What The Menendez Brothers' Life In Prison Is Really Like

In 1996, Lyle and Erik Menendez were convicted of the murder of their parents, Jose and Kitty. Throughout the trial, the Menendez brothers' lawyer made a strong argument that their brutal attack was the result of years of terrible abuse at the hands of their father — and witness testimonies backed up allegations that Jose had sexually abused his two sons. At one point, Erik took the stand to testify that molestation began when he was 6-years-old. 

However, the extremely graphic nature of the killings — carried out with shotguns — was ultimately enough to lead to life sentences for them both. Prosecutors argued that the Menendez brothers merely wanted to get their hands on the family fortune, which they started spending quickly once they inherited. 

By now, the pair have been locked up for well over two decades. Even though they spent a good chunk of that time apart, both have worked tirelessly to prove to the world (and maybe themselves) that they are not the same people they were on the worst night of their lives. Marriage, faith, and improving the lives of their fellow inmates quickly became the primary focus of both brothers and they've remained dedicated to those ideals. The brothers will possibly never get out of prison, so Lyle and Erik have decided to spend that time acting altruistically. 

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

The two were originally separated from all other inmates

After Erik and Lyle Menendez were convicted of the brutal murders of their parents and subsequently sentenced to life in prison, the two waited at North Kern State Prison to hear their fate. They were in the same place before an evaluation determined the destination of their final imprisonment, yet the yard of the complex stood between them in those final days.

The brothers had a strong desire to be incarcerated together, but September 10, 1996, would be the last day they would see each other for over 20 years. The two were also held in maximum security cells, so they did not have much interaction with anyone early on.

In the following decades, Erik and Lyle were typically at least 500 miles away from each other, with Erik first taken to the San Diego Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility and Lyle to the Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. While phone calls between the two were prohibited, they did manage to find ways to stay in contact throughout all those years. In an interview with People, Lyle Menendez said, "We write each other regularly. We even play chess through the mail, but it's a little slow."

Lyle was the first to get married while behind bars

During the trial, Lyle Menendez and his girlfriend, Anna Eriksson, continued their romantic correspondence, and even the high likelihood that he would spend the rest of his life behind bars did not deter their love, at least at first. The couple did not waste any time, marrying in secret the same day the judge declared the sentence, as reported by The New York Times.

The relationship was not to last, and ended in divorce a short time later. But Lyle did not remain single for long. He soon formed a deep connection with another woman, Rebecca Sneed, whom he had known for a decade. In 2003, the two were allowed to wed in the maximum-security visiting area of Mule Creek State Prison and were even able to have several family members and friends witness the important event. 

The couple is still married to this day and the distance does not seem to be a problem. Lyle told People, "Our interaction tends to be very free of distractions and we probably have more intimate conversations than most married spouses do, who are distracted by life's events. We try and talk on the phone every day, sometimes several times a day. I have a very steady, involved marriage and that helps sustain me and brings a lot of peace and joy. It's a counter to the unpredictable, very stressful environment here."

Erik married a woman he met during the trial

Similar to his brother, Erik Menendez was also in touch with a woman during the trial, which began in 1993. The relationship was platonic at first, with Tammi Saccoman initially reaching out through letters because of the sympathy she felt for Erik as she watched his story unfold on television. At the time, she was also married and the mother of two daughters.

Tammi supported Erik through a difficult time, and he returned the favor in 1996 when Tammi had her own horrific experiences. First, she discovered her husband had been sexually abusing her teenage daughter (a child Tammi had from another relationship) for three years. Her husband confessed his crimes to the authorities before taking his own life. Tammi reached out to Erik, who comforted her through his letters, she told People.

In an interview with People, Tammi admitted she was extremely nervous to meet Erik in person, but that instantly faded. She said, "When he walked into the room, he was so full of life, he hopped down the stairs. It was like I was meeting an old friend." By 1999, the two became so serious that they tied the knot at Folsom State Prison. When describing their marriage years later, Erik said, "Tammi's love has propelled me to become a better person. I want to be the greatest possible husband to her. And this affects the choices I make every day in prison" (via People).

Erik turned to religion at the beginning of his prison sentence

The harsh conditions of prison can lead imprisoned people toward a stronger devotion to their faith, which was the case for Erik Menendez early on. In the interview with People, Erik spoke about his activities at that time, saying, "I write and read about spirituality, about life." He also added, "I want to be productive, to find some meaning in helping others." Additionally, Erik emphasized his desire to seek mercy through God. He focused on ways to promote good behavior among his fellow prisoners, and his lawyer, Chris Pixley, confirmed that Erik responded to hundreds of letters from victims of abuse to give his support.

Years later, Erik has continued his compassionate pursuits. Journalist Robert Rand, who has reported on the brothers' case since 1989, revealed to A&E True Crime, "Erik leads several self-help groups every week at Donovan, including a mindful meditation group, and has started a hospice group at Donovan."

Both brothers have kept themselves busy while locked up

In their lives behind bars, the Menendez brothers had some time to pursue personal activities, but they were also forced to work for the facilities in which they were incarcerated. Erik worked as a groundskeeper at California State Prison near Sacramento, and later became a janitor after transferring to Pleasant Valley State Prison. Similarly, Lyle also worked as a janitor at California Corrections Institution.

However, when talking with A&E True Crime, Robert Rand emphasized how the brothers have decided to spend their free time. "What's really important about Lyle and Erik in 2022 is that they are both contributing quite a bit to their prison community. Lyle is very involved in prison reform activism," he said. Lyle has served as president of the inmate government for over 15 years, so he's often been in a position to make significant changes. Erik has done his part as well, devoting himself to assisting terminally ill inmates.

The brothers were reunited after over 20 years behind bars

In 2018, one of the greatest wishes of both Menendez brothers was granted when the two were allowed to see each other for the first time since 1996. Even better, the reunion was not brief. Lyle was allowed to join Erik at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility and the two were finally incarcerated in the same prison.

At first, they were housed in separate sections, so they couldn't interact. But in April 2018, the two were allowed to reunite, and Eric was moved to Lyle's section within the prison. The first moment they saw each other quickly brought on tears of joy. Both Lyle and Erik started crying immediately upon being reunited. As Robert Rand explained to ABC News, "[Lyle] missed his brother so much. And Erik had also talked about how much he missed Lyle. So, this is just an overwhelming, emotional, happy moment for not only the brothers but their entire family." He also added, "They just hugged each other for a few minutes without saying any words to each other. Then the prison officials let them spend an hour together in a room."

Their current prison facility is overcrowded with inmates

At the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, the Menendez brothers are able to see each other frequently after years apart, but their living conditions aren't ideal. The biggest issue is one the prison has dealt with for over a decade — the prison population has reached a level far beyond the prison's capacity. Even all the way back in 2009, Associate Warden Elias Contreras confirmed in an interview with KPBS that the number of people held in the facility reached 4,800, while 2,200 was the intended number when it first opened in 1987.

By the time Lyle and Erik were locked up at Donovan together, the problem had not been alleviated. In visits to the brothers, journalist Robert Rand learned about their sleeping situations amidst the rampant overcrowding. Rand described in his blog, The Menendez Murders, how each one lives in dorm-like rooms. They are housed separately from each other, but both share their larger cells with five other people. Lyle, at least, has his own bed instead of the common scenario of being given a bunk. In 2021, the prison also faced criticism for its high number of COVID-19 infections and COVID-related deaths. By April, more 1,000 imprisoned people had tested positive for COVID and 18 had died. 

There are several celebrity inmates at their prison

The highly publicized trial of the Menendez brothers, along with the numerous documentaries and TV shows about them that came after, have given both celebrity status. However, Lyle and Erik are not the only notorious people locked up at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. Arguably, the most well-known prisoner in recent times (who shares the same prison as the brothers) is Suge Knight, founder of the rap-centered music label, Death Row Records. Far more infamous are Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of assassinating Robert F. Kennedy, and Tex Watson of the Manson Family.

Rapper Anerae Veshaughn, formerly known as X-Raided, has the closest relationship with the brothers, according to journalist Robert Rand. Veshaughn has been behind bars for almost as long as Lyle and Erik, so his history with them goes way back as he was moved to various facilities and happened to meet the two separately. 

In 2019, Veshaughn became one of the pair's success stories, since their help led him to leave his criminal past and even played a role in his eventual release from prison, when Erik wrote the parole board on his friend's behalf. When asked by The San Diego Union-Tribune about the support he gave Veshaughn, Lyle recalled, "I told him, 'With young people looking up to you, kids looking up to you, is that what you want to promote?'"

They have been granted several privileges

Despite the horrific crimes they were convicted of, the Menendez brothers have proven to be some of the most exemplary prisoners behind bars. Even as early as 2005, prison spokesperson Lt. Marion Spearman told People, "Erik is a good prisoner. He does not cause problems." Since then, the reputations of both brothers have only improved, and they have been granted the most privileged status by the authorities at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility.

As "Group A" prisoners, Erik and Lyle not only have access to special areas, like the yard and those designated for entertainment or recreation, but they may also receive packages, make phone calls, and often visit with loved ones, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Lyle especially takes advantage of his right to get ingredients delivered, which allows him to cook his own meals, says journalist Robert Rand in his blog, The Menendez Murders.

They have taken part in the experimental Echo Yard program

At Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, the Menendez brothers were able to opt into a first-of-its-kind unit called Echo Yard in 2018. The experimental program, located in its own section of the prison, is meant to encourage building up a sense of community, especially by removing gangs entirely, as well as teaching life skills to imprisoned people and focusing on rehabilitation.

Including Erik and Lyle, there are 780 prisoners housed in the unique detention unit, where there are no roommate requirements, so people with very different backgrounds may be living together. To outsiders, that may not seem too extreme, but to a longtime imprisoned person, Mitchell Celestine, it was unheard of. He told The San Diego Union-Tribune, "In the main line, you'd never be in a cell with another race. Never, ever play ball with other races. In the main line, you can't even give food — or sell food — to someone from another race."

Under these exceptional circumstances, the brothers have also been free to enjoy many aspects of normal life. In Echo Yard, prisoners can do all sorts of things, from yoga classes to playing music, learning history, or even training service dogs for wounded veterans.

They started an art mural project at the prison

While Lyle and Erik Menendez have focused much of their attention on helping both people in prison and victims of abuse in the outside world, they have also taken on a large creative project as well. Robert Rand told A&E True Crime, "Both brothers are working together on a large mural being painted on the gray concrete walls at the prison."

Although Erik has certainly helped move the plan forward, Lyle is the one behind the idea and has even grander aspirations of expanding the project to include an outdoor recreation area as well, says Rand in his blog, The Menendez Murders. A lot of support has also been offered to see the mural completed. Not only have volunteers from the art department of San Diego State University agreed to design the murals, but Home Depot has even stated it will provide some of the supplies needed.

The brothers hope for a retrial with new evidence

Due to the many years of abuse Lyle and Erik Menendez suffered at the hands of their father, Jose, juries considered convicting the brothers of manslaughter, rather than murder. Even after the two were arrested in 1990 and tried shortly after, their cases originally ended in mistrials because juries could not decide if they should be sentenced for murder or manslaughter. Robert Rand also voiced his opinion on the matter and told A&E True Crime, "The streets of California are not safer because Erik and Lyle Menendez are locked up in prison."

Over the years, the Menendez brothers have tried many times to appeal their case. Most notably, in 2016, a new law passed in California allowed those convicted to bring new evidence of sexual abuse to light, when it was previously prohibited in their court case. However, this attempt, and all the others, failed to get the desired results for the brothers. 

Then, in 2022, a new opportunity arose for Lyle and Erik. As Rand explained, "It's not definite, [but the Menendez brothers' lawyers] are going to file a writ of habeas corpus, and they're going to ask for a new trial. The threshold for filing is you have to have new evidence that was not available at the time of the trial, and they do have new evidence." That evidence is a letter written by Erik in 1988 that details his father's abuse, which was never seen in the trial.