When Gary "Malachi" Scott, then 16, was sentenced to 15 years to life for second-degree murder, there was no Facebook. No iPhones. People still bought much of their music on CDs and got their news from print. There had never been a black president of the United States. The twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City were still standing.
The year was 1998.
On June 6, after spending much of his teens and his entire 20s behind bars, Scott walked through the gates of San Quentin State Prison into a different era. Now he faces the challenge of making a new life in a foreign world.
I had been told about Scott by San Quentin volunteers, who were impressed by his intellect and what he had achieved in prison.
Scott, who was raised by a single mother in South Central Los Angeles, was 15 when he and an older teen robbed and fatally shot a landscaper named Joel Sintora in Inglewood. Scott was sentenced to 15 years to life. He was sent to juvenile hall, then transferred to adult prison at 18.
He got his GED and associate degree behind bars. He became the sports editor of the San Quentin News, a prison newspaper run by inmates. The New York Times published an opinion article by Scott last year in which he argued that teen offenders shouldn't be sent to violent adult prisons. He helped found Kid C.A.T., an inmate group that works to address underlying issues that lead to juvenile incarceration.
A few days after Scott's release, I met with him to see how he was adjusting to freedom. He asked to be paroled to Alameda County, Calif., rather Los Angeles because he didn't want to go back to the same negative influences. Scott said he had been in a gang but had quit in prison.
Scott is a handsome man who looks much younger than his 31 years, wearing a University of California shirt, matching baseball cap and toting a book bag.
He had just finished a mandatory group counseling session in Berkeley that he must attend Monday through Friday as a condition of his parole.
How does it feel to go from prison, where every minute of his existence was controlled by the warden, to standing on a bustling street corner watching cars whiz past and crowds move in all directions?
"It's surreal," Scott said. "The first night I couldn't sleep because I was afraid it was a dream and when I woke up it wouldn't be real."
He is overwhelmed by all of the choices he faces, from what to order in a restaurant to whether to get a driver's license, and how to go about finding a job or perhaps trying to go to college.
"I never had a chance to be an adult," he said. "There's a whole lot I have to learn."
Scott is optimistic about his future. At the same time, life outside prison is daunting. He does not go places alone until someone first shows him the route, because he is afraid of getting lost.
In prison, there were only so many places he could go. To the San Quentin News office. The chow hall. The yard. Back to the cell so small he could touch the opposite walls if he spread his arms — a space he shared with another inmate.
Now he has to learn to find his way in the big city. He said he suffers from "separation anxiety" because he left a lot of friends behind.
As we walked in downtown Berkeley, Calif., Scott's eyes never stopped scanning the street. He waited at each crosswalk for the pedestrian light to change to green, even though everyone else was jaywalking. He is terrified of breaking the law — no matter how minor a transgression — and winding up back in prison.
Besides counseling, Scott must attend drug, alcohol and tobacco testing every Monday. AA meetings twice a week. Acupuncture. Meetings with his parole officer.
I can't help but wonder: If Scott had positive adult role models to counteract the toxic influence of the streets and if he had made better choices, might he be on a different path today? He is a highly intelligent, clearly gifted young man.
Scott has been given a second chance — a rare parole early in what could have been a life sentence.
As an ex-offender with a murder conviction on his record, Scott faces an uphill road.
But for now, he is savoring the bittersweet taste of freedom.