Lock the door, throw away the key

A mother grapples with the hidden heartbreak of California’s ‘three-strikes’ law

Ramona Rivera’s son, Robert, has spent many days in rooms like this.

Ramona Rivera’s son, Robert, has spent many days in rooms like this.

“If I didn’t know God, I couldn’t be alive,” says 63-year-old Ramona Rivera. “I couldn’t live.” Walk a mile in Rivera’s shoes, and you’ll understand why.

When she was 27, Rivera gave birth to Robert, her one and only son. He became her world until he was arrested at 18. He spent the next 10 years in prison. When he was released, he enjoyed just one week of freedom before overdosing on drugs. After recovering in the hospital, he was sent back to prison, this time for life, thanks to California’s “three-strikes” law.

“I start praying and talking to my Lord, praying that someday he will turn my son loose, out of the bars,” says Rivera, who requested that SN&R not use her or her son’s real names for fear of possible retaliation by inmates or prison authorities against her son. “It hurts me so much. My son never really had a chance to live. I cried the first 10 years when he lived his youth in prison. I cried the last 10 years as he lived his adulthood in prison. I just keep crying.”

For the past 20 years, she has moved from city to city, following her son, who has been transferred to a half-dozen different prisons while serving his sentence. Robert Rivera has never really known life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. His mother gave up pursuing happiness long ago. She gave up living her life. But she never gave up praying her son will be free to pursue happiness. She never gave up loving her son.

Rivera says her son began using drugs in his early teens, around the same time his grandfather and favorite uncle died. He was extremely depressed and used drugs to escape the pain. She tried to get help, but at the time, the nation was still responding to the drug epidemic with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. Resources to prevent drug abuse were minimal. Drug arrests within underprivileged neighborhoods were plentiful, sentences to prison were pretty much guaranteed.

Drug rehab programs were overshadowed by a war on drugs geared toward incarcerating drug offenders. Instead of just saying no, Rivera says she needed someone to just say yes, to say, “Yes, your son’s life is valued; yes, we care that he lives.” The criminal-justice system that never said yes to her son is now saying no, he will never know freedom. No, he will never have a life outside of bars. No, Robert Rivera, you will not get the opportunity to pursue happiness.

Rivera’s odyssey began in 1987, when her son, then 18, was convicted of kidnapping his girlfriend in a Sacramento Valley town. In exchange for a guilty plea, the prosecutor offered Robert a two-year prison sentence. His mother counseled him against taking the plea bargain.

“I was afraid for him to go to prison and advised him not to take the deal,” Rivera remembers. “His attorney didn’t do anything.”

The case went to trial, and her son was found guilty and sentenced to seven years with one strike. She couldn’t help but notice the change prison brought in her son.

“Robert was young, he was afraid,” Rivera says. “But he wasn’t angry till he got to prison.” Behind bars, Robert received his second strike for possessing a knife. A seven-year prison sentence with one strike and the possibility of early release turned into a 10-year stretch with two strikes.

“I only had one child,” Rivera says. “I lost so much. I lost my son at an early age. I never had more children. I never had grandchildren. The judge, the lawyers, didn’t see Robert deserving to have a real life.”

Robert was released in December 1997 after serving a decade behind bars. His freedom was short-lived. “When Robert came home, he told me his heart was with me,” Rivera recalls. “He told me he wanted to stay with me and he wanted to stay home. But he said he was scared. He said he didn’t know how to live on the outside.”

A week after his release, Rivera woke up in the middle of the night with a feeling that something was terribly wrong. She walked to her son’s room, but he wasn’t there. She tried the bathroom door and discovered it was locked. She opened the door and found her son on the floor, overdosed on drugs.

“He looked to be dying,” she says. “I called 911, because I wanted my son to live. The police came first. The police wouldn’t let the ambulance in until they searched my house. They found a needle. I was scared Robert was going to die. I wanted them to hurry up and let the ambulance do CPR. I thought [the police] would help me.”

Eventually, the paramedics did perform CPR, and her son was taken to the hospital, where she kept a bedside vigil for the next two days.

“After two days, they told me I could leave,” she says. “But I didn’t want to leave the hospital. They didn’t understand. Yes, he was 28 years old, but I only had him for one week since he was 18. They said he was going to be all right. I thought they would help Robert and finally he’d get treatment. I didn’t know he’d be taken back to prison and given life.”

She had hoped that 10 years after “Just Say No,” her son would finally get the help he needed, that treatment would outweigh incarceration. Instead, a mother who was just beginning to breathe was informed her son, as per California’s three-strikes law, was being sent back to prison for 25 years to life. Her brief week of happiness gave way to another decade of misery as she once again followed her son from prison to prison.

“I shouldn’t have called 911,” she sobs. “Maybe if I wouldn’t have called for help, he wouldn’t have died because God would have let him live.”

Rivera believes people who commit crimes should be held accountable, but that the punishment should fit the crime. She’s not asking anyone to love her son. She believes God loves her son. She is asking that her son, who she says has given his life to Jesus Christ, finally be given his constitutional right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“He is still a human being, a person, no one ever really saw Robert as a person who deserves a life,” she says. “He lost so much of his life.”

Suppose, she wonders, God gave people just three chances—three strikes—and then just gave up on them, never forgiving them and putting them forever out of sight. Is it right to permanently take away the entire life and freedom of human beings based on a law which sometimes generalizes, doesn’t see people individually, doesn’t always take into account the nature of the crime or consider that some people do change? It’s difficult for Rivera, who deeply believes in God’s forgiveness, to make sense out of people who are unforgiving.

“I have to forgive people for the pain I feel because our Lord forgives us,” she says. “But it hurts knowing so many are so unforgiving. I don’t understand it.”

The stress and heartbreak of watching her son’s life waste away in prison has caught up to Rivera. She’s seriously ill and hasn’t visited her son since last October because she doesn’t want to worry him. Robert’s father died while he was in prison; he never got to talk to his father or say goodbye. She doesn’t want her son to know her health is failing, too.

“He is all that I have,” she says. “I am all that he has. He has no brothers or sisters. His cousins and family members don’t know him anymore. Robert was so young when he left to go to prison. He’s been in prison for so much of his life, if they write him, they don’t know what to say. I pray Robert will always know his mother is waiting for him to come home. I feel like I am going to die, there is so much pain in my heart, the pain grows more and more.”

She cries uncontrollably and says a prayer for her son Robert.

“I am 63 years old now,” she says. “I don’t want to die without ever really spending time with my only child.”