By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Dewayne Presley is determined to stay away from the activities that led to him foregoing his freedom. He got out of prison last fall and is working to remain on the outside. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER
Dewayne Presley is determined to stay away from the activities that led to him foregoing his freedom. He got out of prison last fall and is working to remain on the outside. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

Crystal Willis was used to making multiple treks to visit her son, driving for hours to reach him, but this time last year, the trip was different. It was different because this time he was able to come back with her.

Dewayne Presley was released from a prison near Calaveras County on Nov. 4, 2022. He spent 15 years, nearly half his life, there and in other state facilities.

“I was 21 when I went in and 36 when I got out,” Presley says.

His release was celebrated by Willis’ friends on social media as his mother often posted updates and photos from her visits online. While incarceration has been widely normalized in some ways within the Black community, it can still be a taboo subject. Some don’t want to admit they have a child in jail or prison, fearing judgment from friends and neighbors.

“It actually took me awhile because I didn’t say it right away,” Willis says. “I had to feel comfortable. But as I tapped into my spiritual side, I felt like God needed him to sit down for a minute.”

Presley was convicted of attempted murder. There were also enhancements, and more time, for being a gang member, possessing a firearm and causing great bodily injury.

“I had to look at the fact that he is alive and I’m still talking to him,” Willis says of her son’s incarceration. “I had to change my whole perspective. Instead of it being just negative, I had to search for the positive.”

Willis admits it took her a little while to get there. It also took Presley a minute. Initially, prison didn’t seem all that big a deal to Presley, who felt comfortable with fellow gang members housed nearby.

“I was still immature,” he says. “I was still in the lifestyle of gang life and criminal activity. So it took me awhile to really get to the positive side of things, so to speak. But what did help me a lot was, I began to read the Bible while I was in there. I had a cellie who was pretty deep into spirituality. I’d see him pick up the Bible and it kind of rubbed off on me. That was the beginning of my turning point, as far as my mindset. I wanted to get on a different path on a different page.”

It was past due, as this wasn’t Presley’s first time being incarcerated.

“I’d been in juvenile hall before – a few times, actually,” he shares. “I’d been in a group home. I’d been to the county jail a few times before I went to prison when I got this case. Being locked up wasn’t anything new to me. What was new was the extended period of time that I was locked up. It did take me some time to adjust to that.”

When her son was younger, Willis says, she couldn’t understand why he was doing the things he was doing. She has had time to reflect and to learn. She has observed other teenagers’ similar behavior and has read up on the needs of youth, especially young Black men like her son.

“I did send him to counseling and drug counseling. I did all that,” she says. “But I could have done more. There’s always room for doing more.”

Doing Time Together

Presley doesn’t claim to be innocent and he doesn’t blame his mother for his misdeeds.

In maximum security, Presley spent a lot of time on lockdown.

“I read books, I worked out, listened to music, and wrote a lot of letters to my family,” he says. “When I was able to get on the phone, I talked to my family, but the majority of the time, I was stuck in a cell. There really wasn’t a lot of rehabilitation at that time. Since we were on lockdown, we couldn’t go to programs. “

Presley admits that at the time he really didn’t want to attend anyway.

“I felt like there’s no point in getting involved in that stuff,” he says.

Eventually, he’d change that way of thinking. He earned his GED and took some college courses in electrical and auto body work.

“I was just trying to find stuff so I could stay busy, pretty much, to just keep my mind occupied. I didn’t really have a set plan on what I wanted to do when I was going to get out. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to get out, keeping it 100, because I had a life sentence.”

The years he’d be serving weighed heavily on the family, but they remained committed to being there for him.

“We traveled from Northern California to Southern Cal or wherever he was,” Willis says. “We sent packages. He’s always been so grateful and he was mindful of finances and would say [don’t worry about it] if it was too much or whatever, but within our family we just all always made it happen. We’ve always supported him.”

Her youngest child, now a college graduate, was just 7 when Presley went to prison.

“I remember wanting her to know and to never treat anybody any different,” Willis says.

“I would take her with me to visit him in jail.”

Some people lie, not wanting people to know that it, in fact, can happen to their family too.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh your brother’s away in college’ or ‘Your brother’s “away.”’ I didn’t want to do that,” Willis says. “People make mistakes and I didn’t want her to think she was above anybody.”

Hope that he’d get out at some point became more finite with the passing of Senate Bill 261. The legislation took effect in January 2016 and extended youth offender parole hearings to inmates who were under age 23 at the time of their offenses.

“It basically said I qualified to be a youth offender, saying that my mind wasn’t totally developed when I committed my crime,” Willis says. “That allowed me to have a little bit of my time reduced.”

Support Groups

Prison wasn’t the life Crystal Willis wanted for her son, Dewayne Presley, but his own choices led him there. Willis is helping her son readjust to life on the outside, as he was released in 2022 after spending 15 years incarcerated. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER
Prison wasn’t the life Crystal Willis wanted for her son, Dewayne Presley, but his own choices led him there. Willis is helping her son readjust to life on the outside, as he was released in 2022 after spending 15 years incarcerated. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

Upon his release, Presley lived in transitional housing for six months. The world changes a lot in 15 years.

“That helped me readjust back into society a little bit at a time,” he says.

A program called Freedom Through Education connected him to social service resources. He was able to obtain a state ID card, make it to his appointments and make required check- ins with his parole officer. Staffers also placed him in another transformative program, Center for Employment Opportunities

“What they do is they’ll give you a temporary job,” Presley explained. “I was doing highway maintenance. We’d go to freeways and pick up trash and everything. I was getting, like, $100 a day.”

They also helped him get together his résumé. He’d never had one before. He also participated in mock interviews to prepare for more permanent jobs.

While her son was in prison, Willis founded a support group for not only herself, but others. The group is now called Restoring Mothers of Incarcerated Children. 

“I had a few groups back when I started, maybe like 2015 or 2017, somewhere around there,” Willis says. “I got a lot of girlfriends, a lot of wives, coming to my group, but then my dad had had a stroke and then I kind of stopped and focused on him. When I started up again, I wanted one focus and one focus is mothers because that was my journey.”

Willis had scheduled a group meeting for August, but had to postpone it when her father, Warren Tippie Sr. died. The local veteran passed away at age 101 and while eulogizing him at his funeral, the pastor talked about Tippie living long enough to see his grandson come home.

Willis shares her personal journey to help other families navigate theirs. She talks about the relationship between a mother and an incarcerated child and the relationship between a mother and a formerly incarcerated child. While Presley is grown, she doesn’t want to see him give in to temptations or old behaviors and end up locked up again.

Presley says he doesn’t want to compromise his freedom either. It means too much.

“It means being able to make choices,” he says. “In prison, you’re pretty much on restriction. They tell you when you can eat, what the time limit is to take a shower and who your cellie is going to be, who you’re going to sleep next to in the dorm. Now, the freedom I have out here, I have choices to make all my own decisions, my own time limits and my own restrictions, the freedom to do whatever I want to do.”

In the driver’s seat of his own life, Presley accomplished one of his goals this summer: obtaining a license. He lists getting his own place and continuing his relationship with the Lord as priorities. The Bible has seen him through thus far, he says.

“It’s wisdom in there,” Presley says. “There’s testimonies of what other brothers and sisters went through in the faith and morals, how to protect yourself with God. The whole counsel of God just gives you direction.”

Presley urges young people to make better choices and decisions than he did at their age.

“Think for yourself,” he advises. “Don’t try to fit into somebody else’s mode. A lot of times, I found myself just trying to kind of fit in with everybody. Just trying to get noticed, trying to be with the ‘in crowd’ or whatever. I’d tell people just to be who you are and do the things that really bring fulfillment into your life, the things that bring you pleasure. And I’d tell people, ‘Don’t get caught up in just trying to please other people.’”