Sobriety Behind Bars
North Bay convicts talk relapse and recovery from Susanville prison
By Eugene Dey
With an alleged blood alcohol level of .24, three times the legal limit, Joseph Lynchard of Santa Rosa probably should have known not to get behind the wheel of his pickup on March 28. After all, the 72-year-old had six previous DUI convictions in Sonoma County. Nevertheless, Lynchard chose to drive home from his brother's Larkfield bar that day and allegedly struck and killed 43-year-old bicyclist Kathryn Black on Mark West Springs Road.
Lynchard, whose trial for second-degree murder begins July 6, faces a sentence of 15 years to life if convicted. He's just one of a slew of North Bay residents who've either recently injured or killed others or lost their own lives in alcohol-related incidents. That includes more than a half-dozen accidents involving teen drivers and drinking. Last year, during a drinking binge, Healdsburg resident Rena Corban locked her two sons in the family minivan on a hot day; four-year-old Liam succumbed to the 120 degree heat. In May, Corban was sentenced to seven years in prison for child endangerment.
It was a stiff penalty handed out in a state that's become known for punishing alcohol abusers, especially those who drink and drive. But once behind bars, convicts like Corban have few options when it comes to receiving treatment for the condition that got them there in the first place. Prison is sometimes the best society can do for a problem--alcoholism--that has no easy solution.
Like Joseph Lynchard, Ronny Shields is a DUI recidivist from Santa Rosa.
Shields, 54, is serving a four-and-a-half-year sentence at the California Correctional Center in Susanville for his sixth and seventh DUIs. With an intimidating stare and a muscular body covered with tattoos, Shields looks every bit the hardcore convict, and he has a long rap sheet: convicted for robbery in 1974; two counts of fraud in 1986; five DUIs in 1996; and numerous parole violations.
"I deserved to be in prison in the 1970s and 1980s," he admits. "But I quit shooting dope [methamphetamine] when I was 42. I grew up. I got tired of the shit surrounding chasing dope. Without shooting dope, there's no chaos and drama."
He learned the roofing trade and started playing a more prominent role raising his two daughters, but he continued to drink. Despite his seven DUI convictions, he still doesn't perceive alcohol as a problem.
"I'm never going to quit drinking," he says bluntly. "I'm going to quit drunk driving."
Shields has received no treatment for alcoholism during his numerous prison stays. He says he offered to enter treatment during his 1986 fraud trial, but was denied by the judge, who accused him of trying to manipulate the system. Because he didn't injure anyone with his drunk driving, he doesn't perceive himself as a criminal.
"Prison is a revolving door," he says. "I'm an alcoholic, not a criminal. This is a warehouse, and they aren't interested in helping us. I've had five [prison] terms and never been to [an alcohol or drug] program."
The revolving door will spit Shields back out on the streets in a few months where, alcoholism aside, he stands a good chance of making a positive reentry into society. The average parolee leaves prison with $200 in his pocket, no marketable work skills and few prospects. Shields has a loving family and decades of experience as a roofer. He looks forward to going home.
"I caught my first steelhead on the Russian River in 1961, a few miles from Bohemian Grove," he recalls. "Occidental has the best Italian restaurants in Northern California."
Since the mid-1980s, California's criminal and vehicle codes have evolved into the most stringent in the nation. Under the current mandate, even if no victim is injured, a DUI conviction is prosecuted as a felony when the defendant has three or more prior convictions within a seven-year period.
Yet once incarcerated, wide-scale recovery programs aren't readily available anywhere in the California prison system. Of the few, most are faith-based or quasi-religious programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous; all are strictly voluntary. In such a nonrehabilitative environment, only a truly determined prisoner can maintain sobriety once released back into the world.
Former Santa Rosa resident Ricky Fernandez, 30, also incarcerated at Susanville, is not your typical state prisoner. Clean-cut, of average height and very muscular, one would never guess he's serving 15 years to life for homicide.
Fernandez began drinking alcohol when he was 13. By 1998, when he was 24, it had become a huge impediment. Living in Mendocino County at the time, Fernandez was a high school dropout with few prospects, recently divorced from the mother of his two children. He desperately wanted to get his life back on track. A phone call from his eldest daughter, who is now 11, hit him hard, and he vowed to walk the straight and narrow.
"My daughter called me the week before [I got in trouble], plus I had a job interview," he remembers. "These were two motivating factors I had to stop drinking."
He tried to stay sober in the days leading up to the job interview, but slipped and had a beer with his roommate and his roommate's cousin. That's all it took. By nightfall, a day of drinking had morphed into a craving to consume methamphetamine, which Fernandez had been using since age 19.
"Once I started drinking and partying, at some point I started wanting drugs," Fernandez says. "The main reason I crave drugs is so I can drink more. We had been drinking all day and went to buy some drugs. As it turned out, no one was selling anything, and an argument started."
According to newspaper reports, the threesome encountered 44-year-old Louis Pearson near Lake Mendocino. Fernandez says that's when "everyone freaked out." Pearson was beaten by both Fernandez and the roommate's cousin; he died from the injuries. "It wasn't really a drug deal or a robbery; it was way out of hand," Fernandez laments. "No one planned to do anything. It was a drunken nightmare."
The prosecutor charged the three with robbery-murder, a capital offense. The roommate cut a deal and received a reduced sentence. The roommate's cousin received life without the possibility of parole. Fernandez was sentenced to 15 years to life.
Since being incarcerated, Fernandez has found a new way of life, free from alcohol. He goes to church, attends 12-step meetings, participates in the spiritual-growth program 40 Days of Purpose and serves as the leader of a weekly Bible study group.
"My life is more organized right now," Fernandez says. "I'm no longer caught up in the insanity of drugs and alcohol. I've been sober for years and feel great."
Since almost all of the programs available in Susanville are faith-based, Fernandez is perfectly suited to take advantage of them.
"I came from a very religious home," he says. "I kind of slipped away. God came back into my life through my mother's prayers. If she didn't start praying for me . . . I don't think I'd be walking the walk I'm walking right now.
"Every aspect of how I walk, I attribute to God. He created this whole thing in order to bring me back," Fernandez continues. "Say I ended up getting a manslaughter or a lesser crime. I would have received a slap on the wrist. I wouldn't have learned anything or took any of it very serious."
In his new skin, Fernandez is at peace. He's earned his GED, and he's been accepted in Lassen Community College's AA degree program. Yet he understands his 2010 parole hearing will be a tough fight. Even though he's considered a model inmate and actively participates in numerous self-help groups, attributes that make him an excellent candidate for parole, the chaotic nature of his crime will always play against him.
"I see opposition from the DA; he acted really vindictive throughout the whole trial," he says, adding that the prosecution didn't really seem to understand what actually happened on that drunken night. "I can't blame him. Someone was killed, and the case was very confusing."
Nonetheless, someday Fernandez hopes for an opportunity to explain to the victim's family how sorry he is.
"If I could, I'd make amends to them," he says. "I didn't want this to happen. I'd be willing to write them letters, speak to them face to face. Whatever it took."
Eugene Dey is an inmate at the California Correctional Center in Susanville.
From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.