Most inmates deserve a chance to get out of prison. One of the purposes of the criminal justice system is reform, after all. It is my opinion that if you committed a nonviolent crime and/or if you show true remorse for your actions, you should receive a chance at parole. Violent crimes committed against women and children are a different story, but for the most part, I believe in second chances.
The California criminal justice system is not giving Damon Cooke a second chance, but Damon Cooke is a man who deserves a second chance. After 28 years of trouble-free incarceration, you would think an inmate would receive parole. However, he has received nothing but denial after denial for years.
Who Is Damon Cooke?
In February 1991, Damon Cooke was a financial consultant living in Los Angeles with no prior criminal record. After several friends visited his residence, Cooke discovered that a necklace and 10,000 cash were missing from his personal belongings. He assumed that his friend named Padraic Ryan stole the items.
Cooke drove to Berkeley, California in the San Francisco Bay Area to confront Ryan, who denied the theft. Cooke took a gun from his cousin and without much proof regarding who stole the cash and jewelry shot Ryan in the head. Although suffering from a fractured cheekbone, Ryan played dead until Cooke left and phoned the police.
After the attempted murder, the courts sentenced Cooke 11 years to life in prison. He has served over 27 years at San Quentin. Several months ago, he was transferred to Solano State Prison in Vacaville, Ca for an alleged disciplinary infraction. Within three days of Cooke’s arrival, senior staff members at Solano realized the charges related to his transfer did not make sense and refused to enforce any of their sanctions. After making calls and investigating Cooke’s history while incarcerated they realized that he completely turned his life around.
Cooke teaches computer science fundamentals and coding basics to his fellow inmates. He hosts a radio show and podcast from prison called Uncuffed. But since Cooke has been in prison, the California court system has repeatedly denied him parole due to “infractions” and “lack of marketable skills.” This reasoning could not be further from the truth.
The Case for Damon Cooke
Damon Cooke is no longer a violent criminal. He offended once and the victim lived. Damon has been a victim of theft during his stint in prison. He pardoned the desperate and newly incarcerated inmate for what is considered a major violation of inmate rules. In fact Cooke, gave the inmate the items he attempted to steal and mentored him on prison etiquette while in San Quentin.
He has reformed his behavior and performed good deeds for his fellow inmates, sharing valuable stories and experiences from the inside. But while murderers and rapists receive parole privileges, the parole board has denied Cooke a second chance over and over.
Throughout his 28 years in prison, Cooke has:
- Worked as a clerk and a teacher’s aide
- Organized a festival for the children of his fellow inmates
- Taught anger management and denial management courses
- Served as President of the Toastmasters’ Delta Breeze Chapter
- Engaged in conflict de-escalation between inmates
- Started his own radio show
- Designed educational programs for his fellow inmates
- Received job offers from Fortune 500 companies pending his release
- Created a youth offender program
- Edited the newspaper Solano Vision News
- Earned his paralegal certification
Cooke has also instructed victims of violent crimes in writing their victim impact statements. He is an advocate for the Enneagram personality test, which local training programs use to aid inmates in self-compassion, awareness, and regulation. He is a poet, an author, and an all-around productive member of prison society.
Cooke has advocates inside and outside of the prison system. Famous individuals such as MC Hammer and the Golden State Warriors basketball team have visited Cooke in San Quentin.
“Every year, I bring the players to San Quentin… I was incredibly impressed with one of the prisoners in particular. Damon is a great inspiration to us all,” Golden State Warriors General Manager Bob Myers said. “He brings a level of life understanding to our players that creates thought and depth beyond his years.”
Cooke has also become a mentor to San Francisco 49ers linebacker Pita Taumoepenu.
It is obvious that Cooke will thrive in the outside world. He gives back not only to his fellow inmates, but also to his local community. Cooke helps teach valuable life skills and management techniques, helping others start a better life on the other side. So why is he still in prison?
Despite these accomplishments, the board continues to deny Cooke a chance at parole. Their reasoning includes the cruel and callous nature of the crime, the lack of a “marketable skill,” and two minor disciplinary infractions from his first 18 months in prison which were subsequently dismissed.
Where Is Damon Cooke Now?
In 2010, the United States Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that there is no reason to conclude that Damon Cooke is a danger to the public or would be unable to find a job. The ruling stated that the board should have no reason to keep Cooke in prison. In addition, the Court determined that one of Cooke’s infractions was minor and the other was unfounded.
But eight years later, Damon Cooke is still in prison. And he deserves freedom, a fact that even federal courts agree with, along with the half-dozen prison guards who submitted statements supporting his parole. Cooke has strong advocates throughout the prison system, including Brant Choate, the Director of Rehabilitative Programs for the California Department of Corrections.
Cooke has remained trouble-free in prison for years. He clearly understands that his actions – nearly 30 years ago – were wrong. He not only gives back to his fellow inmates, but cares about benefiting the local community.
Almost a decade after the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that he deserved release, Cooke remains behind bars. He remains optimistic about potential release, but hope is fading fast.
“Though the haunting memory of my past events will always remain in the psyche of those who incarcerated me, yet I continue to work daily on changing the perception of this myth, by allowing my true feelings to emerge,” Cooke stated in a 2017 essay. “My faith in the goodness of the human heart will never be broken, even in the face of despair I am determined to bring honor to my family.”
Currently, Damon Cooke is in the midst of trying to get a pardon from the Governor of California. As of now, his pleas have gone unnoticed – but the right amount of exposure can change this.
The Division of Adult Parole Operations makes it hard to deny the accusations that they accept payoffs to keep prison politics afloat. When inmates like Damon gain respect within the prison system, they become valuable to the prison for maintaining peace among inmates. When inmates like Damon encourage others to participate in educational programs, outside vendors reap the rewards.
I’ve received letters from inmates who believe vendors pay parole board members to deny parole to the most reformed, most remorseful inmates. The system has denied Cooke’s parole in the past by claiming he needs Anger Management. Cooke has not only taken Anger Management courses over his nearly 30 years in prison but has facilitated them as well. It is decisions like these that make suspicions of the parole board’s unsavory motives hard to deny.
I call upon the Governor of California to grant Damon Cooke the second chance he obviously deserves – and I call upon you to do the same.
Contact me today to hear my perspective on this case and other issues affecting prisoners across the country.
Photo: Golden State Warriors General Manager Bob Meyers and Damon Cooke
Photo: Damon holding a seminar to San Francisco 49ers rookies