David Padilla spent nearly 20 years turning himself into a model inmate in federal prison. So when Padilla got called to the warden’s office last December, he said, the first thought on his mind was, “Did I do anything wrong?”
Padilla’s leg started shaking. Then, he got the news he was about to be freed.
“Before he could finish, I was crying,” said Padilla, who first sat down with an interview with NPR nearly two years ago. “I had so many dreams of being released from prison, and every time I wake up, I’m in my cell.”
Five days later, from the parking lot of the prison in Fairton, N.J., Padilla’s four children captured the reunion in a cell-phone video. Wife Lisette ran toward her husband, crying, as Padilla clutched a manila envelope and declared, “I’m home, y’all. It’s over.”
That was Christmas week, 2015. In April, Padilla joined his family for good, after nearly four months in a halfway house.
Adjusting to family life
One recent morning, in the living room of their row house in Northeast Philadelphia, the Padillas said they still can’t believe he’s home for real. The couple sits close together on the couch, holding hands.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be home after spending 19 years, one month, 10 days in federal prison,” said Padilla, who served all that time for nonviolent drug offenses. “This doesn’t happen to people like us. You know, we are minorities, and it’s a blessing.”
Padilla is adjusting to life on the outside, amid so many changes, small and big, like this one at the movies.
“The size of the chairs, my goodness, it’s like a recliner,” Padilla said. “When I hit the bottom and reclined back, I was like, yo, man, this is awesome.”
Then, there’s cell phones and apps. Padilla marveled at the technology, but he has trouble wrapping his head around the way people behave now.
“I see no one talking, I mean, I see people just looking down at their phones and, at that time, I didn’t know what they were doing, but what they were doing was texting,” Padilla said of a recent visit to a pancake restaurant. “I mean, this place was full, right Lisette? And you could hear a pin drop in there.”
David has pledged that won’t happen in his home. The family got a bucket, and they put their phones in the container during family time. Family time is something they all cherish. They’re still getting used to seeing their father outside an antiseptic prison visiting room, and getting less private time with their mom.
For his three grown-up kids’ teen years, David was in prison. Son Pablo has just turned 14, leading to some tense moments in the house. David has become the disciplinarian.
“He’s learning that men do certain things in the house,” Padilla said. “Men take the trash out; men do chores around the house. Men do the dishes too. And I’m not just telling him, I’m showing him.”
Getting to work
With the help of a friend and a social services program, Padilla secured a job cleaning tour buses. He’s working the night shift for $11 an hour. During the day, Lisette has a list of projects for her husband to do. It all starts in their kitchen.
“We started a little demolition already,” Padilla said, pointing to a cabinet he removed. They’ve stacked a new microwave, tiles for a back splash, and some other supplies under another counter.
Padilla said he’s turning to YouTube videos for construction tips and leaning on an old friend for support.
That friend is Efrain Rosa, who served alongside Padilla at the Fairton prison for about 10 years. Rosa helped him get a job, and they see each other several times a week, including at a recreation center in a rough part of Philadelphia.
The Waterloo playground here used to be the turf of drug dealers. Needles littered the ground. Men had to wear bio-hazard suits to clean up the lot. Now, Rosa tends it carefully, noticing if anything is out of place. On the day we met, Rosa pumped air into a basketball for some of the neighborhood children, part of a youth mentoring program known as MIMIC, Men in Motion in the Community.
Padilla’s signed up to volunteer there, too. He said he wants to make amends for his role in moving drugs through the community.
“You know, my three charges were drugs, and drugs trickles down all the way to the community,” he said. “This is my way of giving back, telling the kids there’s options, there’s other ways.”
Padilla said he wishes he had those kinds of role models when he was a young man. The expectations were low for him. It wasn’t until prison that he found a job and got a real education.
Back at home, in Northeast Philadelphia, he and Lisette are looking to their shared future. They’re already planning to celebrate a special day next year. Padilla pointed to a large, framed photo on the living-room wall.
“Look how young we look in that picture,” he said. “That’s our wedding picture. That was April 15, 1987. When I see that picture a lot of memories come back. Next year it’s going to be 30 years of marriage, and it’s just the beginning now.”
When they got married, David was 20; Lisette, only 17. The odds were against them, Padilla said.
But he knows he’s beaten the odds more than once.