My husband, my hero: The story of a prisoner labeled ‘worst of the worst’

by Kendra Castaneda

Robbie-Riva-football-20005, My husband, my hero: The story of a prisoner labeled ‘worst of the worst’, Abolition Now! What if you were a ward of the state of California as a youth in foster care, left with a family of known gang members, then at age 17 your foster care services were illegally terminated. Suppose you were able to overcome that, get a job while doing very well in college and then framed by police gang officers as a teenager at 18, taken out of college and sent to Pelican Bay State Prison with a life sentence.

Then imagine you worked very hard in prison to appeal your wrongful conviction while completing programs to transfer out of the supermax prison to a regular level IV prison within the span of seven years and then were framed again by prison gang officers using a tattoo you got as a child, a symbol in a birthday card and other fabricated evidence to “validate” you as a “prison gang associate” and label you “worst of the worst” and placed in segregation in a Security Housing Unit, or SHU, for years on end. That is exactly what happened to my childhood best friend and husband, Robbie Riva.

Robbie-Riva-Proof-of-Dependency-0106114, My husband, my hero: The story of a prisoner labeled ‘worst of the worst’, Abolition Now! As a child, Robbie was taken away from his home in Bixby Knolls, a middle class neighborhood in Long Beach, the state saying his parents were not fit to take care of him. A 13-year-old Latino boy, he was picked up by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and placed in foster care. There was no family that wanted a teenage Latino boy coming from a troubled home at that time. Social services placed him with family after family, and he ended up with known street gang members.

Purposely left there by the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, Robbie did not have a choice where he lived. He received gang tattoos as a child of 14 under the foster care system while living with the family the state placed him with to be “safe” and well taken care of.

Robbie excelled at his high school, Millikan in Long Beach. He was on the football team and completed all his classes with a good GPA. He also was a mentor with the California Conference for Equality and Justice.

The troubled foster care system left him in a home he could not get away from and, at age 17, while he was riding in a car full of adults, the Long Beach police pulled the car over and found a concealed weapon. As Robbie Riva was the only minor in the car, he took the rap for it and was sent to serve six months in juvenile hall.

While there, the Department of Children and Family Services was called by the court; and instead of foster care taking any responsibility for Robbie, they illegally terminated his foster care services at age 17, leaving him in juvenile hall. Thankfully, once he completed his six-month sentence, his high school principal cared enough for him to help Robbie graduate from high school with his class in June 2000.

Robbie-Riva-grad-20006, My husband, my hero: The story of a prisoner labeled ‘worst of the worst’, Abolition Now! While Robbie was trying to excel and do well for himself, working a full-time job and attending college, the Long Beach police framed him for a drive-by shooting in the year 2001. No one was seriously injured. As Robbie walked out of class at Long Beach City College on Feb. 15, 2001, the same police officer who had arrested him as a juvenile arrested him again on his college campus.

In a year-long, on and off again court trial, with bail set at $1.5 million for an 18-year-old college student who’d just been terminated from the foster care system, the victim and DA witnesses testified in favor of Robbie that the DA had the wrong car and the wrong evidence. They had been pressured to lie on the stand by identifying Robbie as the shooter. Though they refused to do that, after two trials where Robbie had a full alibi with alibi witnesses who testified, police officers lied under oath that Robbie had verbally confessed to the crime.

Because no weapon was ever found in the case, Robbie Riva was found guilty of attempted voluntary manslaughter based solely on this fabricated police testimony. Throughout the two trials, the police portrayed the crime as “gang related.” Though Robbie had gang tattoos from being in foster care at age 14, the jury found him not guilty on every single gang penal code charge under Section 186.22, and another gang charge was dismissed in court by the judge.

Therefore, the state of California could not identify the crime as gang related after the court ruling in 2002 and could not identify Robbie as a known gang member with the police department, court system or the state of California. Nevertheless, although the jury recommended a five-year sentence, the judge added a gun enhancement charge at the request of the DA, though no gun was ever produced in his case nor were any gunshot residue or other forensic test results presented, and sentenced him to 25 years to life.

Robbie was purposely taken from college and sent directly to Pelican Bay State Prison at age 18. The foster care system threw him away as a child, and a year after that system illegally terminated him, the California Superior Court system threw away a full-time working college student for life in a supermax prison. The reason for the harsh sentence, the judge said, was my husband was an “extremely violent person” and an “extreme danger to society,” comments documented in the court transcripts at his sentencing hearing.

But Robbie has never been a violent person. He has never assaulted anyone; he has never been accused of assault or battery on anyone. The judge’s only basis for calling him violent was his juvenile record: one incident of serving six months in juvenile hall for a concealed weapon found in a car where he was the only youngster, and he took the rap to save the adults from being sent to prison.

Robbie-Riva-verdict-0116022, My husband, my hero: The story of a prisoner labeled ‘worst of the worst’, Abolition Now! At the sentencing hearing, the victim, who had never seen my husband before, pleaded with the judge, stating that my husband was not the man who shot her. But that didn’t matter. The judge’s decision was set in his mind and my husband was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison and sent directly to Pelican Bay State Prison, where he was labeled for the rest of his life as “worst of the worst.”

Due to the state of California finding him not guilty on every single gang penal code charge, his sentencing record for CDCR could not indicate he was from a street gang. At Pelican Bay, he was a part of the ROCK program – “Reaching Out Convicts to Kids” – that mentors children to stay away from violence, educating them to stay on track with school.

Robbie educated himself with college courses, at the same time filing his appeals to show his innocence in hopes the court would overturn his original wrongful conviction. After denials of his state and federal appeals, he put in for a transfer out of Pelican Bay State Prison.

Robbie-Riva-ROCK, My husband, my hero: The story of a prisoner labeled ‘worst of the worst’, Abolition Now! In the year 2009, he successfully transferred to Calipatria State Prison. His committee hearing printout in his prison central file, or C-file, states that while he was at Pelican Bay, he had no enemies, no prison gang association and no moniker. He was doing very well at Calipatria, feeling more comfortable closer to home in Southern California, so he was able to be himself.

In 2010, he got a full-time prison job in the kitchen as a cook. That’s very hard to come by due to a scarcity of jobs and educational programs at Calipatria. Our daughter and I were able to visit him on weekends, allowed to have contact visits while he and I continued to work on overturning his wrongful conviction by ourselves because we didn’t have any more money to continue with his appellate lawyer.

Robbie-Riva-no-enemies-...-no-prison-gang-or-moniker-0227081, My husband, my hero: The story of a prisoner labeled ‘worst of the worst’, Abolition Now! I want to note that for years, I felt I had to keep my husband a secret due to pressure from society and family, reflecting how most people view those in prison. After being quiet for many years, when I really needed some help, I turned to a man I knew as a child, who helped me when I finally reached out to him. His name is Chief Anthony Batts, previously the Long Beach police chief and recently the chief in Oakland. He had always treated me with respect and compassion.

With my husband’s power of attorney, I was looking into his wrongful conviction case on my own, and I needed his missing police report, but the Long Beach Police Department was giving me the runaround. I had not spoken to Chief Batts in years, but I knew he would understand what I was going through. I also knew I should have contacted him years ago, but I hadn’t come out of the shadows until recently. Chief Batts contacted his old deputy at the Long Beach police station, and that is how the missing police records the DA tried to cover up in my husband’s trial 11 years ago were finally released.

Without Chief Batts’ help, the police department might have just lied to me saying they didn’t have the report like they do many other people. Even though I do not trust police officers from my own personal experiences, Chief Batts has always been caring and good hearted to me and I am thankful for him.

Then, 10 years to the day from my husband’s original arrest, on Feb. 15, 2011, my husband was placed in segregation in prison after he’d come under “investigation” by none other than the notorious Institutional Gang Investigator (IGI) E. Duarte, who claimed Robbie was an associate to a prison gang. I had received an anonymous telephone call telling me that a Latino officer had planted evidence to make sure my husband was sent into segregation.

I had information to prove that Duarte purposely planted evidence, and I wrote Warden Leland McEwen at Calipatria State Prison many times in February and March 2011. He ignored my letters for almost two months, so I wrote to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) headquarters in Sacramento, and my information was forwarded to Internal Affairs.

Internal Affairs contacted the warden to conduct a “staff misconduct investigation” because the evidence in my husband’s C-file was falsified and I had court documents to back it up. To my surprise, I received a letter from Warden McEwen stating he had personally looked into my husband’s C-file and that my husband could go through the inmate appeals system. Warden McEwen continued to ignore the evidence I’d put in front of his face of known staff misconduct that had falsely placed my husband in segregation.

Robbie-Riva-McEwen-letter-0630111, My husband, my hero: The story of a prisoner labeled ‘worst of the worst’, Abolition Now! After obtaining the documentation used to validate my husband as a “prison gang associate” last August, I was blown away at the “evidence” IGI Duarte was using. It was a birthday card not even addressed to my husband but planted in his property. To show he was in a street gang as a “non-documented gang member,” Duarte made up a street gang moniker.

He also cited Robbie’s tattoo even though the court had said he’d received it at age 14 and is not from a street gang. So why a decade later was IGI Duarte allowed to use a tattoo against my husband to validate him as a prison gang associate?

Also, in my husband’s C-file, signed off at his transfer committee hearing when arriving at Calipatria in 2009, is a report marked “no enemies” and “no prison gang or moniker is noted” when he was at Pelican Bay for seven years. How are IGI Duarte and CDCR officials allowed to ignore court transcripts and legal documents signed off in 2009 by officials at Calipatria?

To place my husband in isolation indefinitely, Duarte was allowed to use a tattoo from childhood, a planted birthday card not in my husband’s handwriting and not addressed to him, and a piece of paper with a street gang moniker made up by IGI Duarte, as well as a confidential informant who was on a different yard from my husband as evidence to validate him.

Robbie-Riva-Duarte-validation-0325111, My husband, my hero: The story of a prisoner labeled ‘worst of the worst’, Abolition Now! And that’s why my husband has been in complete segregation at Calipatria State Prison in the ASU for the past year, now on a waitlist to go back to Pelican Bay State Prison to be in the SHU for years. He is being labeled “worst of the worst” again and validated as a prison gang associate, left with no educational or other programs and no human contact since his visits were taken away one year ago.

More charges were added to his file that my husband is denied the right to see, he has been placed in a corner cell – coldest in winter and hottest in summer – and given little to no food, the officers are not allowing him to go outside, he has no TV or radio to stimulate his mind, and he stares at a wall or reads books all day while surviving in extremely harsh, inhumane conditions in complete segregation. This is NOT rehabilitation, especially considering that my husband should have never been sent to prison in the first place!

This is an example of how CDCR uses its corrupt validation process to label men, despite legal court documentation to the contrary, as the highest “security threat” and send them to the SHU for years on end. Also, the CDCR appeals coordinator denied my husband’s appeal recently to overturn his false prison gang validation when there was evidence of staff misconduct by IGIs E. Duarte and K. Poole.

The appeals coordinator told my husband, “In order to get out of the SHU, you have to debrief.” How is my husband supposed to debrief when he is not even in a gang and has no information to give? Even for someone who is, this is not rehabilitation. Forcing someone to make up information or give information on another inmate to the state authorities who are torturing the inmates is inhumane.

Robbie-Riva-Kendra-daughter-20112, My husband, my hero: The story of a prisoner labeled ‘worst of the worst’, Abolition Now! If my husband’s wrongful conviction were overturned today and he walked out a free man, he would never have to register with any police department as a gang member due to the state of California finding otherwise. But if he were to be released, my husband will always be labeled under the FBI as a prison gang associate because CDCR purposely validated him from falsified evidence. This does not make any sense.

CDCR ignores known legal documents and allows IGI officers to use falsified information against inmates to label them prison gang associates to ensure CDCR’s segregation units are filled. Many men in prison are accused of having street gang affiliation; whether true or not, that shouldn’t be used to validate them as prison gang associates. The men are already serving their time in prison for the crimes they committed; using street gang association to validate an inmate as a prison gang associate should not be allowed.

I share this information with everyone to show what sort of men CDCR is calling “worst of the worst.” In the past year, officials at Calipatria are saying my husband, who has had no enemies in a supermax prison for all these years, now has two “enemies,” according to two confidential informants he cannot confront nor even identify, so he has no way of knowing whether he had contact with them in the first place. My husband has been denied the right to see his non-confidential file the whole time he’s been at Calipatria State Prison.

CDCR is lying and these segregation units and the false “security threat” labels they call rehabilitation are torture. My husband was doing just fine rehabilitating himself and should not have been sent to prison in the first place! By taking his visits away a year ago, leaving him with no human contact, CDCR has tried to break up our family, but I refuse to allow that to happen.

Robbie-Riva-daughter2, My husband, my hero: The story of a prisoner labeled ‘worst of the worst’, Abolition Now! Our family is an example of many more families that CDCR has tried to break up throughout the years, an example of many more men who cannot see their children, many more throughout the state of California who’ve lived in segregation for years and decades in complete isolation with no human contact and no sunlight. They cannot hug or kiss their wives, moms, sisters, brothers or kids. CDCR not only tortures the inmate in a tiny concrete coffin but tortures families as well.

Segregation and prison gang labels based on a debriefer, suspicion, a tattoo, a book, an address, political beliefs, a symbol, etc. is NOT rehabilitation. For those men who have committed serious crimes to get them into prison, this is NOT rehabilitation. For those men with lower level crimes, this is NOT rehabilitation, and certainly not for those men who are wrongfully convicted.

Segregation is TORTURE and CDCR, CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate and Governor Jerry Brown need to stop making excuses about why they cannot start to release these men out of the SHU, Ad Seg or ASU right away with no retaliation, no more false write-ups, and no more false “security threat group” labels and start to tell the TRUTH, or I will continue to use my First Amendment rights to keep exposing this corrupt system!”

Kendra Castaneda is a prisoner human rights activist whose husband is currently incarcerated in the notorious Calipatria State Prison ASU (Administrative Segregation Unit). She can be reached at