and short silver hair. “So many of the men had such horrible backgrounds. If they had backgrounds like us, I don’t think they would have committed these crimes.”

Some ex-cons compare Sister Hodges to the Jesuit priest Greg Boyle and his pioneering work with gang members in East Los Angeles. Like Father Boyle, she has unconditional love for her subjects with a realistic view of their failings. “People at the margins, like the poor and the voiceless, like the former inmates who live in the houses Sister Mary Sean founded, are easily demonized and left out of society,” Father Boyle says. “They’ve done their time, but no one will hire them, and they can’t find places to live. Sister Mary Sean stands with them and tries to integrate them back into society. She takes seriously what Jesus took seriously: inclusion and acceptance.”

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Mary Sean Hodges grew up near Olympic and Crenshaw, one of nine children in an Irish-German family. Her old neighborhood is not far from the homes she’s established for the lifers. She currently lives alone in a small stucco duplex behind a house in Glendale. Her activism was sparked in part by her mother, an early environmentalist who recycled the trash and talked to her children about the importance of conserving electricity and water. Sister Hodges also gives credit to the teachers at her grammar school, members of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, and the Dominicans at the high school she attended after the family moved to the San Gabriel Valley. Both orders believe in social justice, in aiding the poor and dispossessed.

Sister Mary Sean Hodges

Photograph by Pamela Littky

“When I was in grammar school, the nuns weren’t supposed to visit people’s houses,” she says. “But they came to our house anyway. The night before we moved, two of them came over and brought us a box of chocolates. That streak of independence, in order to make the connection with our family, really influenced me. We lived so close to the church, and I spent so much time with the nuns after school, cleaning the classrooms and even cleaning the convent. I was very impressed with who they were and their attitude.”

She was drawn to the Dominican order, founded in the 13th century, because of its progressive values and embrace of modern trends, such as the optional wearing of habits starting in the 1960s. She joined the order upon graduating from high school and spent almost 40 years teaching math, science, and religion and 13 years serving as a principal in Catholic schools throughout California. Sister Hodges was also a dedicated runner, competing in 23 consecutive Los Angeles Marathons, including the inaugural event. She found that long-distance running and spiritual contemplation were compatible. When she turned 60, she decided to leave teaching, but she was not ready to retire; she wanted to find another way to serve. During a spirituality retreat on Long Island, she met a sister with a prison ministry and accompanied her on visits.

“This was during a time of mass incarceration, when the political attitude was, Lock ’em up and throw away the key,” Sister Hodges says. “During my visits, I got to know some lifers, and I could see they were different from those who go in and out of prison many times and don’t grow at all. I could see that many had matured, and I was convinced if they were given a chance, they wouldn’t return to crime. I wanted to provide an environment that supported and nurtured that kind of change.”

The director of the L.A. Archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice offered her a position to create a reentry program for former inmates. With grants from a few Catholic organizations, she researched reentry efforts throughout the country, then assembled a group of volunteer mentors from a dozen parishes in Southern California. The mentors, Sister Hodges soon realized, were afraid to be alone with the former inmates. So she accompanied the men during their first months of freedom—driving them to job placement centers, trade schools, and Social Security offices, and to obtain their licenses at the DMV.

Through her contacts with Catholic chaplains, Sister Hodges began meeting with the lifers in prison, always in a secure room and with armed guards present. “I was never put in a position where I felt I was in any danger,” she says. “So I got to know lifers in that safe setting. As a result, I could hear their stories, get to understand their difficult backgrounds and where they came from. The people you’re most fearful of are the people you don’t know. I got to know them.”

Sister Hodges has a buoyant manner and is accustomed to greeting people with a hug. On her first visit to a prison, she was about to hug an inmate, a lifer with whom she had been corresponding, when the guards stopped her. All physical contact with inmates is prohibited.

Early in her ministry Sister Hodges determined that a key cause of recidivism was a lack of housing. The first PREP facility housed eight newly released prisoners as they attended self-help meetings, looked for work, and received job training. Nowadays the parolees spend one to two years “transitioning” to society before finding their own apartments or returning to their families. Sister Hodges believes that some of her insight into what a lifer faces comes from one of her brothers, an alcoholic who was in numerous rehabilitation facilities and served time in prison.

“After he left a program, he kept going back to drinking,” she says. “I realized that if an alcoholic returns to the same situation, he’ll go back to alcohol. It’s the same thing with parolees. If they return to the same place that led them to prison, there’s a good chance that they’ll go back. That’s the idea behind the transition homes. They’re leaving prison and living in a completely different environment than the one where they committed their crimes.”

Ex-lifer Thurston McAfee reviews correspondence from inmates

In addition to the Insight training, she created programs that deal with domestic violence, parenting, anger management, and gang involvement. The instruction is run out of a small, cluttered room in a blue Craftsman house in South Los Angeles with bars on the windows, a dirt front yard, and a wood sign above the main entry that reads BEACON OF HOPE. Eight desks are jammed into the small office where Sister Hodges and a half-dozen ex-lifers sift through about 100 letters a day. Lifers complete a lesson, which is usually several pages long, and mail it back. The men either approve the work or ask for more detail while offering feedback. When they complete the 80 lessons, the lifers receive a certificate they can show the parole board.

One former program coordinator, Alfredo Cruz, served 29 years after stabbing a man to death at a party. His parole was denied nine times. “In prison you learn not to show emotion because showing emotion is considered weakness,” says Cruz. “But the board sees this and thinks you’re callous. Through the program I was able to talk about thoughts and emotions I’d buried for decades.”

Dale Lozier, an Insight reviewer who served 24 years in prison after he was convicted of second-degree murder, reads letters from inmates who say they plan to ask the families of victims for forgiveness. He informs them that the request is a selfish act and they should not ask the families for anything. Instead they should simply apologize and show remorse. “There was one guy who was writing to us, and all he said about his crime was that he ‘caught a murder,’ ” says Lozier, who has shoulder-length gray hair and wears a cap with FREEDOM printed in large letters. “He wrote about it like he caught a cold. I wrote back and told him he had to say straight out that he’d killed someone, and he had to take responsibility.”

Sister Hodges helps lifers on their parole appeals not as a way to manipulate the system, she says, but to change the way they are living in the present and to prepare for the future. Her goal, she says, is to help the men articulate the changes they’ve made. She realizes that some of the lifers she works with are too dangerous to be released. While she does not advocate for their parole, she nevertheless tries to help them while they are in prison.

“Some of the men should not be on the outside because others wouldn’t be safe and they wouldn’t be safe. But they still need help. So I try to provide programs for them. They can still grow in prison, whether they’re going to get out or not.”

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With its three-strikes law and draconian parole system—one of four states where the governor has final authority on parole decisions—California had long been a national leader in tough-on-crime policies. Shortly after Gray Davis took office, he announced that “if you take someone else’s life, forget it,” then blocked most of the recommendations for parole that crossed his desk. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approach was less harsh, but he still reversed 70 percent of the parole requests approved by the state board. Jerry Brown, however, has let stand more than 80 percent of the parole board’s decisions, with more lifers released in Los Angeles County due to its size than in any other part of the state. Brown, a former seminarian, has emphasized that redemption is the core of his Catholic faith, and he believes people can change. But the laws have changed as well.

In 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that prisoners could not be denied parole based solely on the viciousness of their crimes. There must be evidence, the court said, that the prisoner continues to be a threat to public safety. Brown was also facing pressure from federal courts to reduce the state’s dangerously overcrowded prisons, and he signed a bill in 2012 that allows some prisoners to petition for resentencing if they had been incarcerated as youths and sentenced to life without parole. That same year voters passed Proposition 36, allowing reduced sentences for three-strikes prisoners serving life sentences for a nonviolent third strike.

Some victim’s rights advocates have decried the changes as a threat to public safety, but a Stanford study found that of 860 murderers paroled between 1990 and 2010 who were tracked by the university, only 5 committed new crimes and none were convicted of murder. Criminologists attribute this partly to the average age—the mid-fifties—of the lifers being released.

“We know that many prisoners age out of crime,” says Christine Scott-Hayward, assistant professor of criminology at Cal State Long Beach. “There’s an age-crime curve. It’s not that older people don’t commit crimes, but they commit far fewer. The peak age in the crime curve is the twenties and the early thirties. When you’ve served an extensive amount of time in prison and then get out, you’re no longer as great a risk to society. Parole officers have said some of the easiest people to supervise are ex-lifers who committed a murder. In some of the cases it was a one-off, and the circumstances that led to the murder have changed.”

Among Sister Hodges’s flock is Perry Law, who killed a man over a girlfriend and was convicted of second-degree murder in 1980. After attending his first hearing in 1990, he was turned down by the parole board ten times in the next 23 years and was losing hope. He says he knew several men who had committed suicide and dozens of others “who’d lost their minds.” Then he met Sister Hodges. In other prison programs he’d felt as if he was just going through the motions. The Insight training was more compelling, he says, and enabled him to see why the board didn’t trust him. “When I was on the streets, I was out of control,” says Law, who is 61. “When I got sent to prison, I tried to stay out of trouble. But after so many years of getting beat down by the parole board, it seemed like nothing worked. I was just about ready to pack it in when I met Sister Mary Sean. She encouraged me not to give up. And the programs helped me focus on how to get my shit together.”

Law was released in 2015, lived in a transition home for six months, and found a subsidized apartment complex in Inglewood for veterans. A small, wiry man with a bushy gray Fu Manchu mustache and a Grim Reaper tattoo on his forearm, he lounges in his small studio, as immaculate as a military barrack. He says his greatest challenge was finding a job. He learned welding, small engine repair, and metal fabrication in prison, but no one would hire him. Last May an ex-lifer buddy told him about an opening for a welder at a metal manufacturing company. The friend vouched for him, and Law was hired. A few months later Law suffered a brain hemorrhage and now relies on veterans’ disabilities benefits.

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A key element of Sister Hodges’s Insight program is the mock parole board hearings, such as the one she’s leading at Lancaster prison. The inmates watching the session are predominantly African American; a small group of Latino men with shaved heads sit together in the back row. Sister Hodges emphasizes to the group that the purpose of completing the Insight course is to facilitate a real conversion.

Ex-lifer Dale Lozier reviews correspondence from inmates

“You have to look inward and determine what it is you need to change in yourselves,” she tells them. “You have to show the board that you have chosen to transform your life so you’re ready to be released. You need to speak to the board on a human level. Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear. Be genuine within yourself and tell them who you are today.”

She demonstrates how to enter the hearing. First she slouches, head down, as she shuffles in front of the prisoners. Then she shows them the correct way: Her posture is erect, her bearing is confident; she looks out and pretends to acknowledge the board members and the victim’s family.

An inmate with a swirl of tattoos on his neck asks, “If I look at the victim’s family, couldn’t that be considered intimidation?”

“Not if it’s ever so slight,” she says. “I just acknowledged them, but I didn’t stare. You’re establishing a relationship with people who are significant.”

Sister Hodges presents the men with a number of questions, including whether they realize the anguish and pain they’ve caused others, if they have remorse, and how they can convince the board they won’t harm anyone again. She interviews them about their family background, their experiences with drugs and alcohol, when they dropped out of school, and how they are giving back to others while they are in prison and how they’ll do so when they are released.

A prisoner raises his hand and asks Sister Hodges, “Is it important to refer to the victim by his name?”

“Yes,” she says. “It’s not just a victim, it’s a real person. You have to acknowledge that.”

Another prisoner, who has a teardrop tattoo under one eye, wonders, “What if you have multiple victims?”

“How many?” she asks.

“Eighteen.”

“That’s too many to mention by name,” she says. “We’ll have to talk about that.” (He later explains that he shot into a crowd of 18 people in a parking lot, didn’t hit anyone, and was convicted of multiple counts of attempted murder.)

At the end of the session she tells the three lifers, “You all made eye contact. None of you used prison jargon. Your answers were heartfelt. Good work.”

As Sister Hodges drives home from Lancaster, an inmate on death row calls her. Before she can chat with him, she loses reception. While she waits for him to call back, she says that the inmate, who committed three murders, wouldn’t be a candidate for early release, as she believes he might kill again. Still, she writes to him and talks with him on the phone.

When he finally reaches her again, she mentions the proposition on the November ballot to repeal the death penalty in California, which was rejected by voters. “What would you do if you were off death row and sent to the general population?”

“They bring these kids who’ve gotten into trouble into San Quentin,” he says. “The mainline prisoners talk to them and tell them about their crimes and their lives so the kids won’t end up here. I’d like to do that.”

After the conversation, Sister Hodges, who’s heading south on Interstate 5, says that the man’s father was a drug dealer and his mother a hooker who began prostituting him to her johns when he was seven. “I believe it’s important to take his calls so he knows someone cares,” she says, gripping the steering wheel and nodding. “Everyone has a dignity within them. Everyone can choose to do better, to be better—even if they’re on death row. If I can help him with that by writing letters and talking to him, then that’s something I feel is worthwhile.”

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