I have always wondered what it would be like to reenter society after years of wrongful incarceration. Is there anger, bitterness, joy, regret--or all of that? I decided to ask Bruce Lisker, recently released after 26 years in prison for the crime of killing his mother, if I could visit with him occasionally to see how he fares as he rebuilds a life he left so many years ago. He has maintained from the start that he was innocent, and the DA decided on August 21 not to retry him for the crime. He has agreed to let me tag along as he makes a new life for himself. — Iris Schneider
Photos by Iris Schneider
Lisker met me outside the apartment where he is staying, with the widower of his stepmother, in Encino. He has a used car, just bought from his sister, and a learner's permit. In a few days, he will take his driver's test. If he passes, that will mean even more freedom, something he is getting used to.
Lisker, 44, was 17 and on drugs when his mother was murdered. He was in prison for 26 years, convicted of her murder. In that time he has cleaned up his act. He is polite, in good physical shape and looks nothing like the long-haired wild-eyed teen he was at the time of his arrest. He was released in early August, pending a decision on a new trial. At a pretrial hearing last week, the District Attorney, while claiming that he still believed Lisker was guilty, decided not to retry the case. For the first time in 26 years, Lisker left the courtroom a truly free man. He had maintained his innocence and fought hard for his release. Now he has the chance to begin a new life.
"Today is the first day of the rest of my life," Lisker said last week. "I've said that before and I say it again. If I try to live any other way, to make up for lost time, I would be miserable. And I never could accomplish it. I can't do that to myself and to those around me who supported me all these years."
Lisker left prision with the $200 that is usually given to parolees. "They treated me pretty nice and gave me the money as if I was being paroled," he said. Along with some money left to him by his dad, who died in 1995, he has enough for now to get a start on his new life. "He completely believed in my innocence," Lisker says of his father, a former Marine. He is convinced that seeing his son in prison all those years contributed to his early death. "It was so stressful on him. It consumed him."
As we walked the aisles of Target, he looked at his list: laundry detergent, printer ink, maybe a GPS to help him navigate the city more easily, a belt, and some underwear (you were only allowed five pairs of prison issue while incarcerated.) Lisker paused to take it all in and sometimes the absurdity of it made him giddy. Suddenly, there were so many choices.
Mixed in with all the new experiences--like stepping into a Best Buy or Target for the first time--or walking around a mall on fancy marble floors--many memories came flooding back. As we exited the Target parking lot, something looked familiar. "I think this is where the Fedco used to be," Lisker said. "I remember driving down this street with my Dad." Lisker noted that much had changed, but "it's still my Valley." He recalled shopping with his mom as he passed a small line of shops that looked straight out of the 60's.
In prison, Lisker took as many computer classes as allowed, starting in San Quentin and then at Mule Creek State Prison. He tried to work as much as he could while incarcerated, and says he was lucky enough to get some good jobs on the inside and work for people who treated him with respect.
"They always wanted the best person for the job, and I always tried to be that person," he said. But he acknowledged that inside, the bar was not very high. "The group of people in prison, they are not into excelling, they don't want to stand out from the pack. But I didn't care. I always wanted to be the best."
Now, he wants to work as a web designer but knows he has a steep learning curve ahead. In prison the internet was forbidden, but he subscribed to as many computer magazines as he could, trying to keep up with new technology.
Lisker says he never gave up the hope that one day he would be exonerated. "Without that hope, you begin to die in there," he says.
The contrast of before and after is stark. "Inside, everything was meant to be austere. The feeling of denial was intentional." Now, those limits are gone but the realities of starting over have taken their place.
"Building an entire freaking life from nothing is daunting." he said with a rueful laugh. Then he turned down the aisle of "Men's Essentials" at Target, and began filling his cart.
First in a series of occasional visits.