The Distance Between an Ocean and a Prison

The high cost of hiring a lawyer, the English language, and an insensible prison system complicate the situation for families in Puerto Rico with relatives imprisoned in the United States.

February 1, 2024

Photo by Wanda Liz Vega | Center for Investigative Journalism

Pedro Roig and Doris González discuss the problems they faced visiting their son confined in a prison in Iowa, United States.

Pedro Roig and Doris González traveled along Interstate 35 North from Texas to Iowa, through a more than 60-mile windstorm that brought snow and sparked tornadoes across the Midwest.

They were in a compact rental car that wobbled every time the trucks zipped by it. The route was 829 miles (at least 12 hours) and they were traveling it for the first time. It was the only way they had, and that was the day they had, Saturday, March 5, 2022, to be able to see their imprisoned son, whom they had not seen for five years.

They had been saving for a long time for that moment. First, they traveled from Puerto Rico and to take advantage of the trip they stopped in Texas, where another son lives, and then went to see the one who is imprisoned in Iowa. The plan was to rent a room in a cheap hotel and stay a week to see him every day.

After that long trip, they finally managed to see him. But only after a bureaucratic fight in which the visit was almost canceled due to technicalities. In the end, contrary to what was planned — spending an entire week and seeing him every day — the Iowa Department of Corrections only authorized a two-hour visit.

Pedro and Doris traveled back to Texas, under the same bad weather conditions. And their son, Carlos Roig, 37, from the town of Juncos, Puerto Rico, stayed where he was: at the Iowa State Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison in an area of desolate plains near the Mississippi River.

Little evidence and half a century in prison

Pedro and Doris, back in Puerto Rico, still have the same wish, or that deep-seated need to see their son again. More than a year has passed since that trip and as if it were a transcendental challenge to the prison system, his father, Pedro, says “we get him out of prison in our minds.”

It’s Saturday morning and the heat feels like noon. Pedro is sitting on a gray couch in the living room of his house in Juncos. He has black plastic glasses and beads of sweat are running down his bald head. Doris, sitting next to him, has blue eyes, gray hair, and sweat running down her cheeks. There is no power in the house: the electricity service went out again. In the background you can hear the noise of a power plant.

The voice of Carlos, the son imprisoned in Iowa, can also be heard in the room through a video call. His mother has the phone in her hand and on his instructions, she tilts it at an angle so that only she and Pedro appear on the screen. No one else has permission from the prison authorities to participate in the conversation.

His family’s house, which was also his home, is in the urban area of Juncos, a town in Puerto Rico’s eastern central region. It has a tiny porch, with railings, that overlooks a narrow street full of cars parked on the sidewalk. Pedro works at Puerto Rico Ferry, the ferry service that goes to the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra from Ceiba in the East coast. He used to work at the Metropolitan Bus Authority. Doris works at home.

Several photos of the only time they have been able to see Carlos, their son imprisoned in the United States, adorn a wall in the Roig González Family home, in Juncos.
Photo by Wanda Liz Vega | Center for Investigative Journalism

On the hallway wall that goes from the living room to the kitchen there is a family tree with the title Familia Roig, made with paper letters of different colors. Framed family photos hang on the branches. Among them, one that was taken with their son the only time they have been able to visit him since he was imprisoned on January 24, 2018, accused of a combination of three minor robberies in which there was no use of firearms or injured people.

“Right now, I’m serving a 50-year sentence, with a 35-year mandatory minimum sentence,” Carlos told me in a phone call.

His father, Pedro, had gotten in touch through a letter to the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) after the publication of the series “The Invisible Diaspora: Puerto Ricans in United States Prisons.” He wanted to tell his son’s story because he believes the sentence imposed on him was disproportionate, and that the public post-sentence defense system, to which his son is entitled in the state of Iowa, has failed him.

After several phone conversations with his father and mother, I wrote to Carlos through the CorrLinks email service, which costs 25 cents for each message. For two weeks we spoke by phone four times. Calls from the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison are free and last only 20 minutes, once a day. But access to the phone is not guaranteed. At the end of one of the calls Carlos told me “I’ll call you tomorrow, if everything is OK, because I’m in a maximum-security prison.”

“I was first charged with a robbery at a Kay Jewelers jewelry store [in Cedar Falls, Iowa]. They didn’t have enough evidence. They accused me of two more robberies basically about a week or two weeks later… Literally, the police report says that it was a small man with a Mexican accent, and he was masked, that was the comparison,” Carlos said.

As a child he lived and studied in New Jersey, where Pedro and Doris met and married in 1979. In Puerto Rico, when he was between 26 and 27 years old, he had drug addiction problems and spent two years in prison for a double-murder case, for which he was released after testifying for the prosecution. The government promised him protection, but he says they didn’t deliver.

“The government of Puerto Rico basically abandoned me. After they got a confession, I had to remain in hiding for almost eight months in my parents’ house, without leaving. That was while I was able to come here to Iowa with a friend. That was the reason why I came to Iowa,” Carlos told me in a call.

In Iowa he got a job in a casino. But when the owner discovered his record, he fired him. Carlos was arrested in Cedar Falls where he lived with his partner, a city of just over 40,700 inhabitants where 91.2% are white, 1.3% black and 2.7% Latino.

Iowa State Penitentiary, Fort Madison
Photo from the Iowa Department of Corrections

Carlos’ legal defense pointed to a lack of evidence, arguing that the State failed to prove that a knife allegedly used in the robbery was a dangerous weapon. The knife was described by an officer as approximately two to three inches. They also questioned the lack of evidence to identify Carlos. But the jury ruled against him. Area media covered the case extensively and published photos of Carlos, then 34 years old.

“It’s frustrating to think that I could die here,” Carlos wrote me in an email.

In the hallway of his parents’ house you can see other photos, like one in which Carlos is in bed playing with his son. The boy is now 10 years old and sleeps in one of the rooms at the end of the hallway in his grandparents’ house. It’s October and there is a Christmas tree in the living room.

“What you see there is something we found on sale and started to put it up,” said Pedro, pointing to the tree, as if apologizing for having put it up so early. “He told me, don’t hold off on this, if it gives us strength, because… a very brutal depression and well, we set it up because we have a lot of faith in God that my son will at least have a chance,” says Doris, her voice breaking.

Thousands of families and the community

This is one of the thousands of Puerto Rican families experiencing the same situation. A son, a father, a friend, a sister, or a mother, imprisoned in the United States. Just counting the six states with the most Puerto Ricans — Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut — there were 5,326 men and 148 women who were born in Puerto Rico serving sentences in state prisons, according to data from December 2022 to February 2023, the CPI revealed.

“When somebody goes into the prison system, they don’t go alone. They go with their family and friends. I call it ‘the hidden sentence’ because people outside are serving the sentence with their loved ones. The only difference is that they’re serving a sentence on the outside,” said Julia Lazareck, president of Prison Families Alliance Inc., an organization based in Las Vegas, Nevada, that supports family members of incarcerated people.

Eneida Colón agrees. “We are also their prisoners,” she says. By “they” she refers to the prison system. Specifically, to the federal prison in Florida where her partner is imprisoned.

Colón is from the island municipality of Vieques. In September 2023, her partner turned himself in to the FBI in a drug trafficking case. He spent time in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Guaynabo. When he was sentenced to nine years in prison, he was transferred to the Coleman Institution, a minimum-security federal prison in Sumter County, Central Florida, an hour from the Orlando airport.

To visit him, Colón filled out the required documentation and mailed it. But they returned it to her because she had sent it in a brown envelope. It had to be white. She sent it again, following the instructions, and was approved.

Last December, after coming up with the money needed, Colón made her first trip to visit her partner, along with his mother, who is 75 years old, a five-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son who has special needs.

“We live in Vieques, we have to take a ferry, travel an hour or so if it’s the cargo ferry, find a place to sleep overnight. Travel to San Juan, then travel by plane,” said Colón.

In Orlando, she had to pay about $500 for a rental car and booked two nights in a hotel. When she got to the prison gate on December 23, the day before Christmas Eve, she was told visits had been canceled.

It wasn’t the first time. In November, her partner’s brother, also from Vieques, had bought tickets for the family, rented a car, and booked a hotel. But close to the date of the visit, it was canceled. They lost about $2,000, the same as Colón spent in December.

Colón was first told that the cancellation without prior notice was due to “security issues.” They later told her that it was due to lack of personnel.

“The correctional administration justified its decision by claiming that they were following guidelines from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who supposedly authorized the day off for the holiday period, leaving family members without the possibility of seeing their loved ones,” La Prensa newspaper in Orlando reported.

Federal and state prisons in the United States are in crisis due to a lack of correctional guards. The crisis is so severe that in some cases, teachers, case managers and secretaries have had to serve as guards in federal prisons, The New York Times reported in May. And several states, including Florida, have turned to the National Guard to cover prison personnel.

Recruiting staff has always been difficult for Corrections departments. But 2022 had the lowest figure in two decades. At the same time, after a drastic decrease in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the prison population number has been increasing since 2022, according to The Marshall Project.

Colón also has problems contacting her partner by phone.

“The institution’s phones are in such bad shape that it makes it difficult to understand anything, sometimes they go silent. I have no problems with them recording me and the procedures, but the phones make it impossible to understand the person speaking on the other side of the line,” said Colón.

The other option is to write via email through the CorrLinks service. But Colón gave up doing it when she found out that the emails were charged directly to him. This could cost him between $15 to $30 a month, and her partner does volunteer work, without pay. In the little communication they have had, she says that her partner projects himself positively. He had a welding job in an institution hangar and says his sentence could be reduced for good behavior.

But for Colón that doesn’t make up for wanting to see him.

“Even if it’s for four hours or eight hours. Even if it’s sitting in a chair. At least see where he is, how things are handled there, because when there’s abuse you can notice at first sight. I know it’s not going to be like a day trip. And there has to be seriousness in the matter. I’m not going to have a good time. But at least one wants to know that the human being that’s there, who’s my partner, that we have something sentimental, that he is the person that I love… I want to see him. And see the facilities, see how everything is, even if I leave traumatized, even if I leave crying, but at least I saw it.”

Colón and her partner have been in a relationship for seven years, but they met 20 years ago when they were studying Social Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey Campus. Both are 44 years old; Colón is a social worker, and her partner had a welding workshop. Before being imprisoned, his only criminal record was having spent a few months in federal prison for participating in protests against the presence of the U.S. Navy in Vieques.

Crisis in the U.S. justice system

In addition to being cruel, “placing inmates so far from their families and communities impedes their chances for successful reentry into society,” said Marie Gottschalk, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a specialist in criminal justice, in her book “Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics.”

Gottschalk studied the transfer of incarcerated people between states. But Puerto Ricans imprisoned in the United States who have family in Puerto Rico face the same problem. Sometimes, the situation of distance is complicated by the lack of command of the English language by the imprisoned person and their family, which results in not understanding the processes and not being able to adequately follow the legal procedure.

“Many families have a tough time when an offspring ends up in prison here,” said Phillip Arroyo, a Puerto Rican criminal lawyer with an office in Florida.

“It is twice as difficult, number one the distance and number two the language barrier. Many times, there are many family members who try to follow what’s happening in the case through the court page, but everything is in English. Obviously, they must have a competent lawyer, who is not only competent, but also bilingual,” said Arroyo, who has handled several cases of Puerto Ricans imprisoned in Florida whose family is in Puerto Rico.

Carlos Roig, who is serving a sentence in Iowa, and his family are at least fluent in English. Even so, they believe that they have violated his rights, locking him in solitary confinement arbitrarily, hindering the visitation and communication process, and above all, not providing him with an effective legal defense.

“There is a crisis in the U.S. Public Defender’s Office. In addition to the overload of cases they have, they pay very little compared to a private lawyer, they don’t pay enough, and they have a retention problem,” Arroyo said.

“So far, from the original case, the trial and appeal, I’m already going on the ninth lawyer,” said Roig in a call from the Iowa penitentiary.

All the lawyers assigned to him after his incarceration have abandoned the case. At the time of the call in October, he didn’t have an assigned lawyer and had just a few months left until the deadline to file another appeal.

“Everything is time sensitive. There is a time [limit] to submit everything,” said Carlos.

His family tried to hire a private lawyer in the United States, who assured them he could “get him out the same day.” He was charging $35,000. Arroyo believed that although the lawyer could refer to the lack of conclusive evidence against Roig, ensuring that he could get him out is unethical, because no lawyer can guarantee that.

“The cost of a lawyer is a major obstacle for these people to get legal representation. But one of the things that’s very difficult to judge is how much a lawyer is worth. And when there’s a vulnerable market, there is potential for abuse,” said Diego Alcalá, attorney and law professor at Delaware Law School.

“Each case is different, and the rate is set according to the level of complexity, but usually [in the United States] for a less serious crime, of the third degree, it’s approximately $5,000. Second degree about $15,000. And a first-degree felony, $30,000 or more,” said Arroyo.

“I’ve called several lawyers in Iowa, but there’s no lawyer who’s interested, no one, unless it’s for a lot of money,” said Pedro, Carlos Roig’s father, who is still searching for a private lawyer to handle his son’s case. 

Family helplessness due to lack of information

Keila Ramos, a school assistant from Fajardo, a town on the eastern tip of the big island of Puerto Rico, was pregnant in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. Everything was closed.

“I was going to have the baby and we had nothing,” Ramos said. 

Roberto Rodríguez, her husband, accepted a job offer from his brother, who was in the state of Florida, sealing roofs.

There he worked for a month and managed to send Ramos — who had stayed in Fajardo — everything for the baby. Rodríguez’s plan was to return in time to meet his new daughter. But the day before returning to Puerto Rico, he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

“I believe that all his rights were violated because he doesn’t know the language and they didn’t explain it to him well and he signed a 35-year agreement renouncing all appeal rights,” said Ramos, who is 32. Rodríguez is 34.

“He was like my lifelong boyfriend. I have been with that man since I was 18.”

Their daughter is now three years old and has not been able to meet her father, imprisoned in Florida. She also has another daughter, 12, and a son, 13, who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“He was very affected because he was very attached to his father,” said Ramos, adding that she had to resort to psychological assistance for her son.

Regarding her husband’s case, she said she doesn’t know many details.

“I feel this helplessness of wanting to know more and because the line where he calls from, everything is monitored and recorded, he never tells me anything. What I do know is that he is very calm.”

They are rarely able to communicate because they don’t have the budget to pay for calls. In Florida, a 15-minute call can cost $8.45. In three years, Ramos has not been able to visit her husband, but she hoped to go in December 2023.

The loss of a father

Roberto Rodríguez’s father, who lives in Florida and has the same name as his son, has not been able to visit him either. According to Rodríguez Sr., the Florida Department of Corrections does not allow him to visit his son because he has a criminal record. The events, for which he never went to prison, but was only on probation, occurred more than 30 years ago.

“Since I ran into trouble when I was young, my life changed, I was a different person. They shouldn’t penalize a person for that, I don’t know, it’s a very hard thing, it’s really hard here,” said Rodríguez Sr., a retired contractor who lives in Sandford, Central Florida. In Florida, the state where the most Puerto Ricans live in the US, as of February 2023, there were 1,444 men and 45 women who were born in Puerto Rico serving sentences in state prisons, according to data obtained by the CPI.

“Then you have to be recharging a card so that the man can communicate with you. On top of the fact that he has no visitors, if his wife doesn’t have money to reload that card, she doesn’t get calls from him. If I don’t have money to reload the card, I don’t have contact with him either. It’s uphill. And the guy is there. And it’s hard, because that man can serve his sentence and nobody ever went to visit him.”

Rodríguez said his son’s case did not go to trial, but rather he accepted guilt in exchange for a 35-year sentence. If he went to trial, he faced life in prison. The lawyer representing him, Phillip Arroyo, was willing to go to trial. But the Rodríguezes preferred not to take the risk.

“I’m not going to pay a lawyer to give my son a life [sentence], that’s why I’m leaving things as they were,” said Rodríguez Sr.

The father says that when he found out that his son was imprisoned, his world fell apart.

“And I couldn’t do anything in the process because it was in the middle of a pandemic and you couldn’t do anything man, nothing, my hands were tied… Florida’s system is harder than any other state…It’s a bad thing, because a son is a son, and my son has my blood. You feel bad because it’s a loss that you carry around.”

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