There are approximately 2.2 million incarcerated Americans — and it is estimated that between 2.3-5% of them are innocent. By that estimate, there are as many as 120,000 people in prison who are innocent.
Franky Carrillo was convicted of the 1991 murder of Donald Sarpy. His conviction was then reversed by the Los Angeles County Superior Court on March 14, 2011, after he had served 20 years in prison.
Today, he is married with three children and is planning to run for the California State Assembly. You may have seen his story on the Netflix series The Innocence Files. I sat down with Franky to learn more about his story, common misconceptions about prison, and his most important lessons learned.
A broken system
In January of 1991 a man named Donald Sarpy was tragically murdered during a drive-by shooting. He was a pillar of his community and so law enforcement determined to find out who was responsible — and fast. They didn’t have many leads, but they did know that a group of boys witnessed the shooting. One of those boys picked Franky out of a photo lineup, which was the evidence that was used against him.
Although the boy was just six years old, Franky was arrested. At first he couldn't believe it was happening and thought that the police were simply mistaking him for someone else. He knew that he was innocent. The only reason they even had his picture was that a police officer had taken his photo when he was 14 years old as a part of a larger racial profiling patrol.
After he was convicted Franky says that he was in shock for the first several months. It took him a while to understand that while this was not where he wanted to be, it was where he was. And he knew he needed to do something about it.
One would assume that his faith in the system was quickly dwindling, but Franky says that as surprising as it is for most to hear, it wasn’t. He notes that he had no other choice but to believe that the system could correct itself.
Life in prison
Franky entered prison when he was just 16 years old, and reminds us that not only was he fighting for his freedom, but he was also coming of age behind bars. He was maturing, going to school, and trying to stay in touch with people on the outside (his first son was born two months after he was incarcerated), all while trying to find evidence that he was innocent.
The most difficult part about Franky’s time in prison was that the entire process is designed to shame you. When you’re incarcerated, you’re taken down to the lowest common denominator of a human being. Your name is stripped away and you’re given a number. All of your worldly possessions are taken from you so you have to wear a uniform. You’re isolated from the people you love and trust. It breaks your spirit and can make you want to give up.
At times Franky did feel very low. But what ultimately kept him going was that he felt he had no choice. He was already in prison. He had nowhere else to go. If he gave up, he would still be there — he wouldn’t lose anything. So he had no choice but to continue fighting.
Anger, depression, and anxiety were normal human reactions to what he was going through. Franky says that his natural tendency toward optimism kept him going. Keeping in touch with people on the outside and making friends with people on the inside also helped.
He says that one of the biggest misconceptions about prison is that when people are sent to prison they’re going to acquire more skills to be “worse” than they were before. He affirms that that is just not the case. In those 20 years he never saw a group of men who gathered to exchange ways to be better criminals. On the contrary, there’s a lot of sadness and remorse.
Freedom at last
Franky was finally released thanks to the efforts of the folks at the Innocence Project, a nonprofit with the aim of getting innocent people out of prison. Lawyer Ellen Eggers and the law firm Morrison & Foerster also played a huge role. They did the work that should have been done 20 years prior.
When Franky was finally released, he waited to hear the words that he had been wanting to hear his entire adult life: “Mr. Carillo, you’re free to go.” He says that thinking about it gives him the chills because although they were just words, they were life-changing — just like the words that the little boy who accused him all those years ago were.
The tragedy of the statement, “You’re free to go,” is that Franky didn’t have a home to go back to. His life was taken away and interrupted when he was 16 years old. He says it felt like a rebirth — that he was being reborn into a world where he had nothing.
Franky was taken in by friends in Los Angeles and has since had the time to reflect on his experience. His biggest lesson learned? The importance of being present. The routine and slowness of his life in prison allowed him to be really present with himself. He also learned the importance of having original thoughts and not leaning on cookie-cutter responses to situations — he learned how to be his true self.
Ultimately, he’s grateful for his time in prison because he learned so much about himself. Today he is a member of the board at the Northern California Innocence Project. He wants to make sure that what he went through can be transformed into something positive.