As families across the U.S. are sending their kids back to school, social media platforms are blowing up with parents’ proud photos of their children entering a new grade. Back-to-school picnics and homecoming games, as well as school supply shopping, are symbols of change, growth, and the passage of years. For thousands of parents however, all the back–to-school celebrations serve as a painful reminder to the state-sanctioned violence against their children and oppression.
I see holidays come and go — Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, New Year’s Eve — without my son, Robert Ornelas. For me, “back to school” especially drives home the fact that, since he was just the age of many high school seniors who are preparing for their transition into adulthood, my son has been forced to watch life through the news, from behind bars. It’s a nightmare I live with. It is my bedmate. It is my favorite food. Wherever I go, in the corner of my mind, in the excruciating back and muscle pain I live with, in the loss of my wife, Robert’s mother who passed away from the pain — it’s there.
Because of what I and many loved ones have witnessed as the state’s use of COVID regulations as a strategy for barring us from visiting our incarcerated loved ones in prison, I can no longer see my son Robert. The dangers of COVID are well-known, but I find the restrictions to be extremely unfair, especially since the rest of the country and state are acting as if the pandemic has ended. Even video visits are being cancelled, which suggests that this is retaliation against prisoner, primarily people of color, rather than a strictly public health measure. The Illinois Department of Corrections has already kept so many of our children and loved ones locked up for decades — they took my son Robert over 30 years ago. These discriminatory policies further harm the mental health of those in prison and those who try to visit them.
Robert was just 18 years old when he was arrested in 1990 for committing double homicide. I don’t believe the charges. Police beatings, a form of torture, were used to obtain his false confession — a traumatic and terrifying scenario that is reality for too many marginalized people and their parents in the U.S. Our family has been through an ordeal I would wish on no family.
Did my son struggle with drugs or gang involvement growing up? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that he is guilty of whatever the police decide to accuse him of. In order to obtain Robert’s signature on their false confession, the police beat him and eventually convinced Robert to say that he committed the murders in self-defense. Like thousands Other people of colorWho are they? forced into false confessions,Robert was physically abused as well as psychologically manipulated. I believe he is innocent.
The Chicago police officers John Yucaitis and Steven Brownfield, who tortured Robert, were trained in the police system established by Jon Burge. Burge was a Chicago police officer through the 1970s and ‘80s, quickly rising through the ranks because of his high case clearance rate — cases that were “solved” based solely on tortured and otherwise coerced false confessions of young working-class Black and Brown people. Burge used the same heinous tactics he learned in Vietnam as a military investigator and trained his Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) subordinates in them. This group of men became known as Burge’s “Midnight Crew,” and they went on to teach these horrific practices to others within the CPD, perpetuating the torture, abuse and mistreatment of the falsely accused and their families while deepening the city’s corruption for years to come. Yucaitis was a member of this crew and is still associated with nearly two dozenCases of wrongful conviction
Burge’s torture methodsMore than $100 million in legal fees, and reparations were paid by the City of Chicago as a result. tireless effortsOf survivorsThe political movementThey were held responsible by those in power. Burge and the officers he trained were responsible for the terror and corruption that led to the execution of four death row inmates. Many of my friends are still feeling the effects of this abusive culture. including members of the collective I work with, Mamas Activating Movements for Abolition and Solidarity (MAMAS). Many of us are parents to incarcerated victims of police violence or frame-ups. There are many survivors who have no family members or friends to support them. In this sense, we should also remember those whose stories don’t evoke what stories like mine might — of a parent whose child was kidnapped from their family, parent or mother. However, I think what the children of the mother I work with have seen is a testament to the strength and integrity of Chicago Police Department. synonymous with corruptionhuman rights violations directly linked to racism or classism. Our collective MAMAS, with the Campaign to Free Incarcerated Survivors of Police Torture (CFIST), are demanding that the State’s Attorney Office vacate convictions for all those framed, tortured and wrongfully convicted.
Robert, like many others convicted by police violence or frame-ups in the country was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole despite being barely past his juvenile status. Such a sentence, and the prison-industrial complex overall, are inhumane, and worthy of reconsideration by any society which considers itself “just.” The incarceration of youth, and the police-perpetrated abuse and coercion behind so many convictions, illustrate the brutality of the system as a whole.
The shocking reality in the U.S.A is that nearly 80 percentMany juveniles in prison face life without parole because they are people of color, including many from Black or Latinx communities. Where is society’s social media outcry for them? Where are the second chances? so often grantedTheir white counterparts?
This double standard becomes even more frightening as a new, highly conservative Supreme Court — stacked with three Trump appointees following his minority victory in 2016 — has indicated that a judge does not need to determine “permanent incorrigibility” before sentencing a juvenile to life without parole. This is a reversal of years of precedent and an understanding that juvenile brains do not fully develop. It ignores the fact that we also know this. brains do not automatically become fully formed upon turning 18 — that age is arbitrary.
Washington State’s Supreme Court appears to have recently become the first in the nation from a “brain-development standpoint” to rule that the state “may no longer automatically sentence young adults convicted of murder to life in prison without parole for killings they committed when they were 18, 19 or 20 years old.” Illinois is considering legislation that would do much the same — those convicted at 20 years old and under would, after 40 years, have a chance at parole. Sadly, it is my understanding that the legislation would not be retroactive, meaning that it would not apply to my son — who we maintain is innocent — or others who have been sentenced prior to passage of the legislation.
I am in my 70s so I won’t always be there to fight for my one child. I am leaving behind a small comfort in my life, but I hope that the state will allow me to safely visit my son again. I also hope that more people will join me in my efforts to free wrongfully convicted victims of police violence, like Robert, and all those who are suffering behind bars.
My son brought his case to the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which was established in 2009 to examine claims of police torture in Illinois and make findings about credibility. He asserts that in the state police headquarters, Yucaitis and Brownfield “cuffed his ears, kicked him in the shins, slapped and punched him several times, and squeezed his testicles.” As a result, and to stop the brutal treatment, Robert signed a statement confessing that the shooting of the two men from a rival gang in a stolen vehicle was in self-defense. He denies that he was the shooter today. Whether the two were in a rival gang or in a stolen vehicle is separate from whether they deserve justice — they do. In 2013, the TIRC gave its opinion on Robert’s case, determining that he had presented insufficient evidence to win a new hearing. But my son has now been behind bars for more than 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Robert should be released because there is enough uncertainty and enough evidence of improper police conduct.
I am still troubled by the similar police abuse directed against Steve Rymus, our neighbor, in an attempt to coerce him into making a statement against Robert. Rymus’s mother also has testified that she saw evidence of police abuse against her son and that he confirmed this to her. Abuse by Chicago police is directed not just against suspects, but against community members suspected only of having testimony — real or conjured — that could help advance the police case. As a foundational demand of Campaign to Free Incarcerated Survivors of Torture there is currently legislation being proposed in Illinois that would expand the TIRC’s definition of torture to include the torture and coercion of witnesses — an amendment that could make a huge difference for Robert and others like him. As a member of a commission committed to fairly and accurately investigating claimsThe torture was used to get confessions that led to criminal convictions. The TIRC is not able to provide justice for survivors. TIRCIt is currently underfunded, understaffed, limited in scope, and has a backlog of nearly 500 cases.
My son has been imprisoned and policing abuses for over 30+ years. My son will spend his entire adult life behind bars, unless the governor does something. As a member of a working-class Latinx migrant community that is systemically and deliberately targeted by state scrutiny and racial profiling, I am aware that once youth are caught up in the system — guilty or not — there are very few viable options for relief or redemption.
In this “back-to-school” moment, I urge our society to finally reckon with its mass imprisonment of young people of color who will never have the chance to celebrate the coming of a new school year or consider what they want to be when they grow up. They will spend their entire adult life in prison, in many cases, based on flimsy evidence that was coerced into submission by violent and corrupt cops.