From the Podcast: Dan Sanfellipo: The Harrowing Story of Trauma, Addiction and the Consequences of Over half His Life in Prison
Dan Sanfellipo started his incarceration journey when he was 13 years old. Dan is now 46 years old and has served just less than half of it — 22 ½ years — in prison. His story of struggling through addiction, trauma, prison, and eventually finding sobriety is inspiring. You can listen to Dan’s episode in its entirety here.
Dan was born in an affluent neighborhood in Northern California, then moved to a lower-middle class neighborhood in San Diego as a young child. His father was a workaholic who made and lost millions throughout his career. His mother became a Jehovah’s Witness when Dan was 5. Dan’s father was an atheist and actively did not agree with Dan’s mother becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, “I would watch him ridicule her in front of his friends, make fun of her, and she would just take it,” he recalls.
Dan has very limited memories of being a child prior to being abused when he was 9 years old by his mother’s step-brother. While his parents were traveling out of the country for two weeks, Dan’s grandfather and his 28 year old step-uncle stayed with him and his three siblings. During those two weeks Dan was “sexually abused by the stepbrother,” Dan reveals. His step-uncle threatened Dan with physical violence if he told anyone about the abuse. “I was told specifically don’t say anything, or my sisters would be harmed, my parents would be harmed.”
When Dan’s parents arrived home, he didn’t tell them what happened and spent a lot of time away from home. “I could not tell anybody anything,” describes Dan. “I ran to be away from my father because he wasn’t there to protect me, so I hated him.”
Dan couldn’t bear the pain he was feeling. “It was almost like I downloaded exactly what I was supposed to not do and did everything to make sure that they felt pain for what I went through.”
Dan started hanging out with biker gangs and convicts, and they became his surrogate family. At 10 years old Dan was going to parties, drinking Jack Daniels and taking methamphetamine. Dan recalls guys with knives and guns chopping up white lines on a mirror, “they’re like, you want to try this? So, I did. And I was up for 14 days.” Jack Daniels and methamphetamine became his formula to forget his abuse. “Slowly but surely [I] buried that experience to the point where I didn’t even remember it, it was gone,” says Dan.
Juvenile Hall to Prison
At age 11 Dan was sent to juvenile hall for grand theft auto. By age 13, Dan had been in juvenile hall seven times, and then was sentenced to the California youth authority. At 13 years old, Dan was charged with two counts of accessory to attempted murder and robbery. He was sentenced to 8 years of incarceration, from age 13 to 21. “If you’re a kid in there, you’re in there with a lot of murderers and lifers that are going to do life,” Dan says.
At one point, Dan recalls sitting out front of the administrative center picking up cigarette butts and crying. A tractor pulled up with a guy dressed in prison blues and blue jeans, who asked Dan what was wrong. Dan told him he was tired of getting beat up every day, and the guy told him, “the next time anybody comes at you, messes with you, says something, looks at you wrong, you need to go to that person and smash him loud.” At 14 years old, Dan started doing just that. “I cut a lot of times. It was like every single time you crossed the line with me, this is what’s going to happen,” Dan tells Ashley.
At age 16, Dan was released and entered high school, where he was an all-star football athlete. But one night he went to a party with some friends, and was jumped by two guys, and pulled out a knife: “I started stabbing him like I do, and I go right back to prison.” Dan was sent to Preston prison in Sacramento serving a two-year sentence. Things began to snowball. When Dan turned 21, he was charged with three counts of armed robbery with a gun and for kidnapping a department of corrections officer.
“I had my own perception of what was right and what was wrong, and I was trying to do that from a drunken, meth induced state that was only to serve the purpose of getting rid of that feeling that I always had in my chest.”
Heroin became his best friend, along with morphine pills, and methadone. He was on so many drugs and so sick during a lock down that he had to use somebody else’s syringe, which resulted in him catching a blood disease. At that point, he was on a gram of heroin a day.
Turning Over A New Leaf
Over time, Dan found himself in a single-man cell most of his life, which he preferred to a double or group cell. He would read the book of Proverbs every morning, even though he wasn’t supposed to have a Bible. His mother visited him in prison, which was extremely special to him. He credits her with his life, “hands down the reason I’m here today and the person that I am, she has a lot to do with,” says Dan.
Dan started practicing transcendental meditation. He started at five minutes and eventually was able to “leave his body” for an hour and a half. During one session, he became a “fly on the wall” and watched everything that happened to him when he was 9 years old. It all came back to him, and for the first time since the abuse he remembered what had happened. Shortly after, Dan wrote a letter to his parents apologizing, and finally explained the incident that happened at nine years old.
Dan was released from prison when he was 39. After he was released, Dan visited his parents in San Diego. When he entered his parents’ house, his grandmother and his step-uncle (the one who sexually abused him as a child) were also at the house. It turned out that his step-uncle had become sober, was attending AA and wanted to make an amends to Dan. After processing the information, Dan was enraged. He grabbed the biggest knife he could find in the kitchen, and was intent on hurting his step-uncle. In that moment, he looked at his grandmother who was crying, and he stopped. He told his step-uncle, “this is the one chance I’m giving you to walk out of here because of that woman right there.”
Months later, Dan was able to forgive his step-uncle. He was able to tell his grandmother that he had forgiven her son before she passed away years later.
Dan’s sobriety date is October 8th, 2012. He attends regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. For Dan, sobriety involves giving back, “I believe firmly that the most important thing that we can do as human beings is [to] help the person who is where we once were.”
Quotes have been edited for clarity.