July 29, 2009

A life wasted in prison – Deportee Profile: Samuel

Samuel was raised by his grandmother in Jamaica, as his parents went to the US when he was small. In 1974, when he was 14 years old, he went to the US to live with his parents, who had obtained legal permanent residency in the US.

Samuel went to high school in Queens. It took some getting used to, as the school in Queens was much less rigorous and disciplined than the school he was accustomed to in Jamaica. He dropped out in the eleventh grade. When he left school, his tenuous relationship with his parents soured and they kicked him out of the house. He went to live with some friends, and slowly got pulled into the street life. One afternoon, he was riding down the street with some buddies, and the cops pulled them over.

Samuel told me he had no idea the car was stolen. When he realized what was going on, he ran. As he was running, Samuel heard shots, so he hid in someone’s back yard. A police officer cornered him in the back yard, and shouted “Freeze, Police!” Samuel says he put his hands up and the officer arrested him. When it was time for him to stand trial, however, the police officer said that, in the back yard, Samuel had pointed a gun at him, and Samuel was charged with attempted murder of a police officer.

I asked Samuel if the officer found a weapon. He said they did, but that they did not check the weapon for finger prints. The police officer’s word was sufficient. Samuel was convicted of attempted murder of a police officer. At age 19, his first conviction turned into a fifteen year sentence in prison. Turns out he served twenty-six years, as the parole board did not release him. He said that was in part because he would never admit guilt and in part because the board was particularly harsh on violent crimes when his turn came up.

Before Samuel told me his story, he told me it is a common joke in prison that everyone is innocent. It’s not a joke, however, he said, when you really are innocent. He told me his story with a certain amount of resignation, as if he has told his story many times, and is tired of worrying about whether or not people believe him.

I listen to his story, watching Samuel, a light-skinned man with long dreads, who looks like he has a lot of Asian Indian ancestry, fight back tears. He never let one drop. “Everyone in prison says they are innocent,” he says. I look into his eyes and see a life wasted. Samuel is calm, intelligent, articulate, poised. He has to sacrifice his dignity every day to get a plate of food and a warm bed to sleep on. He is currently staying with a childhood friend who is willing to hide Samuel’s past from others.

Samuel spent five years – his teenage years – on the streets of New York, and then spent twenty-six years in the penitentiary. In 2005, he was deported to Jamaica. Samuel told me that his mother became a citizen of the US before he turned 18 years old, and that he too should have citizenship in the US. Although he was in immigration detention for nearly a year, he did not have a chance to go to court to argue that he was in fact a US citizen and should not be deported.

When Samuel was deported, he was 45 years old, and had not been in Jamaica since he was 14. No prison release program, no orientation to Jamaica, and all of his family in the United States. Moreover, his father was too embarrassed of him to help him find family in Jamaica.

When Samuel applies for jobs, they ask him about his work history. If it becomes evident that he spent over two decades in prison, no one wants to hire him. For Samuel, the American dream turned into a nightmare, and no one believes him. Jamaicans look at him with scorn: he had the opportunity to go to where the streets are paved with gold, and came back with nothing.

Samuel told me he knows he is a foreigner in the United States, yet that he also is a foreigner in Jamaica. He has to feel his way around, to figure things out, to re-learn everything.

Samuel recently secured a temporary job as a security guard, where he makes JA$1000 (about US$12) a day. I ask him if that is enough to survive on. He points out to me that we just ate lunch for JA$300, and the food was not even that good. The JA$1000 a day he earns is only enough for food and transportation, meaning he can’t save any money to get a place of his own, or even to tide himself over for when this temporary job ends.

Samuel told me he finds it regrettable that he never got a second chance. In the US, he was locked up for so long. When he was locked up, his brothers and sisters came to visit occasionally. But, his parents never came. They were too ashamed to visit him in prison. I asked Samuel if he talks to his father on the phone. He said that when his father gets on the phone, he cries. He can’t bear to think of what has happened to his son. The legal system in the US did not give Samuel a second chance. The immigration system didn’t either. Back in Jamaica, most people don’t want to give him a chance.

It’s hard for me to fathom the logic behind this situation. Samuel was 19 years old when he had an unfortunate encounter with a police officer. The officer says Samuel pointed a gun at him. Samuel says that is a lie. Either way, no one was hurt. Samuel spends 26 years in prison for this, and then is deported to a country where it is difficult for him to survive from one day to the next. A country where he has no family and few friends.

According to US law, deportation is not punishment – it is an administrative procedure where the right to be in the US is revoked for non-citizens. For Samuel, deportation is punishment. He points out that he missed his grandmother’s funeral because he was in prison. Now, when his parents pass, he will not be able to attend their funerals.

Samuel had a child before he went to prison, a child that has grown up without a father. For Samuel’s parents, both US citizens, they have lost their son. His siblings have lost a brother. And, Samuel has lost nearly everything. It is hard to see the winners in this situation.

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