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After decades behind bars, Randy Mora wanted to start over. Turns out, the first days of freedom can be perilous

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Randy Mora soaks in the sights and sounds of downtown on his first day out of federal custody. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Randy Mora soaks in the sights and sounds of downtown on his first day out of federal custody.

Randy Mora smiles and closes his eyes as he points his face toward the warming sun early one Thursday. He drops his backpack on the sidewalk outside Spokane's bus plaza and looks around. Some people hold quiet conversations as they wait for the bus; others squat on the grimy concrete just killing time. He likes coming here to be reminded of who he doesn't want to be.

"I see a lot of people way worse than me," he says. "I don't want to walk around with a shopping cart. That's not the life I want. I try not to become one of them. I use this as a reminder to keep myself in check."

Hours earlier, staff at the halfway house where he's been finishing his prison sentence cut off the ankle monitor that had tracked his movements during his months-long transition. This is his first day out, his first real taste of freedom in about a decade.

The self-described short, fat 63-year-old has spent most of his adult life cycling in and out of prison for robbing banks and stealing — at first to feed heroin and cocaine addictions, and later because he was desperate.

For decades, Mora has been told when to eat, when to sleep, when to bathe, when to pee. He hates being told what to do, but every time he's gotten out of prison, he's landed right back behind bars, usually within weeks. But now, as he enters old age, he says he's ready to finally change. He wants a reporter to be there as he tries to find his place in a society whose rules he never could follow.

He leans back against a wall, and tears start to roll down his cheeks. A tattoo of a mean-looking clown with blood dripping from his smiling teeth shows through the salt-and-pepper stubble covering Mora's head.

"It's kind of an emotional day," he says, wiping tears from his face.

Like the roughly 10 million Americans released from jail or prison every year, Mora plans to start over, to "reintegrate." But the odds are stacked against him.

More than 76 percent of those released from state prisons will wind up back behind bars within 3 to 5 years, according to the Justice Department's National Reentry Resource Center. What's more, studies show that former inmates are 12.7 times more likely to die in those first weeks on their own than an average person in Washington state.

Of the newly released people who fatally overdose, most will die within the first week of freedom.

Mora is one of them.

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MAD AT LIFE

"I'm not a nut or a serial killer," Mora promises when he first calls the Inlander in March. "Way back in the late '70s and early '80s, I was a heroin addict, and in order to supply my habit I robbed a couple banks and I got an extensive prison sentence."

But he hadn't hurt anyone, he says. And now he's about done with his latest sentence and trying to figure out "a society that has left me behind."

Reporters get these types of calls all the time — I have a great story for you! — but most go nowhere. Something about Mora, though, catches my attention. Mainly, it seems, he wants to talk about his struggles with mental health, and maybe air some of his grievances with the prison system.

"I'm not a dangerous person, but it turns out that my whole life it seems that I guess I've been mentally ill," he says. "I think society as a whole is responsible, in a way, for how I turned out."

A week later, he shows up an hour early for an interview at the Inlander's offices. The short man covered in tattoos quickly commandeers the end of a long conference table, spreading out the meticulously organized prison documents he carries everywhere in his backpack. He's worked hard to manufacture a tough exterior, but a close look at his body art, all done behind bars, reveals vulnerability: Long white lines stretching nearly from elbow to wrist interrupt the pattern wrapping each arm.

"Sometimes I just get mad of having to live my life," he says. "I've cut my wrists. I cut all this. I cut my neck and my throat. All this while I was in the Bureau of Prisons."For much of his life, as doctors have concluded, he's struggled with PTSD and major depression. He has borderline personality disorder and shows signs of a slew of other anti-social issues.

It wasn't always easy for him to access mental health care while in custody, he says, and in part due to his mental health problems, he's particularly struggled with rules that often seemed arbitrary to him. Why did his halfway house send him to a donation center to get free socks but get mad when he also brought back free food? Why can't he live wherever he wants when he gets out on probation?

"Win, lose or draw, I need to get Goliath's foot off my neck," he says. "To me it's been, ever since I was a little kid, a David and Goliath thing, right? And I'm the guy with the little slingshot and the rock."

Over the course of an hour, he admits he robbed, he did drugs, he hurt the people in his life. But this guy who's totally uncertain about his next steps also manages to elicit sympathy.

He weeps as he recounts one time recently when he gave a crying little girl on the bus a flower, making her day. He wants to move forward and do small, good things for people like that. But his status as a felon, he's learned, means he can't even volunteer at local animal shelters. "Here I am, a man trying to reconnect with society, trying to find his place, right? Where do I fit in, if I'm not even allowed to go play with a dog?" he asks. "What's that telling me? 'Hey because of what you did before, we don't want you anymore.'"

Randy Mora folds a blanket he wants to buy at the Goodwill Outlet Store. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Randy Mora folds a blanket he wants to buy at the Goodwill Outlet Store.

He's learning that while he wants to do good, some people have a hard time letting go of all the bad. Yes, he admits, he did his share of bad.

'ROBBERY'

It's Halloween 1990, and tellers at the U.S. Bank branch on East Sprague are dressed in costume. A sign on the door asks customers to take off their disguises as they come in, but as media reports later say, the man who causes problems isn't wearing a mask: He's just a mailman.

Wearing an honest-to-goodness U.S. Postal Service uniform he borrowed from an ex, Mora walks up to a teller and hands over a note that reads "robbery." The teller stuffs $2,234 into his canvas bag, but also drops in exploding red dye, which later covers the bills, the Spokesman-Review reports.

Just six weeks before, Mora had been released from prison after receiving a 26-month-long sentence for bank robbery. That sentence had been light considering the circumstances. Mora and another man had held up the Sears at NorthTown Mall on Oct. 30, 1988, and were suspected in at least four bank robberies. But he got a plea deal in March 1989 requiring him to cop to only one of the bank jobs, according to news accounts.

The feds had gone easy that time. He wouldn't be so lucky after the Halloween heist.

"This time," Mora tells me, "I'm more of a criminal, and they sentence me to 228 months. I did almost 19 years."

Through decades of prison assessments and psychological evaluations during his time at various facilities in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Mora gives his history over and over again.

Born on Jan. 7, 1955, in Santa Barbara, California, he lived with both parents until they divorced when he was 10. Based on interviews with Mora for forensic psychological reports, medical staff notes show that he reported being sexually abused for about two years starting when he was about 8. In some reports he apparently blamed a priest, and in others a relative.

He tells prison staff that he started drinking at 12 or 13, smoked pot by 14 and at 17 tried heroin for the first time. (He later reports being able to use heroin through at least 2003, even while behind bars.)

He joins the Army in 1972, but paperwork shows he was honorably discharged after three months due to a heart condition. His only work experience comes in short bursts as a mechanic, a bus driver, a restaurant employee, but he's frequently fired.

In 1973, he attempts suicide for the second time, saying he "didn't feel like [he] fit in anywhere," a psychological evaluation states. Through his years in prison, he'll hurt himself again on several occasions.

He repeatedly expresses frustration about what he feels is a lack of access to mental health care. For more than four years, he spends time in a Special Management Unit meant to address behavioral health problems. Newer guidelines recommend an average of only 12 to 18 months there.

In February 2007, he cuts his neck and stomach with razors when he's upset about potential cellmate changes. He's put on suicide watch, where he's deemed not to be suicidal, but "willing to engage in significant self-mutilation in order to get his point across."

An evaluation from a month earlier states, "This individual is very easily frustrated and often acts out in response to his frustration. He has abused opiates and cocaine on the streets and completed the 500-hour drug education class back in 1994. ... He is looking forward to his release but is also apprehensive because he has been locked up since 1988."

In May 2008, he finally finishes his time for the Halloween robbery and settles in New Jersey, where he lives with his sister. But he struggles to adjust and soon finds himself hating his new living situation.

"I didn't know my sister. I hadn't seen her since the early '70s. ... But it was an offer of shelter, and I took it," he says. "After about 60 days of that, I couldn't take it anymore. I took her husband's truck one night, and I drove for California, or west anyways. I was headed west."

By the time he hits Ohio, he's low on gas and cash, so he does what's familiar: He robs a bank. Police surround him as he's filling up at a nearby gas station, lights flashing, weapons drawn.

"I'm thinking, 'Man, you just did 19 years, do you really want to go back? Not really,'" Mora says. "So I told him, 'Shoot me. Shoot me.' He didn't shoot."

So he hops in the truck and leads police across two states on a chase, until finally he sees a makeshift barricade. This is it, he thinks, speeding toward a police cruiser.

"I was thinking, 'Man, I'm gonna fly through the windshield and kill myself,'" Mora says, pausing before he lets out a sad chuckle. "F—-ing airbags they got nowadays, right?"

Why, he wonders nearly a decade later, is he still here?

"Now, I'm not religious by any stretch of the imagination — in fact I'm anti-religion — but I survived everything up to now," he says, his throat catching mid-sentence, "so I'm here for a reason."

A PROCESS, NOT A PROGRAM

At least 95 percent of people in state prisons will get out at some point, the National Reentry Resource Center reports, but a three-, four-, five-year outlook shows the majority will be arrested again. Among those who are incarcerated again, more than half will get arrested within the first year, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Mora steps into his new home in North Spokane. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Mora steps into his new home in North Spokane.

Many of those who get out of prison will spend the last portion of their sentence in a halfway house, like the one at Broadway and Monroe where Mora is living when we first meet. With the exception of one year when they lost the federal contract to a competitor, Pioneer Human Services has run that 35-bed residential reentry center since 2005, explains Hilary Young, a Pioneer spokeswoman. Since 2016, they've also operated another 35-bed facility on East Ferry Avenue.

"There are a lot of things people don't think about when they think about people coming out of prisons," Young says. "They think, 'Oh, it'll be a happy time.' But for a lot of people it can be overwhelming."

The partial-custody centers are meant to help people step back into the community in a structured way, Young says. The services and privileges offered vary from person to person. Some might stay for a very short time, some might be able to work or drive their own car, while others may take workforce development classes and learn computer basics.

Still, many obstacles remain for those transitioning back into a community, experts say.

"You get kicked into the real world with this scarlet 'F' on your chest because you have a felony," says Layne Pavey, who got out of federal prison herself in 2011 after serving two years related to cocaine charges and now works as a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker helping others with their reentry process. "You can get really lost out here and feel like you're the only one going through this."

In March of this year, as he's getting ready to leave the halfway house, Mora's feeling that way.

"I'm feeling the crunch of having to do all this by myself. I've been gone from this city for 30 years," he says. "A guy asked me the other day, 'Well, don't you have any friends?' Well, no, I don't."

Someone who has spent decades behind bars needs specific counseling and coaching before and after they get out, Pavey says, and oftentimes that early guidance is lacking at halfway homes.

"Reentry is a process, not a program," she says. "Everything is going to come with steps. You're going to be at a halfway house for 3 months, 6 months, but even though there may be a program, that doesn't hand the person the next steps."

When she was at a halfway house in Coeur d'Alene, Pavey recalls being bused to downtown Spokane every day and dropped off to look for jobs, with no coaching.

"The only reason I had support was because one other gal who was my bunkie showed me how to apply and use the services," she says.

In addition, Pavey says the prison system struggles to properly address addiction, with policies that often don't allow for medically assisted drug treatment while behind bars or on probation.

"Anything that would be a harm-reduction model is something we should be doing on reentry," she says. "Addiction is a thing that brings people into the system, and all they're getting is cognitive behavioral therapy, which is not good enough to deal with the way our neurons change with substances. It's a physical issue."

That physical temptation can strike even after years of relative sobriety, as Mora would find out.

DAY 1

Mora first stayed at the Broadway halfway house in 2017, but he struggled to stay in line. After a urine test showed he'd smoked marijuana, violating the terms of his partial release, he was sent back to prison. By February 2018, he'd been sent back to the reentry center to again prepare for the end of his sentence.

Randy Mora gets a hug from his new roomie Kyle Phillips on April 26. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Randy Mora gets a hug from his new roomie Kyle Phillips on April 26.

In April it seems like he's getting things on track. When we meet on April 11, he still doesn't have a place to live that is acceptable for the terms of his three-year probation, but a week later he's secured a spot in an Oxford House, one of several sober-living homes in the city where peers hold each other accountable to house rules.

So just as the morning sun is starting to paint downtown Spokane pink on Thursday, April 26, I show up outside the reentry center with a photographer to follow Mora on his first day out.

He waves from a second floor window, then makes his way down to the sidewalk, arriving slightly out of breath. But he doesn't have his stuff with him.

"My daughter can't pick me up until she's off work around 2 or 3," he says.

For about a year, he's been in touch with his daughter Stephanie, but their relationship is strained. He's been in prison since about the time she was 6 months old, and though they wrote letters over the years, they're essentially strangers.

So we follow him downtown, where he reflects on his day ahead at the bus plaza, and then make plans to meet up again in the afternoon, leaving him outside the federal courthouse where he'll have his first probation meeting.

Around 3, Mora and his daughter load up his things and head for the Goodwill Outlet store, where he can use a $25 gift certificate he got to help him move into his new home.

For nearly an hour he wanders around the store, digging through big blue bins of barely sorted items. It's his first real chance to make his own decisions in years, but even when he finds what look like nice options, he doesn't seem happy.

Mora lets a store manager know he's looking for necessities for his new place: a blanket, some plates. And he really wants a flat-screen TV.

"I don't know if we have any, but I can check," the manager says, heading for the back. He returns with bad news about the TV options, but holding a couple of green ceramic plates and matching mugs. "Here you go!"

After the employee steps away, Mora says he doesn't like the plates. They're ugly. He puts them back.

"You know, beggars can't be choosers," Stephanie says, getting annoyed.

After he finally buys a few things, Mora and I make plans in the parking lot to catch up again in about a week.

That evening Mora and one of his new roommates, Kyle Phillips, carry his things into his new room, pausing at one point to hug for a photo. Afterward, they settle in on some old chairs outside on the porch, a satisfied look on Mora's face.

A week later, Stephanie calls.

"I know you were working on that story, so I wanted to let you know ... Randy died last night," she says.

He overdosed. Apparently on heroin.

Phillips, his roommate, would later recount how he was the one to find Mora. He had heard Mora's phone ringing inside his room, and after checking to see if anyone else had seen Mora that day, Phillips jimmies the door open. He finds Mora slumped on the floor, one arm crookedly propped up behind him. There's no needle in his arm, but Phillips sees a cooker on the table, and after the cops come, he finds scissors and needle caps. The authorities say it looks like an accidental overdose.

Phillips would later tell me that in the week Mora had been in the house, he seemed to be adjusting. He had no reason to think Mora was using.

Randy Mora looks at a vase at a Goodwill store. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Randy Mora looks at a vase at a Goodwill store.

"I mean it surprised me," Phillips says, sitting on a couch in the living room of the Oxford House about a month after Mora's death. "He seemed like everything was cool."

BUILDING BRIDGES

Though Mora's death came as a shock to those around him, a look at the statistics shows his story isn't that uncommon.

In a study looking at the 76,208 people who got out of Washington state prisons from 1999 through 2009, overdose was the leading cause of death, killing 558 of the 2,462 people who died. The majority of overdose deaths happened in the first week after release, according to the study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2013.

One explanation is that newly released prisoners don't realize how being incarcerated had lowered their tolerance levels, says Marc Stern, former head doctor with the state DOC, and an affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington.

"You go drug-free for a period while incarcerated, and then when released, a lot of people go back to their last dosage," Stern says. "Surprise, that's more than you can handle."

More research is needed to better understand why exactly former inmates are more susceptible to overdose and death in order to create effective programs, Stern says. But in the meantime, some programs are moving ahead based on some reasonable assumptions. For starters, drug treatment before release seems like it would logically reduce chances that someone would relapse, he says.

"We know they die when they get out," Stern says. "We know they die from overdoses. It's logical to say treatment has got to reduce mortality."

Rhode Island has slashed inmate overdose deaths by more than half by providing medication-assisted addiction treatment behind bars. Meanwhile, New Mexico is testing whether a monthly shot that cuts cravings and blocks the ability to get high can be just as effective, and New York is training inmates and community members on how to administer the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone. Facilities in Chicago and L.A. have even started to give Naloxone to inmates on their release.

But treatment programs depend on people wanting to get help.

"I learned a long time ago we can only help people that want to help themselves," says Jennifer Pace, who founded the Spokane chapter of Community Partners for Transition Solutions (CPTS) and works with state prisoners to create their plans to reenter the community. "But I definitely believe Spokane is working hard. We have community court, drug court, these are all alternatives to keep people out of prison. When they're in prison, we have one program after another trying to help them learn a skill before they come out so they're more prepared."

Spokane County's Therapeutic Drug Court was created in 1996 to help people address their addictions and avoid a drug-related felony conviction if they enter treatment.

It may be impossible to know if there would have been a different outcome had Mora had that option back in 1988, or if he would have even been eligible when his crime spree first started; whether he would still be alive, or whether taxpayers could have saved what estimates show was likely more than $1 million to keep him in prison over the next 30 years.

In the meantime, many people are working to improve the system, both by pushing for diversion where appropriate, and working to improve reentry for those who still wind up serving time.

The CPTS coalition is comprised of volunteers who work in the criminal justice system as probation officers, counselors and outside service providers, and others who provide resources and help create reentry plans for those about to get out, Pace says. Their goal is to strengthen service networks so they more effectively help people.

"There needs to be that bridge from incarceration to the community that is a little more stable than before. That's kind of my job, I'm a transition specialist," Pace says. "I work with the person while they're incarcerated and we come up with an individual plan: Where are we going to live, what type of employment can we get, where are we going to get food? Who is your support, do you have family or friends or do we need to find other peer groups?"

And while programs to help prisoners plan for their release have been around for decades, last fall the state Department of Corrections made sure all those programs were pulled together under a new Reentry Division that serves as a sort of middleman between the prison and community supervision divisions, Pace says.

"All we have been doing is meeting and figuring out what do we do to make a difference?" she says.

Since then, state lawmakers also passed a law to allow for graduated reentry, with a focus on integrating state offenders back into their communities even sooner, with help getting education, employment, and improving social networks.

"This is big," Pace says.

Randy Mora (right) sits on his front patio with Kyle Phillips, his roommate. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Randy Mora (right) sits on his front patio with Kyle Phillips, his roommate.

ALL THAT REMAINS

Sitting in the living room of the Spokane home she shares with her husband and younger son in early August, Mora's daughter Stephanie sifts through a box of folders filled with the many documents he kept throughout his time in prison.

"This is pretty much all I have left of him," she says.

In it, there's a jumble of papers. Printed-out Sudoku puzzles and catalogs for jewelry and a new car are tucked in between manila envelopes filled with his history and complaints he filed against the system he didn't feel always treated him fairly. In one letter-sized envelope, there are dozens of handwritten letters he got from Stephanie. In another, tucked next to letters from his niece, a few sheets of paper show what appears to be scribbled notes he made.

"Better to die of a bullet than to die alone and old and unloved," he writes on one. "Keep your life small, keep the people in your life few and keep them in front of you. Because life isn't easy."

Stephanie says she sent his ashes to her half brother in California, so he could spread them on the beach. Last she heard, he hadn't done it yet.

Because they were never really close, she's been learning things about her dad by looking through these pages.

There's stuff on his criminal history, and the many long lists of his mental health diagnoses. There's also a handwritten speech he gave to his classmates in a residential drug abuse program in 2016, all about taking responsibility for his actions and the people he hurt.

"You should read it," she tells me. "He put it really well."

On seven pages, written in black pen with yellow highlights for emphasis, Mora tells the audience that during his three decades in prison, he's been written up more than 70 times, at least 22 of those for drug-related issues.

He explains what drove him to go back to drugs again and again.

"You see I didn't like people telling me how to live my life, what to do, and when to do it," he says. "I wanted to get high when I wanted to and damn the consequences."

Being a drug addict and living a criminal lifestyle left little room for the important things, he writes, like relationships with parents, siblings, children, or significant others. But he wants the younger members of the group to know he's changing, and they can, too.

"In my long career as a drug addict I've neglected and alienated everyone I've ever loved or cared about. My folks have long since passed. My sisters and brother have written me off as a lost cause. I've never been a real father or role model to my children," he writes. "I thought I was too old to change, too set in my ways. When opportunity comes knocking at your door you're a fool if you don't answer it. ... It doesn't happen overnight, change is a gradual thing. You have to work at it."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Samantha Wohlfeil covers social services, the environment, tribes and other issues for the Inlander. Before joining the paper in February 2017, she worked as a political reporter at the Bellingham Herald in northwest Washington.





The original print version of this article was headlined "'We Don't Want You Anymore'"