The Day They Sentenced My Son to Federal Prison

    They stole my baby again. It doesn’t matter that he’s 26 years old. It doesn’t matter that it was an extension of the first system that took him. What matters is, they did it.

    On September 29, my son was sentenced to two years and nine months in federal prison.

    I’ve always been straight-up about my own substance use disorder. I’m open about it because no person should die in shame because they used drugs. Whenever that happens, we have all failed as a society. I have committed my life to help marginalized people, because humanity isn’t something you get to assign to those you deem worthy—no one should experience the guilt and shame I went through.

    Unfortunately, my son got the same traits and used drugs to cope with life, just as I did. He ended up doing illegal things to make money because he had no job, and a huge family to clothe and feed at such a young age. There are those of you who will ask, Why did he have so many kids? Well they’re here, alive and thriving.

    I warned my son that the system would eat him up, like it did me. After I was criminalized and made homeless for my drug use, the system turned members of my own family against me, convinced them I was unworthy of raising my own newborn baby girl due to my drug use.

    I knew the feds were watching him, ever since he had been arrested for the first time, for a similar charge back in 2014. But he thought he knew better, as all young adults do. They caught up to him eventually, and once they got their claws in him, they didn’t let go. In 2019 they made him come back to New York from Florida, where they could watch his every move. They handed him his own leash and said, Here you go, go ahead and hang yourself. And as a young poor man from the hood, hang himself he did.

    You could hear prosecutors and the staff in court, talking and laughing as if there wasn’t a young, scared man sitting there with his future at stake.

    Due to the pandemic, I was only able to access the court proceedings over the phone. That made it even harder, when I hadn’t seen my son in almost nine months.

    On the day of sentencing, you could hear prosecutors and the staff in court, talking and laughing as if there wasn’t a young, scared man sitting there with his future at stake. My hands and legs were shaking. The tears were already streaming down my cheeks. Then the check-ins began. The judge was extremely polite, making sure my son could hear every word she said, stopping every so often to ask, “Mr. Ortiz can you hear the proceedings well?”

    The words felt sadistic, every kindness condescending. I just saw my son as a six-year-old boy, surrounded by adults who were there to scold him.

    The judge and public defender discussed how many chances he was given and didn’t take advantage of. It’s true that he tested positive once while on pretrial parole and living outside. He was violated and sent straight to an inpatient program—one of the worst inpatient programs I know of. The way he was treated there was outrageous, as I previously described.

    He committed a crime. It wasnt murder, it wasnt home invasion; it was fraud—committed against a white person. That, combined with drug use and a past drug conviction, was enough to automatically qualify him for a two-to-four-year mandatory minimum sentence in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

    Last year, the news covered several white celebrities who committed a different kind of fraud. They were fortunate enough to get a sweet deal of short sentences in prisons with spas and all kinds of amenities.

    Because my son was Brown and poor and used drugs, he wasn’t worthy of any type of leniency. Not that the judge could have provided much. She excused herself by noting that she had no choice but to sentence him to the mandatory minimum according to the law and his history.

    What my son needed was a job program, counseling or therapy, and help in developing coping skills—none of which, by the way, were available to him during his 10 months in jail awaiting sentencing. So he sat and wasted time when he could’ve been accumulating days to shorten his sentence.

    But even therapists too often subscribe to the system’s narrative. None of the ones I went to ever bothered to ask what made me use drugs to begin with.

    Clearly, my problem was me. My son used drugs for his own reasons. But clearly, his problem was him.

    I don’t know the answer for sure. Perhaps it was the trauma I experienced as a 13-year-old girl losing her mother to breast cancer. I was pulled out of middle school to move to another state to help my mother as she went through chemotherapy. I watched her die slowly, this beautiful, strong, caramel-colored woman with hair down her back that she would always ask me to brush. I never had the heart to tell her there was nothing to brush anymore, so I brushed anyway. Or was it having a father present who only cared for one of his nine children, and the chosen one wasn’t me?

    But no one ever asked. Clearly, my problem was me. My son used drugs for his own reasons. But clearly, his problem was him.

    The judge really tried to sound human as she sentenced him, but I’m convinced there was someone operating her from underneath her robe. The DA stayed pretty quiet during the proceedings. I mean, I would too, if my job was being done for me.

    I formerly worked at an organization of attorneys that fought until our last breath for our clients—even if we lost, at least we could say we tried, and gave it our best fight.

    My mother taught me, if I couldn’t say anything nice about someone, not to say anything at all. So I won’t talk much about the public defender. I’ll just say, she had a warm body she needed to represent and she did just that. She stood right next to him at every appearance and looked the part of an attorney.

    For now, my son has two years and nine months to look forward to. So do his children. So do I. In the feds, he can be shipped anywhere in the country, so I don’t know when I’ll see him again. And our family becomes another statistic to illustrate the perverse cruelty our system inflicts on people of color who use drugs.


    Photo by Carrie Z from Pixabay

    • Dinah is a writer and activist who has dedicated the majority of her time advocating to end the stigma surrounding PWUD and PWID. She has devoted over eight years advocating for marginalized parents in a variety of contexts, and contributing to Rise magazine, The Chronicle for Social Change and other publications. She has appeared on dozens of panels nationwide to discuss the racial disparities in the child welfare system.

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