Redemption denied

A Colorado woman's search for clemency after 30 years inside

Robin Farris writes from prison at Denver Women's Correctional Facility. This was republished from the fall of 2020.

“We Shall Overcome” epitomized the racial climate during the 60s. When these words were spoken, two questions arose: which class of people did “we” include, and what is inferred by “shall overcome?” 

To me it meant that we shall overcome racial inequality, gender biasing, poverty, anti-Semitism, mass incarceration, disproportional prison sentences among African Americans, hatred, and all forms of discriminatory ideologies, and that to overcome any obstacles impeding forward progress we must take on a collective attitude. From the anguish of a single voice, “I can’t breathe,” emerged a new diverse generation of protesters this summer. This message traveled globally to affirm a 21st century intolerance toward racial injustice.

The death of George Floyd followed the disproportionate infliction of disturbing events upon African Americans. This form of systemic racism includes incarceration. African Americans must first jump over hurdles of prejudice when confronting the judicial system. The perspective of African Americans in this country follows those individuals into the courtroom. This stereotype typically assumes certain lifestyle choices like being a drug dealer, a prostitute or dependent on social assistance.

In 1991, I was sentenced to forty years in prison. But I am not a stereotype. I am a college graduate, and prior to my arrest, I was a group home counselor. I am also one of two African American women who have been incarcerated the longest in the state of Colorado — the last thirty years I have been incarcerated. 

The origins of maltreatment against African Americans began centuries ago when slaves arrived on this continent. African's Indigenous language became a concern for slave traders. Therefore it was concluded that all slaves should be silenced. The fear was their vocal protest, spoken in a language not understood by their capacitors. 

To prevent any uprising against enslavement, a device was created to silence those disembarking from slave ships. A crude metal clamp was fashioned with a locking mechanism. This device affixed around the mouth securing their lips shut. A practice referred to as muzzling. We witnessed the continuation of this practice as a Black man was face down on the pavement, straining to speak the words "I can't breathe."

In 1991, during my trial, the District Attorney instructed me to rise from my seat. My height, weight, and additional physical attributes, were displayed for the Caucasian jury. I felt dehumanized as if I were a slave placed on a block before auctioning began. I was left speechless.

Racial silencing enacted four hundred years ago is actually a modern day outcry for justice. Prison is not a social media like free speech environment. I'm determined to have my voice heard. Women sentenced to large amounts of time rarely reoffend which is often overlooked when reviewing requests for clemency. I have applied for Executive Clemency for a second time faced with this obstacle. Colorado has never selected a Black woman for clemency. Former Colorado Governor and current U.S. Senate candidate, John Hickenlooper, could have chosen to speak for those unable to do so by granting my clemency. He did not. 

The past cannot be the only catalyst for change. Inequalities taking place today should be a new inspiration for protest. Equal scales of justice must be restored. I am aware of the enormous variables that must be considered when determining who will be granted clemency. The highest level of rehabilitation must be met. Rehabilitation is synonymous with restoration.

Prison is a justified consequence for my actions. Three decades of incarceration has changed my soul. During the last three decades I have educated myself in juvenile law, computer aided drafting and business technology.

I was granted an academic scholarship from the University of Colorado Boulder. I've earned accreditation in counseling, totaling over 2,000 hours. Additionally, I was awarded numerous certificates signed by former District Attorney Council members. I pray my future allows me to return to usefulness outside of prison.

Whether it is said, “We Shall Overcome or Black Lives Matter,” when the truth is fully realized will I be allowed to speak?


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