Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

On his first day out, a juvenile lifer is determined to make good

"I wrote a wish list in 1995," Luis "Suave" Gonzalez said. "The first thing on my list was, on day one, to go to a school in the neighborhood where I offended and to apologize."

Luis Suave Gonzalez speaks to students at the Esperanza Academy Charter School the day he got out of prison, after 31 years, to ask their forgiveness.
Luis Suave Gonzalez speaks to students at the Esperanza Academy Charter School the day he got out of prison, after 31 years, to ask their forgiveness.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

It was his first day out after 31 years in prison, and Luis "Suave" Gonzalez was still carsick, reeling from the unaccustomed street traffic, the mysterious cellphones that seemed to require shouting into, and the many strange sights to take in.

But Gonzalez, 48, refused to let any of that deter him.

"I wrote a wish list in 1995. The first thing on my list was, on day one, to go to a school in the neighborhood where I offended and to apologize," he said.

On Monday, hours after leaving Graterford state prison, he was at Esperanza College and Esperanza Academy Charter School in Hunting Park, determined to make good.

Gonzalez was 16 years old when he was arrested for murder – and became one of 300 juveniles from Philadelphia sentenced to life in prison, then given a chance at release by a Supreme Court decision that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

Unlike the dozens of others who have been resentenced and released before him, Gonzalez left prison with a packed first-day-out agenda — including meetings with top Esperanza administrators to urge them to take their programs into prison — and with a video and audio crew, including broadcaster María Hinojosa, host of the NPR-distributed Latino USA, who has been working with Gonzalez for close to 25 years.

She's been recording his phone calls ever since that 2012 Supreme Court decision cracked open a window of hope for Gonzalez; now, she's working to turn those recordings and footage from his first year of freedom into a Serial-style podcast and documentary video series to launch some time in 2018.

It will tell a story, they hope, of redemption.

As a teenager, Gonzalez did not even know how to write his own name. Yet, he was passed from grade to grade. He had an IQ, he was told, of 56. Prison seemed an inevitable rite of passage.

He was in the 10th grade at Thomas Edison High School in December 1986 when he and another kid tried to take a new leather jacket off a 13-year-old named Daniel Martinez. When Martinez resisted, they shot him. He died a few days later.

Sentenced to die in prison, Gonzalez saw no reason to turn his life around at first.

"I spent all my teen years in prison in the hole because I was wild," Gonzalez said. "I liked fighting. … I was in prison robbing people's cells, taking their property."

A brief prison meeting in 1993 changed his life.

Hinojosa, then an NPR reporter, had been invited to speak at Graterford back in 1993. An avid listener, Gonzalez sneaked into the room to meet her.

"I went up to her when she was done speaking and I asked her, 'What can I do?' She responded with the simple words 'You can be the voice for the voiceless.' That's what served as my springboard for transformation."

To Hinojosa, it was just a way of cultivating sources. "Honestly, I've said that to a lot of people," she said. "Who would have thought that for Suave those words would be what altered his life forever?"

She sent him a few books, including one she had written: Crews: Gang Members Talk to María Hinojosa.

"I had a guy read that book to me over and over again, until I learned how to read myself," Gonzalez said. "Then, I used that book to educate other young men in prison to change their life around."

From there, he earned his GED, then a bachelor's degree from Villanova – an endeavor that took 16 years. He became the president of LACEO, a Latino organization in the prison that over the last decade has given away 52 scholarships of $500, $1,000, or $2,000 to students in Philadelphia, Chester, and Bethlehem. The scholarships are funded by inmates from their own wages, which start at 19 cents per hour.

He intends to continue that work. He visited Esperanza College, in part, to speak with administrators about how the college and the prisoners could assist each other. He wanted to offer a new, partially inmate-funded scholarship, in Hinojosa's name.

And, he pitched them a criminal-justice course he and another inmate had developed using the prison email service. A professor at West Chester University has already picked up the program, in which 13 prisoners and 13 students correspond for a semester about criminal-justice issues. There are 150 inmates on a waiting list to participate, he said.

Above all, he begged the administrators to bring more courses into the prison, citing a dire shortage of college programs inside prisons and the total absence of courses geared to Latinos.

"You could change a whole lot of lives," he told them. "And there are a lot of brothers that are coming back to this community."

Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, dean of academic programs at Esperanza, said his insight was essential: She and her colleagues were unaware of what the needs were inside the prison.

"With you on the outside," she told him, "it will be instrumental in continuing the dialogue."

Then, he went over to the charter school to speak with a few dozen students. It was a 40-minute speech, off the cuff but also rehearsed in his head for decades. It was filled with the despair of a life sentence, the joyless taste of prison food, the bitterness of being trapped in his cell during his mother's funeral — and the precious opportunity the students had to avoid that.

"I feel guilty," he told them. "For 31 years they took money from you to invest in me. I'm brokenhearted, because this is my community. I wish I had someone who told me: 'You don't want to do that. You don't want to go to prison.' "

Then, Hinojosa hustled him out. He had to make curfew at the halfway house.

Gonzalez is looking for a wider audience. Hinojosa gave him an audio recorder so he could capture his own story as he figures out how to navigate the world in 2017. She also surprised him with a slice of tres leches cake, with a candle in it.

"It's like his new birthday," she said.