(L-R): Jesse Reed, Don Cronk, Eddie Ramirez, Philip Seiler and Rich Rael stand in front of San Quentin State Prison in California, where they had been incarcerated for murder. All five were eventually released on parole. (Photo credit: Elisabeth Fall)
When Don Cronk was young, he became addicted to cocaine. The addiction consumed him and he started stealing to pay for his habit.
But one night, a burglary took an unexpected turn. Cronk and his friend broke into a house, only to find the owner still there. The old man pulled out a gun and shot Cronk.
Cronk fired back, immediately killing the home owner. Cronk never intended to hurt anyone that night — he just had an addiction to feed. Still, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
It’s a familiar story: Someone commits a crime, gets caught and is sent to prison. For most people, that’s where the story ends — the bad guy gets put away. But for Cronk and so many others, it’s only the beginning.
Cronk used his time in prison as an opportunity to turn his life around. With the help of various programs — and a new-found faith in God — Cronk overcame his drug addiction. He also confronted his past bad behavior — what he called “the ultimate crime against humanity” — and earned his GED and an associate’s degree. He got a job at the prison chapel, maintained a steady girlfriend, and had a perfect disciplinary record. He never even smoked a cigarette.
“Every criminal is painted as this monster, irredeemable — someone to be terrified of all the time,” Cronk said. “But my experience — and for most of the men I knew in there — is that we realized what we did. We admitted what we did. We accepted the punishment. If you do all of these things, you shall have a light at the end of the tunnel.”
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