As Fulton Leroy Washington sat in the passenger seat of a car this month and rode back to his hometown of Los Angeles for the first time in 20 years, the 62-year-old got a rare up-close view of the world around him, as well as a self-described “surreal feeling” of mixed emotions.
There was joy, excitement, wonder and doubt, said Washington, who walked out of the Federal Correctional Institute in Lompoc on June 6 after receiving a surprise reprieve of his life sentence from the nation’s highest office.
There was also a feeling he didn’t anticipate.
“As we were riding on the freeway, after not being in a vehicle for so many years, it was like being on a boat for the first time,” he said. “I was getting a little motion sickness. That was unexpected, that I’d get motion sickness from being in a car.”
That car ride was the culmination of 20 years of fighting — and believing — for Washington, who discovered and developed his artistic talent while in prison and used those skills to touch those around him, both inside and outside the prison walls.
Several of his paintings have been on public display in and around Lompoc, including three that are prominently showcased in the recently remodeled Lompoc Veterans Memorial Building.
Now, as he moves closer to regaining his full freedom, Washington is hopeful that he will be able to return to the region where he spent much of his incarceration and continue what he sees as his artistic mission.
“I would like to relocate to Santa Barbara County,” he said in a recent conversation. “My hope and prayer is that the community there that supported me all those years in prison and made me feel so welcome will still support me once I’m out.”
Behind prison walls
Washington, who had been living in Compton, was initially arrested on drug-related charges — he was accused of manufacture of and intent to manufacture PCP — on Valentine’s Day 1996. He was ultimately convicted of the charges and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of life with no chance of parole, due to a prior drug-related conviction.
Washington maintained his innocence during and after his trial and attempted several appeals that were ultimately unsuccessful. Despite the bleak situation, Washington said he never wavered in his belief that he would one day be freed.
“Everybody has a little saying or cliché that they live by,” he said. “Well mine, ever since I was 12 or 13 years old, is ‘faith without work is dead.’ I understand that it’s through work, faith and patience that we inherit what has been promised.
“I had faith that I wasn’t gonna die in prison and I understood that my work was to continue to try to prove my innocence and to always offer whatever God blessed me with to share with others," he added, "so I did that with my art.”
Washington said that May 5 — the day he learned that President Barack Obama had commuted his sentence from life to time served — was a day he won't forget.
Washington was doing his regular workout routine early that afternoon when a message was relayed over the loud speaker telling him to report to a guard shack. Assuming he misheard it, and because he had to report to work less than 10 minutes later, he said he ignored it.
The announcement was made again and he realized it was not a mistake.
The last time Washington was called like this was when his mother died, so he said he immediately began to fear the worst.
“In my mind, I was thinking that something had happened to one of my children or my loved ones,” he said.
As he neared the guard area, other inmates told him that a lot of “suits” had gathered in the room and they were all looking for him. Washington said that only made his fears worse.
“I walked in the door and I threw my hands up over my head and said, ‘Please don’t shoot. I accept responsibility for anything that happened ...,'" he said. “They started laughing and told me I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Everyone in the room avoided eye contact with Washington, he said, until an assistant warden got Washington’s lawyer on speakerphone. After the attorney revealed the news — that Washington was one of 58 drug offenders who had his or her sentence commuted by President Obama — Washington said he was numb.
The attorney asked Washington how he felt, and he responded only: “I feel good. I’m happy.”
“After that, it just spread like a wildfire,” he said. “It went to all the units and to the yard. Everywhere I went, I was getting congratulations from the inmates, the staff members. People were getting teary-eyed. It seemed like everybody was happier than I was. My main joy was for my family, that they would no longer have to suffer and be tormented with these back and forth trips and five-minute phone calls.”
Life after prison
Washington was granted an expedited release and was transferred on June 6 to Marvin Gardens Center, a halfway house in L.A. He is slated to remain at that facility until Sept. 2, unless he meets certain conditions.
Before going to the halfway house, he had an emotional reunion with his family.
Washington has a wife, Annie, eight children and 10 grandchildren. On the afternoon of his release from prison, many of them gathered to celebrate in L.A. at a Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles.
“There was a lot of conversation, a lot of crying, a lot of tears, a lot of hugs and a lot of smiles,” Washington said, noting that he couldn’t hold himself together at the restaurant. “And then we had lunch.”
In the weeks since he's been out of prison, Washington said he's noticed a lot of small bits of life that many people likely take for granted.
One afternoon, for example, he heard a dog barking outside and it hit him that he hadn’t heard a dog in decades. He looked out the window and saw the dog was barking at a mail carrier, which made him realize that he hadn’t seen a mailman in decades either.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “My mind is acute and sensitive to everything.”
Representatives from various support services go to the halfway house each day to assist the residents with different aspects of their transitions, such as finding employment.
Washington, who had worked in construction before going to prison, said his goal is to continue as an artist, painting both murals and portraits, or as an art teacher.
First, though, he said he needs to get out of L.A., an area he said has been surprisingly unchanged since he left.
“Things look a little bit different, but it’s still the same cesspool to me,” he said. “They redecorated a few buildings, but to me, it’s still the exact same thing with the exact same problems. You’ve got homeless people and people on drugs and scraping the ground for a daily existence and you have another group of people that’s living on top of the world driving Rolls Royces and Bentleys and looking down on others. It’s a very unbalanced part of society.”
Bob Nelson, the chief of staff for 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam, said that Adam’s office has had discussions about holding a ceremony at the Lompoc Veterans Memorial Building to thank Washington for the military-themed murals he created for the building.
“Our office is definitely looking into hosting that sometime in the future,” Nelson said this week.
Washington, who still needs approval from the halfway house to travel to Santa Barbara County, said he’s hopeful that event will give him a chance to meet many of the people who have supported him from afar.
Those names include Alice Milligan and Frank Grube, who worked on the committee to restore the Vets Building and offered letters of support for Washington’s clemency. Washington said he’s also had discussions with officials at Hancock College about providing artwork for the school.
“People can get a chance to meet me face to face and see if they want me in the community or not,” he said. “I’m ready. I don’t want to have a lot of days in my life where I’m sitting around wondering.”
To help in his move north, he said he first needs to find someone willing to rent him a living space. Beyond that, he would need to find someone also willing to lease or rent him a workspace and then develop a working relationship with members of the community.
“When I was in prison, I never wondered or went to bed and not knew what I was gonna wake up for,” he added. “This is a little bit different being out here in this society. I go to bed with uncertainty over what I’m gonna do now. I need to get that control back. I need jobs to do.”