Michael Lucas says introducing himself makes him really anxious.
“When I meet new people, I immediately feel like I’m being judged, like, 'Damn do they know, and if they know, how will they respond?' " he says.
What Lucas is afraid to tell people is that he spent 27 years in prison.
In 2015, Lucas was released after serving part of a life sentence for first-degree murder, shooting a man he recognized from a time he'd been robbed in his neighborhood. A drunken argument escalated into a fatal shooting in West L.A., with Lucas pulling the trigger and killing the man.
Lucas wasn't sure he had a chance at a life after prison. It wasn’t until recently that lifers with the possibility of parole had a reasonable chance of freedom, due to prison reform to ease overcrowding.
Although Lucas was released three years ago, he’s still getting used to life on the outside. For someone who has been locked away longer than some millennials have been alive, the smallest things are fascinating.
He recalls arriving home to Los Angeles after his release and noticing the trees.
"I could just feel the oxygen as I'm breathing. I could just feel the difference compared to the desert I was living in [while incarcerated at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, in the Mojave Desert]. I could smell everything. I could smell the roses, I could smell the gas, I could smell everything."
Of course, when Lucas went to prison in 1988, there were no smartphones.
"You know how you can tell the people that have been to prison?" he asks. "They walk around smiling and observing everything around them. The people that haven't been to prison walk with their head down in their phone. It's a shame."
Lucas went into prison at age 20. When got out, he was 47. But he looks decades younger than his age. He doesn't look like a man who spent most of his life in prison. Maybe because he spent years reading, becoming more spiritual, going to therapy, processing his regret over the murder. Eventually he became a mentor to other lifers.
"When I was in prison for all that time, researching and trying to fix myself, I got my physical, mental and spiritual [sides] all healthy. I felt whole," he says.
At this point, Lucas has spent more time in prison than as a free man. He finds that he's actually most comfortable around other ex-cons.
“In no place can anybody who's broken, cracked, fragile, put themselves back together by themselves,” says Lucas. “We’ve done it together. I’ve got some brothers that I’ve been doing time with and we’ve been growing, learning and teaching each other for 10 to 15 years.”
Lucas hopes to start his own nonprofit transitional housing facility for recently released lifers, run by other former inmates.
“People that haven’t been to prison can’t teach another person how not to go back to prison," he says.
He thinks this kind of housing could help former inmates with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, fostering positive relationships and maintaining personal vision.
He dreams of creating space for former lifers to share their testimonies in a safe, creative space, free from the judgment he feels when talking about his past.
But he knows that even outside the walls of prison, life will still be hard for him and former lifers.
“For people that took the life of another human being, went through whatever cocoon-ish metamorphosis they went through, if they come out really grateful for life and remorseful for the damage they caused, the future is bright, but riddled with painful moments."
This story was produced in collaboration with an advanced reporting class at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Students spent a semester examining what the California Dream means to Angelenos from different walks of life.