For Roach, the sisters were offering the only bed available to him in the state of California, and after all the rigmarole of petitioning for compassionate release, he would only need to complete a simple, one-page form to secure it. “The sisters always take our guys,” said the chaplain.
The Gift of Love is a 10-bed hospice in a residential neighborhood off Highway 1 in Pacifica, where the cliffs drop to the sea. There the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity live a contemplative life inspired by their founder, Saint Teresa of Calcutta. They spend about six hours in prayer six days a week, and nearly every waking hour on Thursdays.
By the time I meet Roach, he is just weeks away from death. The sisters provide interviews about their work only on background, preferring to avoid media attention, but they grant me permission to visit Roach so long as he’s comfortable talking. What I want is to spend time with one of the rare inmates granted compassionate release to learn what freedom means to someone who is dying—and to understand what matters most to him in his final days. We speak at his bedside between his doses of morphine, tracing the contours of his life when his mind is clear. To fill in the details, I speak with his friends, lawyers, and caretakers, and follow a trail of papers documenting a life entangled in the criminal-justice system.
The first time I visit, in January 2019, I find Roach resting in room two, across from the medicine room. His adjustable hospital bed sits beneath a crucified Jesus, and a window lets in a trapezoid of sun from the patio. Eight months after his diagnosis, he still fills out his dark sweatpants, gray shirt, and black ski cap, but the tattoos on his wrists and chest look as if they are melting into his jaundiced skin. On a bedside table is a smoothie and a bell to ring if he needs one of the sisters.
“The sisters here, they stepped up and took me in,” he says. When he first arrived, he was feeling well enough that he could walk down to the corner market for cigarettes, or take in a view of the ocean. The sisters even drove him across the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods, where he stood in Cathedral Grove at the foot of the redwoods.Nowadays he’s unsteady on his feet, but when a wave of energy lifts him, we step outside for a cigarette and sit down at a plastic table. A black man about Roach’s age, in a white shirt, cap, and glasses, sweeps the patio, whistling. He steps up to our table to shake my hand and introduce himself: Ronnie Roy Taylor. He and Roach both came here from the hospice in Vacaville, where I’ve seen Taylor’s picture on the chaplain’s wall.As we stand together, Taylor bursts into a coughing fit and pounds his chest with his palm. “You know what I’m doing?” he asks, then pulls down his shirt to reveal a nicotine patch over his chest. “Taking a cigarette break. Ha!” Taylor is dying of lung cancer, but he’s been feeling better lately, taking walks around the neighborhood.When I ask Roach about what brought him to the Vacaville prison, he seems hazy from his morphine treatments; he falls back in time to 2016, his last mix-up with the law, the charges that took him away from his wife. “They said it was Burglary 1,” he growls. “It wasn’t Burglary 1. It. Was. Not. Burglary. One,” he repeats like a rosary. “It was a collection.”
He finishes his smoke, shuffles back to his room. In the corner, his guitar leans against a chair, his leather jacket hangs on the door, his watch ticks on the bedside table. Soon he’s drifting off.The records say it was midmorning on a Saturday in August 2017. Gloomy clouds lingered over Pacific Beach in San Diego. Roach and three other men climbed the stairwell to a second-floor apartment on Bond Street, one of them holding a gun. A woman answered, her little boy standing in the living room behind her. The guy who owed them money wasn’t home. One of the men—a former roommate of their target—asked if he could charge his phone. When the woman unlatched the chain, all four men forced their way inside. One of them held the gun on the woman and the boy while the other three searched the apartment. Finding no cash, they gathered up bags of drugs and the woman’s jewelry. When they heard sirens in the distance, they ran down to the riverbed in Rose Canyon, a marshy creek nearby. Roach hid belly-down in the muck, the jewelry and drugs under his shirt. He knew they were finished when he heard a growl—a police K9. Within the hour, they were all in handcuffs.It was the last of a lifetime’s worth of arrests and convictions—for rape, assault, hit-and-run, robbery, and other crimes. Whenever I steer my conversations with Roach to his criminal background, he keeps it simple: “I was me … badass.” It’s as if, in preparation for the next life, he is determined not to revisit the mistakes of this one. During some of our talks, he isn’t thinking clearly enough to know the current year, let alone comment on decades of convictions, so in those moments I turn off the recorder and let him rest. At other times, he is sleeping, barely breathing, and all I can do is refill his water pitcher and hope for another, better day.
By late January, Roach can’t walk by himself without falling over. The sisters put him in a wheelchair. When I visit on January 24, he hasn’t eaten in three days, and he’s pondering what’s coming next. “Nobody knows what’s on the other side,” he tells me, speech slow and labored. “I don’t. I’m sure you don’t. I wish I did. Then I could embrace it. Or look away.”Between stories—or in the middle of stories—he takes long pauses to catch his breath, lick his lips, or close his eyes to visit the past. In 1976, he tells me, at the age of 18, he left his mother’s house in San Diego and caught a bus to Fort Ord to join the Army. “I hated everything about it,” he says. Eight weeks later he was discharged for reasons he doesn’t have breath to recount.Later, he went north to Syracuse to find his old man, who was working as a boilermaker. It’s hard for Roach to pinpoint when he got into his first big trouble, the kind that lasts your whole life, but arrests followed him across the country—Oklahoma, Texas, Oregon, back to California.Even Roach isn’t sure why they let him out of prison. “Because of my age, I guess,” he says. “My illness. Because of my ability to atone.”
I ask how they knew he’d atoned. When he doesn’t respond, I ask if he thinks he’s atoned.
“No,” he says. “Not really.”
The sisters got in touch with Denise and Dawn Marie, but they said they didn’t want to be contacted again, not even when their brother died. One of the volunteers found Roach’s sisters on Facebook and showed him their pages. “There was a picture of my mother on there,” he says. “It was a nice picture. I’d like to get that picture.” When Roach drifts off to sleep, I take out my phone and pull up his sister’s account. When he comes to, I show him a picture I found of his mother. “That’s her,” he says, coughing. “She was a good-looking woman.”
When he falls asleep again, I head down the highway to get the picture printed. The air is brisk and tinged with salt. When I return, Roach is awake. I hand him a letter-sized full-color print. He takes a long look, as if he’s being transported to the year it was taken—when his mother was a young woman, when he was a boy. “Can you set that over there where I can see it?” he asks.Before I leave, he asks me to get a message to his sisters. “Tell them I’m close to going out,” he says. “I feel it. I’m not afraid, but I know.” On my way out the door, he reiterates how much he wants to talk to them one more time: “I could use a goodbye.”That night I find his sisters again on Facebook, both still in San Diego. I send them each a message. The next morning, I see the blue check that indicates Dawn Marie has seen my message. I imagine her giving it a second thought, as if all this effort—Knauf, the sisters, some reporter—will be enough to unlock whatever has rusted shut. Instead she deactivates her account. Several months after John’s funeral, I send them each a personal letter asking for comment, but I hear nothing.
One reason compassionate release isn’t as effective as advocates want it to be is because it can be difficult to prove that a person fulfills its requirements, and the requirements themselves are idiosyncratic. In California, for example, patients require a prognosis of six months to live to qualify for compassionate release, yet predicting how long a patient has to live is one of the most difficult things for a doctor to do. “A prognosis doesn’t mean I guarantee he’s dead in six months,” DiTomas said. “It means there’s a greater than 50 percent chance that you will not be alive in six months.” She and other experts argue that the prognosis requirement should be extended to one year to give doctors a more realistic time horizon for determining whether patients are eligible.
Take Roach and Taylor. Both were receiving palliative care for terminal cancer at the California Medical Facility in the summer of 2018. By the fall, Roach was shedding weight, experiencing spells of confusion, and going days at a time without eating before being granted compassionate release. Taylor was putting on weight, sweeping up at the Gift of Love house, and shopping at Target after being released on parole.A challenge of writing and implementing compassionate-release policies, or even parole procedures for elderly and dying inmates, is balancing a patient’s physical condition with an inmate’s capacity to do harm. Some offenders, no matter how sick, are deemed too dangerous for release. Prisoner’s-rights advocates say recidivism among inmates over the age of 50 is exceedingly rare. Yet Roach and Taylor both committed crimes well beyond 50 and even into their 60s. Some people in their physical condition verbally assault caretakers and other patients, though Roach and Taylor were known to be friendly.It seems that Roach was granted compassionate release and Taylor was paroled partly because of their benevolent behavior in hospice and the willingness of doctors and staff to advocate for a place for them to stay on the outside. But staff at the California Medical Facility hospice are generally devoted to advocating for compassionate release and medical parole, whether a patient is well behaved or not, and they have the training and experience to navigate the process. The hospice staff process more compassionate-release cases than any other facility in the state, so they know the ins and outs of the system. Cases from other facilities, by contrast, are often caught in a confusing web that spans multiple agencies at the state and local levels.
“There are problems at every level, from doctors being trained to prognosticate properly to understanding what prognosis means,” DiTomas said. With so many steps in the process—and no alert system when an application stalls—it’s all too common for cases to be delayed. Sometimes a case is left “spinning for three months” before ending up right where it started, she said. “Then we just start all over, but it would’ve been nice if we’d started three months ago.”Even if the path to compassionate release is streamlined at the state level, bureaucratic obstacles would remain in county courts. “The penal code says they have 10 days to hear the case, and they just don’t do it,” DiTomas said. “And yeah, their dockets are full. I think they don’t understand. They don’t know that this guy, number 6, his mother is sitting at his bed sobbing, hoping that he gets out.”
On February 8, I’m at Roach’s bedside again. His head is sunk in the pillow, eyes closed, hands folded as if in prayer. One of the sisters has hung the picture of his mother above the window.
Dying can bring two bodies together. And so it is Taylor who has been sitting with Roach, who talks even when his friend is too far gone to listen. Taylor looks even better than the last time I saw him, sporting a camouflage jacket and a baseball cap. He’s just received a free smartphone from a public-assistance program, and he’s learning to use the touchscreen.
While Roach was growing up in San Diego, Taylor was in South Central Los Angeles, cruising Compton and downtown in a Jaguar XJ12. Taylor’s bread and butter was home invasions: Beverly Hills, Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills. His Jaguar didn’t look out of place in those neighborhoods. “By the time you left the garage and went to close it, I was inside, gun out and everything,” he says. “I was doing some sick stuff, man.”He wasn’t caught until the summer of 1975. “My downfall was simply this: I took a couple of knuckleheads out of my neighborhood with me one night,” he says. When the job took a violent turn, Taylor was arrested after a high-speed chase. He was convicted of first-degree robbery and rape, and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. He was released after 15 years, but, in the decades that followed, kept getting convicted on other charges and incarcerated again.Now, in the sisters’ place, Roach licks his parched lips. “Snap out of it!” Taylor shouts at him. To me, he adds, “He won’t eat if you don’t literally do that mama thing, ‘Hey boy, you know you gotta eat.’ He’ll eat. Especially hot dogs.”Taylor knows the spell of morphine. It was June 2018 when he first entered the hospice unit in Vacaville. For a time he was still on his feet, watching TV, playing cards, chatting up the nurses. His favorite prank was to ring the call light and hold his breath, still as a dead man, until the nurses got close enough to see him smiling. But before long, Taylor needed a walker to get up, wheezing from whatever was growing in his lungs.
Before long the nurses felt he was too weak to stand, so they took his walker away. “Next thing I know, here come morphine, that little brown pill, man. And I’m like, ‘Aw, no, this is how they get rid of people.’” (The California Medical Facility says that hospice patients have autonomy over their own pain management, and can always choose to take less morphine, or none at all.) Despite his terminal diagnosis, Taylor was determined not to die in prison. He demanded a walker, quit taking morphine, and exercised to maintain his strength until his parole date; with the help of the doctors and the chaplain, he ended up with the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity.Now one of the sisters comes in to wake Roach for a bowl of soup. “Hey, snap out of it!” Taylor shouts again. “Lunchtime, Roach!” Taylor and I retreat to the kitchen, where he continues his story over a bowl of steaming clam chowder.“I got here, man, and I walked in this house, and I’m seeing these little nuns running around, and I’m like, man, where the heck did they send me?” he says. Taylor passed time in the living room, surrounded by books. “I’ve been a Baptist. A Muslim. A Buddhist. Every type of religion they got out there, I done stuck my hand in it. None of it changed me, whatsoever … I had a void in my heart, brother, that I couldn’t fill it for nothing, and it ached, like that thorn Paul had in his side.” Taylor whistles. “Brother, the moment I got reading about Mother Teresa and the saints, man, let me tell you, it got filled. And then, a couple days after it filled, I got up and I walked in that office down there, and I told them sisters, you have to baptize me.”
Soon after, Taylor got a message that his brother Daryll had called. It had been 10 or 15 years since they’d heard each other’s voices. “I was there crying and sobbing; it was a mess,” he says. Daryll, his wife, and their son came up from Los Angeles. They barbecued right there on the patio of the Gift of Love. Laughter. Meat smoke. Music. “My sister-in-law made some greens that are still being talked about.” Even the sisters were dancing.Taylor will tell you that he is a new man, baptized, forgiven. The sisters will tell you the same. The sisters will tell you these men are children of God, thirsty, like all of us. The sisters will bring them water.
By the year 2030, one-third of U.S. inmates will be over the age of 50. In hopes of expanding compassionate release to meet the oncoming wave of ill and elderly inmates, criminal-justice advocates are pushing for reforms like clearer eligibility criteria, more realistic timelines, and more supportive release planning. Yet a lack of transparency about the programs makes it difficult for policy makers to take action, or even recognize the scale of the problem. Fewer than half of states with compassionate-release policies collect and track data on how many people apply for and receive compassionate release. The information I requested from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for this story is part of a new data-collection process that began just this year. Without meaningful records of the process, the stories of the men seeking compassionate release might well die with them.
On Thursday, March 14, John Jay Roach passed into the next world with a seminarian praying quietly by his side. “Death happens like that,” Taylor says. “All of a sudden.”Roach was to be buried in an indigent grave at the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, the nearest burial grounds to the Gift of Love, on the windswept hills between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. At 11 a.m. on a Monday, his three-car procession winds through the labyrinth of cemetery roads to the donated gravesite. For months it has been raining in Northern California, the wettest winter in decades after years of drought. For now the next storm is holding off.At the gravesite we are met by a funeral director on whom the sisters rely for discount services. Three young Dominican novices in training for priesthood sing hymns with an acoustic guitar. Three white chairs, reserved for loved ones, are empty. They overlook a blue plywood casket, suspended on planks across the open grave. By the trees, six gravediggers in clean uniforms and sunglasses stand in a line, hands folded in respect.One of the sisters hands me a hymnal. The deacon, who never misses these funerals, seems wobbly in the rising wind that flaps the pages of his Bible. “The Lord promised paradise to the repentant thief … Bring John to the joys of heaven … Praise the Lord.”
The sisters stand and sing. Taylor, weak on his feet today, sits on a fourth chair, across from the empty ones. Roach wanted to be buried side by side with his wife, and now I wonder where she is buried and how she got there. Whether there was an empty chair for her husband at her funeral.
The coffin looks too small, the way all coffins look too small. When the casket is lowered into the ground, the young men on the guitar play “Amazing Grace.” By the time I raise my eyes from the hymnal, the coffin is below ground, and the gravediggers are driving away in a utility tractor. They’ll return to replace the dirt and sod when the mourners leave, but in the meantime, we toss daisies into the earth while the deacon sprinkles holy water over the casket.Clouds mount. The missionaries slip their guitar away, but Taylor isn’t satisfied. Roach was a classic-rock guy. Taylor asks if they know “Fly Like an Eagle.” No, not “I’ll Fly Away,” the church song—the Steve Miller tune. The guitarist makes an effort, trying to finger the opening lick. Taylor jumps into the song a cappella, his voice smoky. “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future …”By spring, Taylor will be losing strength. Come the end of summer, he will be bed bound again. On Thanksgiving, the sisters will wheel him to chapel for prayer, then into the dining room for a feast. Then, on a wet Sunday night in December, he will slip away.But right now he is clapping. He even sings the guitar parts. The sisters smile.
When Taylor’s voice fades out, there’s a charge in the air, like rain is coming. The deacon retreats to visit his wife, who is buried elsewhere on this hill. Taylor isn’t ready to go home. Just when everyone turns for their cars, another song overtakes him: “We are standing on holy ground, and I know there are angels all around …” He takes a deep breath for the next line, and his voice comes again, stronger now, as if from the good, clean lungs of a young man.