As always, I hope this letter finds you and your family in the best of health and spirits. I understand that you’re an incredibly busy man, but in light of recent events I felt the need to write to you once more. I’m sure that the political views of one inmate are the least of your concerns right now, but please bear with me.
There has never been a better time than now to express my sentiments towards a penal system that has proven itself to be incompetent. The tragic death of George Floyd is but one piece of a much larger picture. We cannot begin to talk about systemic racism without also addressing the epidemic that is mass incarceration throughout America, and, the disproportionate number of Black and brown people who occupy the beds within these facilities. Comprehensive prison reform needs to be an issue that becomes synonymous with police brutality, misconduct, prejudice and reform. We must not only ensure police misconduct never happens again, but also work towards vindicating those of us who have already suffered at their expense.
Make no mistake, police brutality is police misconduct; and police misconduct has led to the mass incarceration of minorities nationwide. Prison reform and police reform are but opposite sides of the same coin. The fact of the matter is that many of these men would not be here if it weren’t for the color of their skin. Aside from the very obvious truth that the likelihood of police contact for a person of color is substantially higher than that of a White American. I would also like to encourage you to look at statistics that prove minorities are subjected to significantly harsher sentences than that of their White American counterparts. Between faulty police practices, biased judges, an overcrowded/underfunded prison system that does not support rehabilitation, and the Truth-in-Sentencing laws that were implemented in the late 90’s, America has embraced a system that is at its foundation inherently prejudice, and unless dismantled will continue to perpetuate the progression of minorities nationwide.
Comprehensive prison reform should aim towards accomplishing three goals: The first goal should be to lower the prison population by passing legislation, such as abolishing or reducing the Truth-in-Sentencing statute; allowing inmates the opportunity to convene with a parole board (after a certain percentage of their sentence has been served) on an annual basis to determine whether they are ready for society; and offering more “good-time” incentives for inmates who exhibit good behavior.
The second goal should be to transform the system into one that truly promotes rehabilitation by implementing more educational and vocational programs, or, by simply better funding the programs already in place so that more inmates can participate. It is not uncommon to meet an inmate who has been incarcerated for many years but has yet to participate in any program, despite being on all the “waiting list.” Many inmates complete their entire sentence without having ever participated in any program. The last goal is the simplest, hiring competent parole officers whose purpose is to work constructively with parolees and help with the reintegration process, thus lowering recidivism rates. I beg of you to give this issue a voice and to use the tragic death of Mr. Floyd and the abrogation of systemic racism as a platform to push for Federal and State legislation that changes the landscape of the penal system.
Congressman, I would also like to take this opportunity and share with you a story from my youth. It is a story that I believe proves I’ve always had a unique aptitude and perspicacity to discern political and social issues. It is a story of systemic racism, and yet also the story and experiences that ultimately radicalized me and planted the seeds of indignation in my heart. I remember trick-or-treating as a youth in Little Village in Chicago. and how one year my sister and I would be so unfortunate as to be in the proximity of a shooting. We didn’t stick around to see the outcome, but I do remember running home with a sense of fear that I had never felt before.
The next year my Mom began taking us trick-or-treating in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood and for the first time in my life I was introduced to another world. I remember asking myself questions that I had never even thought of before. “Why didn’t my neighborhood look like this?” “Why weren’t there any other families who looked like us around here?” I remember naively chalking it up as: separate but equal…enough, and moving on with life.
The next summer, when I was about 11, I remember playing baseball with my friends at Piotrowski Park on 31st and Kostner. After practice there was a woman who was addressing a small group of parents and handing out flyers. She spoke passionately about how the factory on 34th and Pulaski was directly responsible for many of the health ailments born to those within the community, specifically asthma. I don’t quite remember the exact statistics, but I do remember hearing the terms “Environmental Racism” and “Second-class citizens” for the first time, and how a white community would never be subjected to such a thing. The walk home was sobering, and I seemed to take notice of everything I had been blind to before.
I thought of Garfield Ridge, “Hmm, maybe we weren’t so equal after all.” To me, those towers on Pulaski had been there billowing smoke for as long as I could remember, and I even revered them with a sense of nostalgia. How happy I would be to see those towers in the distance after a long trip downstate to visit my father in I.D.O.C. To me, they represented home. After that day they stood there as if to mock me and to remind me that I was indeed a “second-class citizen.”
I began to take notice of everything else around me that I felt was an indication of my social caste in society. The realities around me grew starker. The towers were always visible from my house on 28th and Komensky, and I remember waking up some mornings and running outside to see if that passionate woman had succeeded in her endeavor to get justice for all those oppressed. For the first time in my life I was beginning to perceive myself as oppressed.
Later that summer, as if an omen from God, I found my uncle’s gang literature manifesto tucked under his bed. It spoke upon the injustices bestowed upon us as Latino people and how it was an organization whose ultimate purpose was to change our circumstances for the better; to liberate our people!
I know now that it was a bunch of bullshit. But at the time it fanned the fire that burned inside me since birth. Those men were not a menace after all, I thought, but heroes! I had finally found a purpose greater than myself. An outlet in which to channel the passion that lay behind the curtain of my being. I would be a freedom fighter, a Latin King; just like the men in my family before me. I imagined myself single-handedly changing the general consensus and leading my newly enlightened brothers on peaceful protests; all for the betterment of our people.
“What a hero!”, all those watching would say in admiration. I realized much later than I should have, that it was all just a fallacy. And so at 18, I made the decision to join the U.S Marine Corps. I still remember my mother’s face and how proud she was at my decision. How I walked into that recruitment office on 51st and Pulaski with so much optimism. “This is the beginning of the rest of my life,” I told myself. I brought in my G.E.D and all other necessary documents. I took the test and signed off on a background check, never once thinking my juvenile record would be taken into consideration.
A week later I was called back into the office and was told I could not be enlisted due to my juvenile gun conviction. I begged the recruitment officer to help me, “This is the only chance I have at turning my life around,” I pleaded. He tried his best to enlist me, but eventually failed. I have never forgotten that recruitment officer, or, the feeling of betrayal I felt towards a society I believed had failed me. “How could it be that even after giving me all the ingredients to fail, society would still continue to persecute me for a mistake I made as an adolescent?” I embraced the lifestyle with an even deeper conviction.
Although my intentions throughout my life may have been naive in nature, they were always sincere at heart. And despite the stigma that will undoubtedly follow me because of my criminal convictions, I will never stop believing that I am at my core a genuinely good person who was just too dumb to reshuffle the shitty hand I was dealt. I realize now that my greatest strength has also always been my biggest weakness: my heart. I no longer hold society in contempt, I’ve grown past that. The part of me who looked upon society with distaste died along with my ego in a jail cell on Thanksgiving 2017.
We must never forget that systemic racism takes on many different forms; mine is but one story. I’m sure that every man behind these walls with me has his own story pertinent to the matter. For most, it begins with a subtle inkling that something just isn’t right. Like Adam eating off the Tree of Knowledge and not quite understanding why his nudity bothers him, but that it does. At some point it evolves into the feeling of oppression and the understanding that America has covertly embraced a system that only offers life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to some, not all. That although all men are created equal, we are still not treated as such. For them, the sky has no limits; for us, the limit is the sky. Eventually, the cycle of bondage comes full circle and is manifested through our subconscious compliance to oblige by the algorithms society has put in place for us. But society can no longer hide the ugly truths that have continued to keep those of us oppressed down, and together we must fight towards eradicating the algorithms in which systemic racism is built upon.
Congressman, I look back on my life in retrospect with reproach, but it was these experiences, collectively, that made me the man I am today. I feel obligated to share some of my story with you being that I myself am a product of what systemic racism breeds, what it continues to perpetuate, and what issues I believe are imperative to resolve in order to fix our society; one of which is prison reform, which again should walk hand in hand with police reform. I could go on all day about issues I believe are also important, such as: increasing the accessibility to vote in minority communities and reinstating the voting rights for felons, bridging the gap between income inequality, the private sectors influence on what issues become mainstream and the allocation of resources that ultimately fix nothing. How about reforming an overworked, overcrowded, and underfunded public education system that has failed so many of us who could have been something much more than another statistic? Hey, maybe in an alternate universe
I grew up to be President and changed the system myself. But in this one I am simply
And the circle of life continues….
Rogelio “Y36409” Richart
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.