by Arielle Emmett
As I wrote in my last post, Edwin McMillan spent 21 years in California prisons for crimes of robbery, kidnapping and carjacking which he committed at gunpoint at the age of 19. The kidnapping/carjack incident in Oxnard, CA lasted about 15 minutes. McMillan and his cousin Josh stole a sports car in a local parking lot, ordering its owner, a woman, to drive with them out of town. With Josh at the wheel, the three left Oxnard and the woman was released on the street, unharmed but shaken.
Ed was willing to talk to me about the ordeal. In 1998, as a miserable, angry 19 year old, he was AWOL from the Navy. When he stole the car, he had hoped to drive to Los Angeles to sell it and get enough cash to return to the East Coast. Instead, Josh was picked up first — his Uncle was Chief of Oxnard Police. Josh got off as McMillan’s accessory, serving 15 months in jail. The court sentenced McMillan to 10 years to a maximum of life in prison. It was the first time he had been arrested despite a history of trouble making in high school, and at the time Ed claimed ignorance about the law.
Ed McMillan today. He’s a master welder, construction inspector, and father of a three year old daughter.
Over the next two decades he was shuttled to five different California prisons — Wasco State, Centinela, Chuckawalla Valley, Solano State, and finally, Folsom. He tried to get his sentence reduced. “I couldn’t understand how I got into this situation,” he said. “There was no physical injuries, but there were mental scars, mental trauma that [the victim] experienced.” But because of California law at the time, he was tried as an adult, subjected to blanket convictions for the same crimes multiple times. (California in 2018 changed the law so that 18 and 19 year olds are tried as juveniles. Eventually an attorney was able to convince the court that McMillan had been sentenced unfairly. He was paroled in 2019).
Trials by Fire
In the beginning, though, McMillan was shipped to the highest security “level 4” block at Centinela as a lifer. “That’s where my real life prison education began,” he said. “I had to learn very quickly [about my affiliations with local prison groups]. I was not a gang member. I just told them I’m black and non-affiliated, which puts you in no man’s land. So much violence in level 4 that I never made it to one vocational class.”
McMillan began carrying a knife and sold drugs. He learned to tattoo and cut hair — whatever he could to make extra money for supplies, But eventually he began taking core math, reading comprehension, and then college and vocational courses as a business major. At Chuckawalla he joined the Muslim community, feeling solace, and took enough college courses to earn multiple associate degrees. But he had no family support at the time, he said. The last time McMillan saw his Mom was in a Wasco State reception center. She died shortly thereafter, in 2001, hit by a drunken driver en route to her older son’s wedding.
“I just loved Mom,” McMillan told me. “In the Navy when I was shipped to the Middle East, right after the Gulf War, it was the longest time away from Mom. But when I drove to California that Christmas in 1997 and tried to go to my Mom’s doorstep, my stepfather told her not to let me in. ‘You can’t stay here,’ he told me. Depressed, I barely had any money, and I thought she chose my stepdad over me. I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do now?'”
Between pain pills, vodka and a gun, the rest is history. It may be easy to judge a guy like McMillan as being young and irresponsible until you know something of his backstory. His Mother and Father divorced when Ed was in junior high; an Uncle sexually abused him at age 5, and an alcoholic grandmother beat him repeatedly. He recalled a stepfather on disability who dispatched the teenage McMillan to the liquor store. His mother worked two jobs while acknowledging his stepdad wasn’t perfect, but she needed to provide a father figure to Ed and his two brothers. Ed, in turn, bitterly rejected his stepdad’s arguments and left home, though he did manage to graduate from high school thanks to an athletic coach who sat on him to finish up his school work. One ironic fact: McMillan is the nephew of the famous writer Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got her Groove Back), who admonished him in correspondence to take responsibility for all he had done.
Wanting to change, not knowing how
“We were the poorest part of the family,” Ed acknowledged. “And in prison when I discovered that I had been sexually abused as a child, I started to research [the topic.] When you’re abused, you start to adopt the characteristics of your abuser. So when I was punished arbitrarily, I’d think I’m a piece of crap. I stuck with people who thought you could stick a gun in people’s faces, get money and respect. It was the only feedback I listened to at the time: gang members, dope dealers, people who carried a gun. I was welcome there.”
At Folsom State McMillan’s life began to change. He met Kevin Hill, an inmate who was the lead facilitator for Pace Life Skills, the program emphasizing development of “soft skills” such as listening and following directions, learning to speak effectively, developing personal relationships, and exploring gaps in self-esteem.
“I wanted to change; I didn’t know how,” McMillan told me. “But with Pace it all came together. For example, [we asked] what are the fundamental things you can do to improve your life? What is [the source] of your self-esteem, your self-concept? The facilitators started by asking who you really are. I found that if you don’t have that self-confidence, somebody will substitute theirs for yours. So, I fell in love with Pace. It gave me keys as to why I was failing in some areas of my life. Every time I attended class, I was unlocking doors.”
Within three years of study and peer-to-peer counseling, McMillan graduated to become a PACE facilitator to other prisoners in 2016. After his release in 2019, he got jobs as a construction inspector and master welder. He married, fathered a daughter, and looks back on the past not entirely with regret, but with appreciation for all he’s learned — and all he can still become.