No 2nd Chances for People Like Us

Jun 7, 2022 | Features, Photo Essay, Recent Stories

Text By: Anthony Gomez, Angel DeJesus & Craig Martin

Craig Martin, Co-Host The Good Road

So, guys, Anthony…Angel, thank you so much for coming out and hanging with me. We’re going to have some good Cuban food, not Puerto Rican food, but you know, it’s close enough, right? Anthony, starting with you. Tell me your story from the beginning. Tell me, first of all, where you grew up and and then coming to Richmond and then your story after you came here.

Anthony Gomez, former prisoner in Virginia from the Puerto Rican diaspora –

Well, I had a rough childhood. You know, poor neighborhood, poor upbringing. When I turned 17, my mom sent me to Virginia to live with an uncle hoping to get me away from the streets to go get a fresh start. Within three months I find myself in big trouble. I commit a crime or a violent crime, and I end up getting convicted and sentenced to prison for life. Only 17 and Puerto Rican from the Bronx, down in Virginia in the ‘90’s.

Craig Martin – 

Angel, you have a similar story, but a little different.

Angel DeJesus, former prisoner in Virginia from the Puerto Rican diaspora –

I was born in Puerto Rico, Humacao. I was raised in Yabucoa. Anybody who knows about that man, it’s kind of like the the upside of Puerto Rico, the mountains. My mom’s side. She moved to New York back in the early late 70s, early 80s, and we sat settled in Brooklyn, New York. I lived there for like, from age four or five. Then I went back to Puerto Rico with my grandmother due to some complicated issues. I was coming back and forth of only going to New York. I went to school in both Puerto Rico and New York.

So the last time I ended up coming back to New York was when Hurricane Hugo, I think, was like 1989 at that time. My grandmother, she was like, we got to go back to New York because the island right now is not beneficial to nobody right now.

So we packed up and left. That became the hardest thing for me because I went from living on an island where I could consider, you know, a place that I was being brought up where there was no violence, no crime and violence.

Going from that transition to New York, Brooklyn, Bushwick projects, it was violent. The crack pandemic was at its highest. I became part of the streets and I gravitated towards the streets. I committed my first crime. I ended up, because my Mom was on crack, and I just gravitated towards the streets, cutting school.

And, that led for me to come down to Virginia, which eventually led me to also being incarcerated with a life sentence at the age of 17. It was tough. I ended up doing time in New York also because I had a violation for my probation for the crime that I committed when I was 15. And so from the age of 15 to the age of 17, my life was a spiral. I was young, no guidance. I never met my father.

Co-Host of The Good Road, Craig Martin, interviews former prisoners Anthony Gomez and Angel Jesus at Kuba Kuba Restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Angel Jesus explains his life as a Puerto Rican living in Brooklyn, New York. [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Angel Jesus tears up as he tells his prison story. [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Craig Martin references the shock that must have come for two young Brooklyn native Puerto Ricans upon learning they had been sentenced to life in a Virginia prison. [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Anthony talks about the realization that he might live the rest of his life far from his family in a prison in Richmond, Virginia. [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Craig asks about the first time Angel and Anthony met each other. [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Angel talks about being relieved to know that he was going to prison. He told the federal agent who arrested him, “I’m just tired.” [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Craig Martin –

The crazy idea that both of you could come here to Virginia wind up here. And you know, you guys admit you did what you did. But then you understood I’m gonna spend the rest of my life in a prison in, what I would assume, was a very foreign place for you.

Anthony Gomez –

I’m not going to lie, when they sentenced me to life it was June 5th, 1998, and I remember the date and it was on a Friday and it was hot outside summertime. And when the judge, he was handed down the sentence. He handed down the numerical numbers first and I’m trying to count and then I lost count because there were so many years and then the last thing he said was life, it was life. And then I looked up. I saw the end of his robe. They jacked me up, they put me in the cell to send me back, they was going to process me to the prison system. And you know, hearing my family behind me crying, my mom and my sister, she was young. It was tough. It was tough. I did not know, I mean, I knew that I wasn’t going to walk out. I understood the gravity of what I did.

And I understood that, you know, there was going to be a punishment that was going to come with it. I didn’t know what the punishment was going to be. I know it wasn’t going to be a slap on the wrist, but I don’t think anyone is ever ready. You know, to hear the word you’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison and know that moment from when I was handed a sentence, when they put me in that holding cell and I stayed there for several hours. You know, I mean, I just couldn’t help but cry, you know, tears just coming down. I was thinking of my family.

At the time I had just turned 18. Now I’m about to enter the prison system and I didn’t know what awaited me. It was tough. I mean, growing up in the Bronx, it was a tough neighborhood. So, I wasn’t afraid…I grew up in a tough environment. But it was more of a mental deep down that the rest of my life was going to be in prison.

Craig Martin –

Angel, tell me about and when you guys first noticed each other.

Angel DeJesus –

I’m gonna take you back to when I first got incarcerated. My crime occurred in 1995, February 7th. It’s a day I will never forget. I ended up going back to New York, but I didn’t know somebody had died when I actually, you know, committed my crime, I didn’t know it was one bullet that was shot and it ricocheted from a wall and hit somebody else. So when I got on a bus, I did not know that somebody was dead or anything, but I ended up in New York by chance. About two weeks later, federal officers came and got me in my house in my Mom’s apartment.

I was relieved because my life just was not in the right direction. And I remember telling the federal agent, Thank you. And he asked me why? Because I’m just tired, I’m tired, I’m tired. A child at age 17 saying these things are not easy. The judge sentenced me to Life with no parole.

Craig Martin –

Sorry to interrupt. But a life sentence meant life.

Angel DeJesus –

Life…in Virginia they have a law where you can actually go up for parole after 60 years. So, just imagine I had to serve 40 something years before I could even be even considered for geriatric parole?

They put me in segregation for a few days to actually decompose because they felt that I could be harmful to myself and harmful to others. I end up going back to receiving and that’s where I met Anthony. I was working in the kitchen and I see this young guy, man and he looked Hispanic You don’t find too many Hispanics in this state.

Anthony Gomez –

You don’t find Puerto Ricans.

Angel: “You don’t find too many Hispanics in this state [Virginia].” Anthony: “You don’t find Puerto Ricans.” [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Angel DeJesus –

So, I’m looking through the window, I’m looking at him, he’s looking at me and we just like kind of exchanging looks. He said “what’s your nationality, man? I’m Puerto Rican. And, from that moment on, this is 1997. The relationship that me and Anthony had…it became the foundation for what is today. This is my brother. We did 27 years together.

Anthony Gomez –

We have family. He has brothers and I have brothers, but our family wasn’t incarcerated with us. You know, our family is in New York they’re spread out. We were there every day, you know? And so he reminds me all the time, I know you better than your brother knows you or your mother knows you.

Angel DeJesus –

I’ve seen him at his weakest moments, and he’s seen me at my weakest moments. I know a little more than him about prison because I’ve been getting incarcerated since the age of 15. I kind of felt like I have to watch over this guy. I became kind of like his safe haven. You know, like anything that I heard anything going on with him…I didn’t care what I was doing, I felt like I had to be there. My duty there was to actually make sure that whatever I could do for him, no matter what I was doing, it was genuine. It was like sheltering your little brother, your baby brother, making sure that no harm comes his way. And even though he’s a grown man. I felt like I had to be there.

Anthony snaps a picture of his Puerto Rican brother, Angel, as he carries his stuff out of a Virginia prison. [Photo by Anthony Gomez]

Former parole officer and advocate Andrea Edmunds listens as her friends Anthony and Angel talk about life in prison. [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Angel talks on the radio about his experience in prison. [Photo by ?]

Craig Martin –

So fast forward last week you had a connection to a woman named Andrea Edmunds.

Anthony Gomez – 

A life sentence essentially says that you don’t belong in society because you are a danger to society. You know you are the worst of the worst. You know, you can’t be out here. I knew that that wasn’t me. I mean, I made a poor decision. I didn’t intend to take a life. It was an accident, but it was done in the commission of another crime that was intending on doing. There were people that I encountered in the justice system that wanted the best for me. They did not want the outcome of life for me.

Andrea, when I accepted responsibility, I pled guilty. And when they did a pre-sentencing report…

Craig Martin –

Andrea was a parole officer as a probation parole.

Anthony Gomez –

They get tasked with preparing a pre-sentence report for the judge and they do an investigation into your background, your upbringing, you know, your family, you know, educate the judge on what type of person you are, and the judge can be informed on whether he’s going to say this is a life or death. You know, in Virginia, those records aren’t binding, you know, so a judge can disregard them. He can do what he wants to do. You know, looking back, in hindsight, my crime was committed in the 90s. There was a spike in crime. There was a perception against juvenile offenders that they were referring to us as “Super Predators.” The thinking was that if he did that at 17, imagine what he’s going to do when he becomes an adult. So these are the things that they were trying to make us believe and I knew that wasn’t true about me and people like Andrea…

Craig Martin –

And by the way, the “Predator,” that comment also is very tied to the fact that you’re Puerto Rican, right?

Anthony Gomez –

Exactly. You know, because they looked at it like, we were people of color…the way that it was explained to me is that they looked at people like us as being more aggressive? And so if he does something like that, it’s almost like that’s expected and is only going to get worse. So, we were labeled “Super Predators.”

Craig: And by the way, the “Predator,” that comment also is very tied to the fact that you’re Puerto Rican, right? [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Craig Martin –

In a lot of ways, the system failed, you guys. But then you had advocates. And when was it Anthony that you reconnected somehow with Andrea? We’re members of ICAN and CFSY. ICAN stands for Incarcerated Church’s Advocacy Network and CFSY stands for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

There were a lot of good people out here in society that thought that there was something wrong with taking a person who is a juvenile, and made some of the worst decisions they made, and putting them in prison for the rest of his life. And, they began advocating for us across the country; it just became a national thing. We were in prison and we we’re hearing about these things and we’re reading some of the literature. One of the things that had the biggest big impact on me was a report done by the Human Rights Watch called “For the Rest of Their Lives.” I was in tears.

[Anthony chokes up, Angel consoles him]

Sorry man.

It was tough. But people fought, people fought. Then we started seeing some of the court decisions. Then we saw some of the pushback because when that came, opposition voices, that they should not get a second chance, you know, they committed their crimes. They should pay with their lives. Voices in our favor came. And, eventually you started seeing the tumbling of that ideology.

I think the time’s right now cause for a lot of looks at what’s really going on with the criminal justice system, especially in Virginia. I think all over the country right now.

And I don’t want to make this political because it’s not about that. But as you can see also in the news, this is no longer about humans. This is all politics. The left and the right, who’s right and who’s wrong . They don’t want to budge. But, they forget about the humanity part of being alive and having a heart. It’s like they took that concept away from living.

How can you take that away from a person known to be heartless like that, you know?

This is what we’re facing now, even having been granted our second chances by people who believe in second chances. And now people who don’t necessarily believe in second chances for people like us are making policies. We’re asking the same questions and we’re trying to show them that it’s been our experience that the people who put them in office believe in second chances. Most decent, good people out here believe in second chances. It’s hard to connect a second chance with the person at the moment of the crime because you don’t think of a second chance at that moment, he did that he has to be punished? And, you know, we agree with that. I was not expecting, you know, OK, I messed up. Can I go home now? I knew there was a punishment associated with it.

But to take a person and say we’re going to sentence you to prison for the rest of your life without giving a window of opportunity for some redemption because when they granted our second chances we deserved it because we earned it. Everybody wishes they had a second chance. We did the things we had to do to put ourselves in a position where people can say he deserves a second chance. Second chances are for people who earn it. We made mistakes. You know, those mistakes impacted people, they impacted us. We changed our lives around. So when a person comes to that realization, and changes his life around and he demonstrates it with actions in his life over a period of years, why can that person not be considered for a second chance?

Craig Martin –

Angel, Anthony, I meant this when I said it’s a privilege and an honor to interview you guys. Thank you for what you’re doing. And keep up the good fight. Love you guys. Let’s eat!

[Postscript: Anthony Gomez was granted parole on July 28, 2020. And, Angel Jesus was pardoned on January 13, 2022. Both have committed their new lives in freedom to helping with justice reform and helping young people who have been incarcerated]

Watch the full interview below:

Angel and Anthony chat with Craig about prison reform and prisoner advocacy over Cuban food at Kuba Kuba.

Anthony remembers the people who advocated for him somberly. [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Anthony poses with famed prison reform advocate Bryan Stephenson. Bryan Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Birmingham, Alabama. [Photo by Taylor Quinn]

Brothers for life – Anthony and Angel pose with a recently paroled prison brother who served 25 years with them. [Photo by ?]

Anthony points proudly to a picture of former Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam who made it possible for him to be paroled. [Photo by ?]

New York Puerto Rican brothers Anthony Gomez and Angel Jesus pose in freedom at the James River. [Photo by ?]

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