by Ruben Beltran
Have you ever asked yourself, I wonder how it feels to be in prison for a crime you did not commit? I am an innocent man in prison – 11 years now – and I still can’t tell you how it feels. You see, if I tell you that something “taste like chicken,” you have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about. Your mind can easily pull the flavor of chicken out of your memory files, and your brain immediately gives you sensations and smells from that experience. But if you ask me how it feels to be in prison for a crime I did not commit? I have no “taste like chicken” answer to give you.
There is no metaphorical way to make you understand or feel the experience. I have now spent 11 years trying to come up with an answer that can describe it, but the best I have is: being “grounded” by your parents for something your little brother or sister did. But even that will not give you a true sense of being in prison for a crime you did not commit, because you still need the abusive (racist) prison guards, the uncaring medical staff, the daily threat of violence you are surrounded with from other prisoners.
And your own personal isolation and pain for being forgotten by your friends and family and cut off from your whole life. You will need to feel the crushing weight of the cell walls suffocating you, and the echoing clank of the closing cell gate bouncing in your ears – day after day, month after month, year after year.
My wife once told me that her life changed because of my conviction. “Your life changed; mine stopped,” I responded. She has since moved on and hopefully found happiness.
But in prison, time stands still, literally. Even with the advantage of watching the news, listening to the radio, reading newspapers, magazines and at least watching technology evolve through movies and TV, my mind – and soul – somehow is still tethered to that last moment – or day – of freedom, internally screaming to go back to that time, or just hoping to wake up from this nightmare and it still be 2008.
Even when I imagine myself outside, free, I still imagine myself in my old apartment with the same furniture. The streets and cars still look as they did 11 years ago, even though I’m seeing myself as I look today.
When you listen to an old song on the radio, your mind goes back to that time. In prison you are in that time. I don’t even have to close my eyes to “escape”: the walls around me collapse, background sounds recede, and I’m there holding her in my arms again, swaying to the music and hoping that the moment is real, and that prison was just a bad dream. Then the prison bell rings like a gigantic morning alarm clock, dragging my soul back to reality, and I’m “captured” again.
In case you are wondering or care, yes, I am fighting to prove my innocence and get out of this hell. But that in itself has added to my pain. How can fighting for my freedom add to my pain? I have written letters full of hope, asking – begging – for someone, anyone, to help me prove my innocence. In return I have received the most destructive and soul crushing answers that I could ever receive, telling me that they can’t help me. Or worse yet, no answer at all.
It seems counterproductive, but sometimes you prefer not to write and ask for help anymore, just to protect yourself from the constant rejection. I once wrote to a lawyer that specialized in wrongful convictions. I heard him on the radio being interviewed and saying, “Yes, if you have been wrongly convicted, I can help you. I won’t even charge you. I’ll get paid from the lawsuit after we win.”
This is it, I thought, the one I’ve been waiting for … I’m still waiting – four years now – for him to answer my letter. I have come to accept that the only place I will find a lawyer that will fight against all odds to free an innocent man like me is in fiction books, movies and TV shows.
A question that I have never heard being asked of a prosecutor is, “How does it feel to convict an innocent person?” Mainstream media loves the “good feel” moment when a person is declared innocent and is embraced by family and friends outside the court.
When you listen to an old song on the radio, your mind goes back to that time. In prison you are in that time.
But where is the moment when the prosecutor – who knowingly hid the proof of innocence 20 years ago – is asked why? Why did you cover up for the corrupt detectives or cops that “investigated” the case? Why did you manipulate the jury and knowingly allow a false witness to testify?
Instead, those same prosecutors and cops go on with their lives – sending more innocent people to prison. They receive promotions and comfortably retired, having lied to their family, friends and society about the real crimes they had committed.
Real justice for the wrongly convicted will only be served the day he or she walks out of the courtroom a free person, and that same day the prosecutor, cops and false witnesses walk in wearing handcuffs. That would truly be a day of justice.
I’m currently preparing a pro se motion requesting an evidentiary hearing to prove my innocence. If I set that hearing, I know I’ll be out of here. I will then try to pick up what’s left of my life and reputation and use the remaining years to bring positive change to an unfair and racist punitive system, in the hope that at least one other person does not have to go through what I’ve gone through.
And when asked, “How did it feel to be in prison for a crime you did not commit?” I will say, “It doesn’t taste like chicken.”
Send our brother some love and light: Ruben Beltran, 10A-3301, Sullivan CF, P.O. Box 116, Fallsburg NY 12733. If you were a Bay View reader a few years ago, you’ll remember everybody’s favorite, the Uncle Du comic strips. Ruben Beltran was the artist who drew the strips, which were written by Emmanuel “Mandu” Johnson. Write to him too: 98A-1900, P.O. Box 500, Elmira NY 14901.