On an early October morning in 1990, Ralph Spinelli swung open the back door of a large restaurant as he shoved his other hand into the pocket of his lightweight windbreaker, pretending to hold a gun. He had eaten at the restaurant several times before and knew that the door was unlocked around that time for deliveries — it was his habit to notice the weaknesses of an establishment. The three workers in the restaurant stared at Spinelli in bewilderment as he swept thousands of dollars into a cardboard box with his free hand.
Keeping up with the charade of the gun, he motioned for one of the managers to join him as a hostage. As they stepped outside into the bright, clear day, Spinelli locked eyes with a police officer who happened to be completing paperwork in his car parked just a few feet away. “The cop was as startled as I was,” Spinelli remembers. That day he was taken to Santa Clara County Jail in Sunnyvale and was later sentenced to 17 years and 4 months for robbery.
It wasn’t the first time Spinelli had committed a felony or served time in jail. Robbing came easily to him. Whenever he entered a business, he always observed how the money flowed, and would scour the room for an object that could be used as a weapon. A simple item that most people overlooked, like a broom standing against the wall, could be broken in half in case someone got in his way.
He says it wasn’t until the last decade that he’s been able to walk into an establishment without concocting a robbery plan. But since he was released from prison nearly 15 years ago, Spinelli has been on an unrelenting mission to shed his old habits. At 74, he is now pursuing a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and recently wrote a book called Prison as Punishment about his two prison sentences in Oregon and California. He also teaches a criminal justice class at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga and regularly speaks at Laney Community College in Oakland. Along with teaching, he talks with legislators to motivate them to reform the current prison system.
Spinelli served ten years in prison for his attempted restaurant robbery. Shortly after he was released, he applied to the University of San Francisco and, at the age of 61, earned a degree in organizational behavior, then followed that up with a master’s degree in fine arts from St. Mary’s College. Three years ago, he enrolled at UC Berkeley, where he’s currently working toward his doctorate — all while he cares for his 94-year-old mother.
While Spinelli was in prison, he would often lecture recent arrivals about the importance of education. “School had always been in the back of my mind,” he said. Having changed his own life, Spinelli is now trying to bring about an even more spectacular transformation: reforming the California prison system. “Post-incarceration education is the key to staying out,” Spinelli often says.
In January, Spinelli initiated a pilot program with members of the Contra Costa Superior Court to help people from ages 18 to 23 who have recently been convicted of a felony. His plan is that they will enroll in his intensive criminal justice class at Saint Mary’s College during the winter. “What I’m hoping to do is to introduce them to a culture that they’re completely unfamiliar with — college,” Spinelli says.
The district attorney recently sent him his first student, a 24-year-old woman who had been convicted of a felony, to enroll in classes for a month. Although Spinelli wasn’t able to have her join the class at Saint Mary’s, he said, Laney jumped on board with the initiative. At Laney, he said, the woman wore an ankle bracelet and law enforcement wouldn’t allow her to socialize with other students after class. Despite the setbacks, she applied herself in her studies, he said. While the outcome of the program is still uncertain, if the court will allow it, she will continue at the college instead of being sentenced to prison.
One morning last fall, 30 students in Antonio Watkins’ English class at Laney listened intently to Spinelli as he talked about the time he spent in prison for robbery and armed assault. A thin gold chain glittered under Spinelli’s white and blue checkered shirt as he shifted in his seat at the head of the room. He is a slightly-built man with mottled grey hair that often typecasts him as a “grandfatherly figure,” but the intense gaze behind his black, nearly pupil-less eyes reveals his troubled past.
In this historically impoverished, racially diverse area, it’s not uncommon for students to hear the sound of gunshots near their homes at night, and many have family or friends who have spent time in the prison system. Of all of the classes where he speaks, Spinelli said, this is one of his favorites, because the students have a deeper understanding of the social costs of incarceration than students at the classes he teaches at Saint Mary’s or UC Berkeley.
“I’ll be as candid as I can about my answers, and if I don’t like your questions, I’ll tell you,” Spinelli said in a soft, raspy voice. His bushy black eyebrows climbed up his forehead as he surveyed the room. Students raised their hands to ask questions about Prison as Punishment, which was released last August and describes his two prison terms, which were 20 years apart. Some of the students began their questions by relating it to their sisters’, aunts’ or fathers’ experiences. When the conversation veered to the subject of nurseries in prison, one student casually mentioned that she was born while her mother was serving time.
Although he was released from prison 15 years ago, Spinelli’s language is still peppered with the occasional prison humor and street slang. He flippantly mentioned that toilet paper is used as a form of currency behind bars, like it’s an interesting tidbit that he picked up at a trivia night. When the students lined up at the end of class to get copies of their books signed, Watkins asked, “How much is it for late copies to be signed?”
“A roll of toilet paper,” Spinelli retorted as the students erupted in laughter.
Watkins met Spinelli around 10 years ago in a modernism class at Saint Mary’s, where they were both getting their MFAs. He had read some of Spinelli’s writings in class and was surprised to learn that his elderly, Italian-American classmate had such a “colorful background.” Watkins helped Spinelli edit the first draft of his book and has invited him to speak to his class several times.
Spinelli brings a sense of urgency and intensity with him everywhere he goes, and manages to slip a joke or two in while he’s at it. If the students ask a question that he isn’t able to address, he’ll bring an expert on the topic with him to the next class. “He’s not your typical ‘bounce a grandchild up and down on his knee’ grandfather when it comes to his straightforward attitude,” Watkins says. “He does not have time — not merely because he’s in his mid-70s, but he doesn’t have time to put up with people who are not for real. He’s on a mission.”
By teaching a criminal justice class at Saint Mary’s, doing guest lectures and speaking to politicians about prison reform, Spinelli hopes to spread his message that post-incarceration education is the key to success for a former inmate. He is particularly passionate about how different states handle the aging prison population, and boasted in Watkins’ class that Oregon recently adopted a policy he suggested: That elderly inmates be given a bottom bunk. “The fastest growing segment of convicts are over 50 — and they’re going to be there for a while. Most of them are probably going to die there. They have different psychological and physical needs than 20-year-olds,” Spinelli said. Some of his other proposals include offering preventative medical care, such as prostate cancer screening, and allowing inmates to buy incontinence products.
His mission is also gaining traction in Oregon, where Governor Jordan Kitzhaber has asked Spinelli to join a new committee that addresses the aging prison population. Spinelli will be part of a cohort that manages the transitional period after people are released from prison.
Spinelli’s path to righteousness has been a circuitous one. He said that he was first paid “big money” for committing a felony just three days after his 15th birthday, when his father — whom he describes as a “devout coward” — asked him to complete a job. (He wouldn’t go into the details of the felony). By the time Spinelli was in his mid-20s, he said, his keenness and charm connected him with the Southern California mob. “People don’t say no to me often,” Spinelli says with a hint of pride. Although he had a knack for stealing, he said that in the back of his mind, “I always knew it was wrong.”
By 1969, when Spinelli was 29, he owned three nightclubs and was living on an expansive ranch in Napa with his beautiful wife and stepchildren. He ran a successful strip joint called Crazy Horse Saloon in Fairfield, California, and he said the proceedings from that and his other businesses allowed him to pay off the mortgage on his house and to buy extravagant presents for his wife — a brand new car every two years for her birthday and horses that roamed the multi-acre property.
He said he also stole money from businesses, relying on his old habit the way some people pick up serving shifts when they’re short on cash. But in the winter of 1969, a mob member asked Spinelli to rob the owner of Mary’s Club, a strip club in Oregon. “It was the sleaziest strip joint you’ve ever seen in your life. I mean, it was nasty, but it was the only strip joint in all of Oregon and it was rocking and rolling,” Spinelli says.
When a stripper from the club later alerted the cops, Spinelli was arrested and charged with robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. He served 11 months out of the 10-year sentence at Oregon State Penitentiary, and spent six months taking general education classes at an old frat house on the University of Oregon campus. At the time, Oregon had recently started an experimental education program for inmates, Project NewGate, with the goal of reducing recidivism.
Karl Smith, a counselor at Project NewGate, still remembers the first time that Spinelli, then a dapper and slight young man with jet-black hair, walked into his office in 1972. “I remember talking with him and feeling that he was much more serious than most of the guys,” Smith says. “Prison destroys a lot of who you are purposely, unfortunately, and Ralph wasn’t about to be destroyed.”
The counseling was relatively informal — Smith would play pool with the inmates and chat glibly about their day. Smith became good friends with Spinelli, as he had with many of the other inmates, and rooted for his success. “He was really focused on the education, but he never came out of a world that most people who get out of prison come out of. The way that he grew up, crime was business,” Smith says.
Spinelli would later consider his time at Project NewGateas transformative, but he said that he didn’t fully appreciate its value at the time. “For me it wasn’t an issue of education. It was a way out,” Spinelli says.
After his release, Spinelli remarried, had children and worked as an executive at a high-class hotel in Reno, Nevada, for a few years. During that time, Spinelli kept his old life a secret from his new family. “My kids had no idea about my past,” he says. He opened a restaurant at Lake Tahoe in 1983 and invested $400,000 on the building, but just 90 days later it burned down. His past came back to haunt him when the insurance company refused to pay him for his losses because, he said, he was a convicted felon.
The shift began in 1990, after Spinelli lost a six-year lawsuit to the insurance company and ended up $600,000 in debt. Desperate, he made a plan to steal from a large restaurant, but was caught when one of the managers called the police during the robbery. As he left the establishment with a box filled with thousands of dollars tucked under his arm, an officer doing paperwork in the parking lot received the call about the incident and promptly arrested him. This time, he was sentenced to 17 years and 4 months.
When Spinelli got out in 2000, he vowed to turn his life around for good. He remembered how comfortable he felt on a college campus during Project NewGate, so when his parole officer suggested that he get a job at a carwash, he decided to go to college instead. He says that during the transitional period after incarceration, a college campus is the best place to be, in part because “people don’t ask you questions.” After receiving his B.A. as the valedictorian of his class, he decided to enroll in graduate school to learn how to effectively write his story. For Spinelli’s current dissertation at UC Berkeley, he is investigating how different states are taking care of the aging prison population. He hopes his study will reach beyond academia to be used as a lobbying tool.
Spinelli suggests that part of the parole system in California should also require people to go to school, do an apprenticeship, or learn another marketable skill. (The California parole system currently doesn’t have an education requirement.) He uses his own success story of applying for grants and scholarships as an example for those interested in going to school.
Cynthia Chandler, an attorney who focuses on human rights injustices related to imprisonment, met Spinelli 10 years ago when he called her organization to brainstorm ways to collaborate. She is amazed by his networking ability and notes his recent invitation for her to mentor students on projects at St. Mary’s. “There are not that many people who have figured out how to have an impactful voice after being released from prison,” she said. She adds that his accessible writing style and insider knowledge of the prison system grants him a unique position to initiate reform. “I really believe that if significant social change will happen, it will be because people who are directly impacted by problems come up with solutions,” Chandler said.
Now Spinelli says he is focused on rebuilding his relationship with his family and completing his Ph.D. This January, Spinelli also spoke to an assembly of 200 convicts at Oregon State Penitentiary — some of whom were in prison when he was there over 40 years ago. He championed the importance of reading and writing, so that they could also share their stories and allow their minds to transcend prison. Just as it did for him, Spinelli said, writing could “expand them as human beings and help their thoughts evolve.”