Richman Em was 15 years old when he was sentenced to 50 years-to-life in prison. According to testimony during his trial, Em's friends decided to steal a car at a carwash while Em stopped in to use the bathroom. When Em returned and his friends told him of the plan, he allegedly responded, "It's on you if you want to do it." But he was wrong -- because Em was in a gang whose members were about to commit a violent felony, what happened next affected him too.
Em watched as his friends approached the driver of the car, demanded keys and money, then shot. Em didn't fire a bullet, but he was still convicted of "felony murder," a legal provision that in California means a person can be charged with first-degree murder even when the act itself is committed by an accomplice.
Today Em is 21 and housed at the California State Prison in Corcoran. Youth Radio reached out to him as part of our coverage of the national legal battle over long juvenile sentences. And there's been a lot to report. It started early this summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional to sentence kids to life without parole (even in cases involving homicide) due to childrens' capacity to change. On the heels of that decision, the California Supreme Court struck down extraordinarily long sentences for juveniles based on the case of Rodrigo Caballero, who at 16 was sentenced to a minimum of 110 years in prison for three counts of attempted murder. And just this week, California governor Jerry Brown signed a measure (SB 9) which would let the state's 309 inmates serving juvenile life sentences the chance to appeal after 25 years.
Richman Em's sentence isn't technically life in prison, but it's longer than some advocates feel is reasonable given the idea kids can reform. Some of our teen reporters wrote Em and asked him to share his view on the person he was, and the person he has become during his six years in prison. The transcripts and actual text of his letters appear below.
My name is Richman Em. (B)efore I was in prison, the things I like(d) to do daily (were) play basketball and football with my siblings. I enjoyed playing on the computer and talking on the phone with friends. The gist about me is that I had a strict and caring family. Everyone was just busy, so it’s rare to have everyone together at once. But for the most part...I was homebound (sic) and (wasn't) allowed to go out as frequent(ly.)
The neighborhood I resided in and the school I was attending in the 9th grade was fraught with gang activities and slight racism. I was oppressed by Hispanic kids often based on my ethnicity. Because Asian and Hispanic gangs were rivals. So I began to acquaint with people who I felt had my best interest at heart. But then so much came with that and I began to feel stuck and obligated. My world would begin its downward spiral from there.
Hanging with these people, later on they would forcefully urge me to be a part of them. I would later down the line find out I had a son on the way. So I switched schools and stop going around my current peers, but they would catch up with me and told me if I stoped (sic) coming around, then it was going to be “onsight” with me. Meaning physical altercation every time I crossed paths with them. So I gradually went back. So my mom had a plan to ship me off out of state with relatives, but it became too late.
The memories that stick out to me as a teen (are) being a kid lost of his true identity. Not knowing anyone to confide in, who’ll understand the impasse I was in. Always having to look over my back walking home from school. (They) stick out to me because they (were in) a period in my life being a kid and fearing the future. It was (an) everyday internal struggle.
My feeling at the time of the robbery was a combination of fear, powerless, and disbelief. It wasn’t something I consented to, or anticipated. So when it occurred a shocking fear ran through my body.
My day to day life now is mentally straining. I’m in a institution where we get treated like degenerates. The program is inconsistent, so you can never know what to expect, and most time’s were stuck in a the cell, so it’s a nauseating feeling. They deprive us of alot (sic) of resources and opportunities, and it’s a burden. Truthfully they hinder us of rehabilitation. I have to witness so much violence and it’s emotionally detrimental. Primarily my day to day life now is striving to network and find people who can assist me on getting back home. It’s very disheartening and complicated. I fear having to endure this the rest of my life.
What I would want people to understand about me and others who (have) been given a mammoth sentence as kids is, they are forcing us in a pernicious situation. Once we are in prison, we are highly vulnerable. We are compelled to adapt in such an environment. And genuinely we get psychologically damaged. We are automatically exposed to a world of violence. (Y)ou get stabed, raped, or beaten if you are weak and defenseless. They put us in here with grown men, who are experienced and able to control our thinking. How does that help us?
Also I want people to know that we are more capable of change (than) what people think. So "to life" imparted to a kid is a heartwrenching dilemma. Being separated from family, and a life of normalcy forever. That hardship really changes a person. It’s not a slap on the wrist, our reality become(s) one with these concrete (walls) and to feel that “this is it,” “this is my whole life,” I only lived 15 yrs. (B)asically, it’s an indescribable pain. And if a second chance was ever granted, the majority of the kids (would) have learned their lesson. Because it’s a near death experience. Impacts like this in our lives, really define who we are, alter our outlook, and help us begin to appreciate.