Updated at 12:18 p.m. ET on December 30, 2019.

On a sunny November morning in 2018, Kelly Savage rode in a van to the public parking lot of the Central California Women’s Facility, the state prison from which she had just been released. She was clutching her possessions—pictures of her son and daughter, letters from family and friends, $200, and the various knickknacks she had acquired during 23 years of imprisonment. Christy Harper, Savage’s pro bono attorney, and Colby Lenz, a friend and an advocate for the rights of women in prison, had been waiting for her for several hours in the Central Valley sun. “Let’s go!” Savage demanded. She couldn’t help but feel that the prison was about to realize its mistake and take her back in.

In 1998, Kelly and her husband at the time, Mark Savage, were convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Savage’s 3-year-old son (and Mark’s stepson), Justin, after the doctor who conducted the autopsy concluded that he died of blunt-force trauma, with emaciation and dehydration contributing to his death.

At trial, witnesses had testified of abuse—including violence by Mark toward Kelly and Justin, whom the prosecution argued Kelly hadn’t kept safe. Mark and Kelly were both sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. (The couple has since divorced. Mark didn’t respond to a request for comment mailed to the prison where he is incarcerated.) But more than a decade later, amid a broad reconsideration of the criminalization of survivors of abuse, Savage asked for her sentence to be commuted. She argued, in part, that Mark alone had killed her son and that expert testimony wasn’t presented that could explain how the abuse she experienced had made it difficult for her to leave Mark and protect Justin. In December 2017, then Governor Jerry Brown commuted her sentence, which allowed her to ask the parole board for release. Now, at the age of 46, she was out on parole.  

Just outside of the prison grounds, Savage and her friends stopped to conduct a small roadside service to honor Justin, for whom she hadn’t performed a proper memorial. Dressed in a white top and gray sweats, Savage held a moment of prayer and released three balloons, one for each year of her son’s life. She wanted her friends inside to see that she was free and honoring Justin in the way she had always dreamed of. Then Savage’s friends drove her to meet some of her relatives for breakfast at a small country diner. Noticeably absent was her and Mark’s 26-year-old daughter, who was four at the time of Savage’s conviction. After her parents had been imprisoned, Savage’s daughter had gone to live with Mark’s mother and stepfather. Savage had a strained relationship with her. She hoped to rebuild it now that she was out. But her daughter wasn’t there.

Others had shown up, however, including her stepmother, her older brother, Patrick, and a younger half sister, Angel. Savage hugged Patrick, joked around with Angel, and danced with her stepmother in the restaurant bathroom. “I’m trying to be normal now,” she said.

The family reunion was brief. A few days before Savage’s release from prison, officials had given her papers entitled “Guidelines for Parole.” According to the guidelines, Savage was required to report to her parole officer within one working day of her release. The parole board also mandated 12 months of transitional housing, which Savage was set to begin at a residential substance-use-disorder treatment program on San Francisco’s Treasure Island; she had to arrive there promptly.* Reluctantly, after the breakfast gathering and a trip to Walmart, Savage said goodbye to the assembled family members. With Lenz, she began the six-hour drive to her new home, where she would soon find herself dropped into a life outside of prison that, with all its restrictions, sometimes wouldn’t feel all that different from life inside.  

The enormous and well-documented scale of mass incarceration in the United States has recently influenced criminal-justice reformers on both the left and the right to pursue a correction. The U.S. is home to about 4 percent of the world’s population but nearly 20 percent of its prisoners. After peaking in 2009, the prison population fell to about 1.5 million by 2016, in part through new state laws allowing people to be released earlier than planned. This has coincided with a decline in people on probation—who are supervised in their communities instead of incarcerated—also partly because of state reforms.

At the same time, however, the number of people on parole—a period of supervision after imprisonment—has continued a decades-long increase, rising to nearly 875,000 in 2016. Because the vast majority of people sent to state prisons are eventually released on parole, the decarceration movement has, ironically, contributed to the rise in mass supervision of parolees. Awareness of the mass-supervision crisis has been gathering for the past couple of years, aided by a social-media awareness campaign after the hip-hop artist Meek Mill was sent back to prison in 2017 for minor probation violations. Still, in discussions of criminal-justice reform, parole has generally been something of an afterthought.

Parole, established in America in 1877, aims to reduce prison populations, but it is widely seen as having failed in that mission. While on parole, individuals must report to a parole officer and follow a list of often-onerous conditions or risk being sent back to prison. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that nearly 30 percent of people admitted to state and federal prisons in 2017 were sent there for violating community-supervision programs such as parole and probation. The BJS doesn’t break down the number of people returned to prison for “technical violations”—in which people fail to adhere to their conditions—as opposed to committing new offenses. (Both are considered community-supervision violations.) But a recent study by the Council of State Governments found that technical violations account for 56 percent of all occasions in which people on parole or probation go to state prison.

Community-corrections officials acknowledged the failure in a 2018 report for Columbia University’s Justice Lab, which called for halving the number of people on parole and probation. While this population added about twice as many new people as the prison population from 1983 to 2008, one study of eight states found that nearly 90 percent of new correctional funding during that period went to prisons rather than to community supervision. According to the report, a lack of adequate resources had stretched the caseloads of parole agents and probation officers. “Charged with assuring public safety in a political environment with low risk tolerance,” the authors wrote, “community corrections personnel have too often resorted to probation and parole revocations and incarceration.”

Several states, including California, have experimented with parole reforms. Ordered by the Supreme Court to reduce prison populations in Brown v. Plata, California in 2011 enacted a series of reforms that drastically reduced the parole population by sending nonviolent, non-serious offenders to be supervised by county probation departments after being released from prison. Under this system, these individuals cannot be sent to state prison for technical violations of the terms of their supervision. None of this applies to Kelly Savage, however, since she was convicted of murder. And while one major goal of the California reforms was to lower the rate at which people released from prison eventually return, a recent California state auditor’s report deemed the state’s three-year reconviction rate, which has hovered around 50 percent over the past decade, “stubbornly high.”

Treasure Island, with its sweeping views of San Francisco, was built to celebrate the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1939. Soon after, it became a World War II outpost for the U.S. Navy. By 1997, it was largely abandoned, dotted by vacant military barracks, boarded-up buildings, and toxic waste left behind by the Navy. That year, the City of San Francisco took control of the island. In the years that followed, people who, for myriad reasons, were cast away from the mainland—the poor, homeless, and formerly incarcerated—relocated there.

On her first night at Treasure Island’s Female Offender Treatment and Employment Program (FOTEP), Savage was put in a room with one other woman on parole; in prison, she had shared a cell with seven others. Eventually, she moved into a two-bedroom apartment with two other women. She marveled at her surroundings. It was modest—two twin beds in each bedroom, a small dining table, a couch, a refrigerator, and a microwave—but it was hers. For the first few nights, she barely slept, both marveling at her good fortune and feeling guilty about her loved ones, including a partner of more than fifteen years, whom she had left behind in prison. She also wondered if all this would be taken away from her: “Good things normally didn’t happen,” she told me. Still, as she settled into her new home, Savage was cautiously optimistic about building a new, free life for herself.  

In prison, Savage could never fully grieve the loss of Justin. To cope with the pain she endured, she launched into an intense self-improvement project, despite the fact that she had little hope of release from prison. She took correspondence courses to earn an associate’s degree from Coastline College in Orange County. She also took classes on domestic violence, trying to unpack a lifetime of the sexual and physical abuse she had experienced at the hands of trusted family members, including Mark, and then led domestic-violence trainings to help other women. As a woman who had been imprisoned following accusations that she had not stopped the man who battered her and her child from hurting the child, she was not alone.

Jacob Myrick

She couldn’t fully escape thoughts of Justin’s loss, of course—on the anniversary of his death or on his birthday she would sit alone with his photos—but she seldom spoke to anyone about her feelings, fearful that she would be judged. The few friends in whom she confided, she said, discouraged her from thinking about Justin. “‘Why do you torture yourself that way?’” Savage recalled them asking. She fantasized about having space to grieve outside of the confines of prison.

On Savage’s second morning out of prison, Lenz drove her to her first meeting with her parole officer, Eddy Yee, at an office on San Francisco’s Mission Street. Sitting behind a desk in an office, according to Savage, Yee walked her through the conditions of supervision laid out in the guidelines she had been given. (Yee referred a request for comment to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. A spokesman for the department, Luis Patiño, declined to comment on almost all the details of the meeting, citing privacy laws, but noted that a parolee’s first meeting with her parole officer generally includes a rundown of those conditions.)

The third sentence of the parole papers read, “Your return home from State prison will give you a lot of freedom”; it was followed by eight pages of rules and restrictions. They included being subject at any time to random, warrantless searches of herself or her property by any law-enforcement agent. She had to remain in transitional housing all year. She could not go more than 50 miles from home without Yee’s approval, and she could not leave San Francisco County for more than 48 hours without a travel pass from Yee, which she had to carry with her at all times. She had to notify her parole officer of certain contact with law enforcement. She could not vote. She had to take anger-management and parenting classes. She could not date anyone who had physical custody of a child under the age of 7 without Yee’s permission. She also needed Yee’s approval before she could be around any child under 7 years old unsupervised.

And then there were the prohibitions affecting her family relationships. She could not associate with any member of Justin’s immediate family—which she interpreted as including her own siblings and her daughter—without prior approval from Yee. The travel restrictions meant she could not leave San Francisco to visit Southern California, where many of her relatives lived, without Yee’s authorization. Strikingly, she was forbidden to carry a picture of Justin, or have any of his belongings, without Yee’s permission. (Patiño said that certain parole conditions “are designed to keep a parolee from getting into the same type of situation that led to their past criminality” and that “knowing the true location of a parolee’s residence and how they spend their time are crucial to … helping to keep parolees from re-offending.”)

While inside prison, Savage had kept numerous pictures of her son closely guarded in a photo album. When she learned of the restrictions regarding her family and Justin’s belongings, she said, she was overcome with “absolute panic.”

The rise in parole, over the past several decades, has coincided with an expansion in the number of restrictions on people on parole. According to a 2010 study, there were an average of 19 conditions imposed per U.S. parole jurisdiction in 2008, up from an average of 12 in 1996. As states emphasized public safety and societal integration, the prevalence of six particular parole conditions increased, requiring that people on parole maintain employment; pay fees and restitution; submit to drug or medical tests; report when they have been arrested or questioned by law enforcement; obey the instructions of the supervising parole agent; and submit to visits to their work or warrantless searches of their home by parole officers.  

States typically have standard rules for parolees, though they often impose other parole conditions based on an individual’s crime. That means parole conditions can end up being one size fits all rather than tailored to each parolee’s unique circumstances, James Binnall, an associate professor of law and criminology at California State University, Long Beach, told me. For example, a drug conviction frequently triggers required participation in drug counseling and testing, even for someone who does not have a history of drug use. That kind of condition would do “little to protect the public,” Binnall said, “because there is no risk or need that would necessitate that condition.” Yet if that parolee cannot afford counseling or otherwise fails to attend, he could end up with a parole violation, potentially leading to reincarceration.

According to Yale Law School professor Fiona Doherty, “Parole officers have tremendous power when deciding how to deal with a parolee, and there is very little oversight of those decisions.” Such decisions are often shaped by implicit racial or gender biases, Binnall said. In California, if parole officers recommend that a lifer’s parole be revoked, the parolee can be sent back before the board for a short hearing, potentially landing him back behind bars.

Advocates for women in the criminal-justice system argue that parole conditions, created for a population that is overwhelmingly male, can be insensitive to the particular needs of women. Since 1990, the female prison population has dramatically increased. In turn, the number of women on parole has roughly tripled, to 114,000, outpacing the rate of increase for men. Given that women now represent 13 percent of the total parole population, they are too often overlooked. Numerous reports have documented the importance of familial support for people coming home from prison, especially for women. Yet when women return home, parole conditions frequently isolate them from their families or force them to juggle familial relationships and parole priorities. While women on parole often have greater child-care obligations than men, they are regularly required to attend programs or meetings at which child care isn’t provided.

Under California law, parole conditions must be related to the individual’s criminal conduct or future dangerousness, but some of the conditions imposed on Savage seemed absurd to her. During her parole hearing, the parole board acknowledged that Savage’s behavior was the result of the abuse she had endured in her marriage and in other parts of her life, and that she did not pose a threat to the public—but her parole conditions imposed restrictions on her interactions with children. Her family had written letters of support for her release—but her parole conditions, as she understood them, said she couldn’t be in touch with them if Yee didn’t first approve.

Megan Welsh, an associate professor of criminal justice and public administration at San Diego State University, calls the efforts women have to make to rebuild their families while on probation or parole “invisible work”: “The typical woman getting out of incarceration will have to worry not only about housing and work but also reuniting with family,” she said, which makes “reentry so much more than a full-time job.”

This was particularly true for Savage. During her decades in prison, Savage had struggled to maintain a relationship with her daughter. Occasionally, the two had exchanged letters. Now, Savage wanted a closer relationship—but, if she couldn’t contact her own daughter, how could she even begin?

According to Savage’s recollection of her meeting with Yee, she raised concerns about the prohibitions against keeping mementos of her son and contacting members of his family. Savage had expected Yee to give her a hard time, given what she had experienced with parole officers who had supervised her family members who were on parole when she was a child in the 1970s and ’80s. As she recalled it, officers often kicked down doors, harassed her extended family, and searched places for no other reason than they could. But to her surprise, Yee agreed with her. He said she could keep her son’s pictures and belongings and connect with relatives if they gave her permission. “Clearly they wanted to see you if they drove out there to see you,” he acknowledged, referring to her family’s visit on the morning of her release. The concessions were meaningful. She felt lucky to have a parole agent who was flexible.

Soon after that, however, back at FOTEP, Savage learned about an additional set of rules—on top of her parole conditions—that would come to influence every aspect of her life. FOTEP is designed as a “trauma-informed program,” geared toward women with histories of trauma; staff members are trained to keep residents “physically and emotionally safe.” But the program came with its own restrictions. Over the course of a four-week orientation, held in a large living room that often doubled as a classroom, scattered with chairs, couches, and a whiteboard, Savage recalled, FOTEP staffers rattled off various things that residents were not allowed to do. (HealthRIGHT 360, an agency that the GEO Group, a private prison operator, subcontracts to operate the program, declined to comment on Savage’s experiences at its program, citing privacy laws. )

According to Erin Kerrison, an assistant professor of social welfare at UC Berkeley who studies transitional homes for formerly incarcerated women, such facilities often monitor how residents spend their money. During Savage’s time at FOTEP, if residents chose to open a bank account, they were required to give their ATM card to FOTEP staff for safekeeping. In addition, residents had to save 75 percent of the income they earned while in the program.

Residents’ movements were also tightly restricted. During the first few weeks, program residents could not leave the premises without a “buddy”—another resident assigned to accompany them—nor could they work. While in the program, residents could not drive a car (unless, according to Lauren Kahn, a spokeswoman for HealthRIGHT 360, it was mandated for work). They also could not leave the residential facility without a “pass”—an authorization by program officials to go offsite—even to find and keep a job. According to program rules, a pass had to describe every person and every place a resident would see, including the addresses. In addition, residents could not speak to individuals outside of the program unless they were on a pass or received prior authorization. “I’m grateful to be out,” Savage said, “but sometimes it feels like I’m still in prison.”   

As the program got under way, Savage said, she was required to participate in more than 30 hours of programming per week, covering topics including anger management, parenting, strengthening families, tackling tough issues, and forming healthy relationships. According to Savage, she did not learn functional skills, such as how to look for a job, type, use a computer, or find an apartment. (Kahn said residents could receive those services from organizations that partner with the program.) “It’s all bad,” Savage said of the classes.

While Savage’s participation in FOTEP was a condition of her parole, she worried that it would cause her to violate other conditions. For example, her parole conditions specified that she couldn’t be left unsupervised with children under the age of 7 if she didn’t have Yee’s approval beforehand, but several of the residents had small children living with them. (FOTEP, unlike many residential programs for parolees, allows mothers to bring their children.) Instead of offering formal day care, the program relied on residents to provide child care for one another, with support from parenting staff. Fellow residents often asked Savage to watch their kids. (She declined.)   

She also questioned FOTEP’s programming choices. On a cold December morning, Savage recalled, twelve women assembled in the FOTEP living room for a session on healthy relationships, meant to help women maintain relationship boundaries. The counselor instructed the women to get into groups, and, on a whiteboard, drew a diagram with dashes underneath. This was a game called “Healthy Relationship Hangman,” in which a group would pick a word and teammates were given opportunities to present letters. If they got it wrong, a new body part was added to the board, until the puzzle was solved or the stick figure was dead, whichever came first, Savage told me.

Drawing on her experience in domestic-violence training while in prison, she said to the counselor the next day, “You do realize you’re murdering someone in a ‘Healthy Relationship Hangman.’” She recalled the counselor answering, “Oh my God, I never thought about that.” As Savage recalled it, the counselor soon shelved the game. (HealthRIGHT 360 didn’t respond to requests to make the counselor available for comment. It also declined to comment on this incident, citing privacy laws. Kahn said the game is not in the class’s curriculum, and counselors who don’t abide by the curriculum are advised during supervision.)

Savage felt trapped on the sparsely populated island. Leaving required a pass. If Savage violated certain rules, for example, by going to a location not listed on a pass or by staying out longer than authorized, the staff could punish her by suspending visitation rights (though Kahn said this is rare). Then there were parole’s travel restrictions, which made it difficult for her to visit family outside of the county, including a terminally ill uncle who died shortly after her imprisonment ended.

HealthRIGHT 360 confirmed the rules described by Savage. Wayne Garcia, the vice president of criminal-justice programs at HealthRIGHT 360, said the passes are necessary because “not everyone that comes out into our program makes the right decisions, so this is just another insurance measure.” Two women who have participated in the program said they generally had positive experiences.

Savage had been concerned about her employment prospects, as a nearly middle-aged woman who had only ever been employed by the Central California Women’s Facility. A recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative noted that formerly incarcerated women, particularly those who are black, have higher rates of unemployment than formerly incarcerated men. They experience discrimination and often lack training for or interest in fields that traditionally hire formerly incarcerated people, such as trucking or construction. Savage planned to volunteer at domestic-violence agencies until she got enough experience to apply for a job.

In January 2019, she received a call from Lenz, who asked if Savage would be interested in a job at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, where Lenz volunteers. While in prison, Savage had participated in some of the coalition’s advocacy; her job would entail campaigning against life-without-parole sentences in California. But Dana Cheatum, her FOTEP counselor, told her she could not start until February due to work restrictions imposed during the program’s first 14 weeks. (Cheatum declined to comment on anything related to Savage, citing privacy laws. Kahn said FOTEP residents are now allowed to start looking for a job after their fourth week in the program, instead of their 14th week.) Savage forced herself to stay quiet about FOTEP’s decisions and rules that she found unfair, worried that she was at risk of not being allowed to start work until even later if she got into trouble. “I had to fight my ass off to keep my mouth shut,” she said. (Kahn said FOTEP maintains “multiple channels for communication for clients to make reports to management or administrative staff free from retaliation.”)

It seemed like Treasure Island was as far as Savage’s freedom extended. During free time, Savage and fellow residents often went to a smoking spot that overlooked the city of San Francisco. “You can see the city; you just can’t be in the city,” she said.  

Advocates for criminal-justice reform argue that while people on parole are not behind bars, parole resembles prisons in significant ways. In most states, being on parole means that individuals are deprived of constitutional protections such as the right to vote, associate, and be free from unreasonable searches of their homes and bodies. In Alaska, some parolees may not enter into a contract or use a checking account.

It is often said that incarceration, which disproportionately affects those who are poor and black, has served as a modern version of slavery. Susan Burton, an advocate for criminal-justice reform and the founder and president of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, extended this argument to parole. People on parole, like those who were enslaved, are unable to make basic choices about how to live their lives: where they travel or live, who they spend time with, and, in some cases, where they work. “Officers are overseers,” she said. “That’s what they are. They’re overseers of poor people.”

Savage found that the unresolved feelings she had suppressed for decades were constantly emerging. The FOTEP environment was chaotic, with residents “threatening each other” and “cussing each other out,” she said, which often triggered memories of her abusive childhood. (Kahn contested this description of the program. Savage said the environment improved after she raised her concerns with a FOTEP official.) Meanwhile, her attempts to rebuild a relationship with her daughter had stalled. After Yee told her she could be in touch with her son’s family members as long as she got permission, she said, she received consent from nearly all of them—but not from her daughter.  

Savage had no outlet for the emotional upheaval she was experiencing. Lenz lived in Los Angeles, and Savage had few close friends in the Bay Area. She did not feel comfortable talking to her parole officer about her challenges. She said Yee referred her to a counselor, but she worried that anything she said in therapy would be reported back to him. “It could be used against me,” she recalled thinking. (According to Patiño, the counselors “are bound by the same privacy mandates that are required by the clinical counselors’ licensure.” A counselor would be allowed to “confirm participant enrollment, attendance, and completion.”) She went to a counselor three times but refused to continue beyond that.

In February 2019, Savage left the FOTEP facility for a surgery. Afterward, while she was in recovery and still heavily sedated, Yee and another parole agent came to her room to check on her, as authorized by the terms of her parole. According to Savage, they were polite, but, in bed and dressed only in a gown, she felt vulnerable. “It was a mess,” she said. “It was a mess.” (Patiño said that Yee and another agent visited Savage during this time to verify a temporary residence change. He declined to comment further, citing a privacy law.)

Researchers estimate that nearly 80 percent of women in the criminal-justice system have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse, which is often directly tied to their incarceration, with some women taking drugs to cope with the trauma of violence or using force in self-defense against their abusers. According to an official at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, gender-responsive parole agents, whose caseload includes only women, receive four hours of training in how trauma impacts women on parole and how to effectively communicate with them. The agents or administrators who teach the others receive three days of training.

Despite this, public defenders told me they believe too few agents are prepared to identify or address the complex trauma that women like Savage often have experienced. They argued that parole officers frequently do not understand the impact of women’s mental illness on their ability to adhere to conditions of release, or why women who have experienced abuse may not respond positively to coercive forms of supervision. “For women, PTSD”—post-traumatic stress disorder—“is huge,” said Kerry Golub, a Los Angeles County public defender who represents people on parole. “You would think [the parole officers] would have some basic understanding of PTSD. They don’t.”  

In March, not long after Savage got permission to start working at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, I arranged to meet her at her office in Oakland. Savage, a stout woman with short brown hair and a dimpled smile, waved me in as I approached her office, which she shares with a colleague, Hafsah Al-Amin. By the time I arrived, at 9:30 a.m., Savage had already been there for a couple of hours. Up to five days a week, she boards an early bus from Treasure Island to San Francisco, then takes a train to Oakland. Although the trip takes an hour or more each way, she was grateful to be working. Savage’s desk was cluttered with “Drop LWOP” (life without parole) campaign flyers and letters from domestic-violence survivors still on the inside. Savage and Al-Amin told me about the meetings they were planning as part of their campaign to end life-without-parole sentences in California.    

Al-Amin told me she marvels at how much Savage had begun accomplishing, in spite of the constraints she faced. Once, the coalition had asked Savage to speak at a conference in New York about the criminalization of domestic-violence survivors. Savage asked Yee if she could go, but he said she couldn’t due to travel restrictions as part of her parole.   

Later that month, Savage’s family drove up from Southern California. Angel, a 911 operator in Fontana, California, told me the family had not been able to see Savage since that first morning at the diner, because of the cost of travel and all the restrictions Savage faced. This time, they pooled their money for gas and searched for hotel discounts.   

Even with all of that advanced planning, it was not clear to Savage whether her request for a 36-hour pass to see her family had been approved until the last minute. With all of the confusion, Angel was scared she would not see her sister at all. “I think I was literally driving up there on the night before,” Angel recalled, “and I’m asking, ‘Are you sure this is going to happen?’” Savage had to admit she had no idea. Given that she works in law enforcement, Angel had mixed feelings about the restrictions parole imposed on her sister. “I do feel that there should be a limitation to a certain point, but not necessarily in every situation,” she said.

Eventually, Savage’s pass was approved. Angel picked her up at 8 a.m. and had to have her back at the facility within 36 hours. The family went to the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf, ate two meals at Denny’s, and took pictures, trying to “absorb every minute we could,” said Angel. It was Savage’s first time seeing Angel’s daughter since she was a baby; her niece had been told that Savage had been “in a castle” when she was growing up. Returning home, Savage felt like Cinderella, racing back to the program before her 36 hours expired.

On one cold, rainy April morning soon afterward, I brought Savage some chocolate-walnut pie from a local Oakland bakery to her office.

“This reminds me of my mother,” Savage said, after taking her first bite.

“Did your mother bake?” I asked.

“Oh, no. She robbed banks,” she recalled. “We’d ask for a dollar, and she’d give us five. So we had so much junk that somehow, psychologically, this reminded me of her.”

Savage’s mother was addicted to drugs and absent for most of Savage’s life, cycling in and out of prison. At one point, they served three years at the same prison; after her mother was released, she died of an overdose. Although Savage said she had maintained a nearly spotless record on the inside and had been adhering to the strict rules of parole, some of her family members worried that she would end up back in prison like her mother.

Savage knew getting through this year would be tough. Increasingly, her experience reminded her of her abusive relationship with Mark: the way she never knew if she would have peace or chaos at home, the way he would control her movements and her money, the steps he took to monitor who she spoke to, and how he isolated her from those she cared about.

In May, Savage said, she graduated from FOTEP. She moved to a sober-living home, paying $300 in monthly rent. It had fewer regulations than FOTEP. She could manage her own money, didn’t have to obtain a pass to leave the facility, and didn’t have to “program” all week, she said.

When we spoke over the summer, Savage was still struggling to come to terms with the loss of her son. Once, she visited the Exploratorium, a museum with kid-friendly exhibits in San Francisco, and while she was there, a niece sent her a photo of Mark and Justin. “I just lost it,” she confessed. Lenz thought that, considering the circumstances, Savage was doing pretty well, but wondered if she could ever fully heal while still on parole: “When does Kelly get to grieve her son in a context in which she’s not being controlled?”


* This story has been updated to clarify that the Female Offender Treatment and Employment Program is a residential substance-use-disorder treatment program.