Teen lifer ‘made it’ to freedom at age 43
Detroit — Bobby Hines stepped forward, smiling as he embraced the sister of the man he was convicted of killing.
Locked up for 28 years, he’d long wanted to meet Valencia Warren-Gibbs, to talk with her about that night in 1989 when her brother, James, was shot after Hines and two others confronted him.
At 15, Hines had been condemned to life in prison without parole. Now he was out, a 43-year-old man navigating a city he left behind as an eighth-grader. He’d already found work, enjoyed his first restaurant meal, and on this Sunday, 20 days into his freedom, he’d come to sit down with his victim’s sister and take responsibility for his role in Warren’s death.
“You know why?” he told her. “I’m never going to forget what I did.”
He would not forget but he could make amends and make the most of his second chance, even as he learns what it means to be Bobby Hines again — a stranger to the world of 2017.
Hines’ release came after the U.S. Supreme Court last year extended a ban on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders to those already in prison, prompting new sentences and the release of dozens of inmates in Michigan and elsewhere. Other former teen offenders still are waiting for a chance at resentencing in places that have been slow to address the court ruling, an earlier Associated Press investigation found.
For some, leaving prison after decades might seem like time travel. Not Hines, one of at least 99 Michigan lifers to be resentenced so far.
“I did 28 years,” he said, “but I don’t even feel like I’ve been in an institution.”
He was released at 9 a.m. promptly one September morning, walking out with his sister, Myra, who beamed and rested her head on her brother’s shoulder.
“We made it,” Hines declared, almost inaudibly, as if he’d just crossed an imaginary finish line.
Myra is her brother’s main support system, with their parents now dead. He also was guided by Project Reentry, a program in the state appellate defender’s office in which graduate social work students help juvenile lifers prepare for release. One student met with Hines and took photos of Myra’s home as part of a post-release plan presented to his resentencing judge.
“You have to take baby steps,” Valerie Newman, a state appellate defender and Hines’ lawyer, advised him. “There’s a huge learning curve.”
For Hines, getting out was like a rebirth. “If you were to die and you were to go to hell and see all of the destruction and fighting and killing down there and God were to breathe life back into you and you were given a second chance — that’s what this is.”
On Day 1, after meeting with his parole officer and then arriving at his sister’s house, Hines retreated to a picnic table in the backyard with his most cherished possessions: poems and essays he wrote in prison to keep himself sane. He read from a poem he wrote about time: “Time is losing 27 of your damndest years. Time is prison. Time is patience. ... Time is fire and wrath. Time is Mr. James Warren that I killed on a block.”
Hines sat back to absorb his words.
“The biggest thing in prison ... is to be able to face what you did,” he said. “Once you’re able to face your fears ... then and only then you can move on and be a better person.”
Hines said he was touched by Warren’s sister, Valencia, and their father, Henry, who spoke in support of his release at a March hearing. The judge imposed a new 27- to 60-year sentence, paving the way for Hines to win parole.
According to court records, Warren, 21, took the jacket of a young man who owed him money for drugs. That man then enlisted Hines, who wasn’t the gunman, and two others to confront Warren.
Warren-Gibbs was aware of Hines’ release date and all day she thought of her brother. She was jealous Hines would be reunited with his sister, but thrilled he was free. “To me,” she said, “forgiveness is up there with oxygen.”
Hines, meanwhile, thought of the Warrens that day, understanding their enduring grief. “If they need me anytime, I’ll be there for them 100 percent, you know, because they lost a loved one and I’m free,” he said. “Let me take that spot. Let me give back.”
Nearly three weeks later, Hines and Warren-Gibbs sat at a table, sowing the seeds of an unusual friendship.
They talked for more than three hours at Hines’ lawyer’s office. Hines maintained he never urged anyone to shoot Warren, but said he regrets his inaction.
“Had I been wise enough ... I could have stopped it.” Warren-Gibbs told Hines she’d written him several letters over the years, but never felt comfortable enough to send them. “I wish I could have done more to help,” she said.
As talk turned to the future, Warren-Gibbs told Hines she hoped he’d become something of a surrogate brother.
“If you need a brother, you got me,” he replied. “Anytime you need me, call me.”
They exchanged phone numbers, posed for photos and said goodbye, hugging tightly.
“Welcome home,” Warren-Gibbs whispered to him, as a tear rolled down her cheek.
Juvenile lifers get help navigating life on outside
The parole of dozens of former juvenile lifers, set in motion by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, raises a host of questions about how those freed will navigate life on the outside. Some of those involved in the process say not enough is being done to make those transitions work.
Michigan is moving juvenile lifers expected to be paroled to a prison near Detroit so they can be near family and participate in education and training programs. Nearly 80 of the state’s 360 juvenile lifers are there.
Most of the juvenile lifers released so far across the U.S. have been out of prison a year or less. Prison officials in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Louisiana, which together had nearly 1,200 of these inmates, said that, to date, none has been returned to prison for violating parole or committing another crime.
Advocacy groups are researching lifers’ history in preparation for resentencing and putting together plans showing where the inmate will live and work outside prison.
“Prosecutors, judges, everybody wants to know what their re-entry will look like,” said Motoki Taniguchi, coordinator of Project Reentry, a program within the Michigan appellate defender’s office.
Taniguchi’s group of social work graduate students conducts evening seminars on technology and social relationships and has helped some inmates find short-term housing and connect with family.