“I’m free today, Richard. I’m breathing free air,” he said to me. That was three years ago and my friend Ronald Franklin had finally been released.
Incarcerated since he was 13, and now at 20, he was free.
The deck was stacked against Ronald, but a kid of such talent and enthusiasm had a shot.
Once out, he started calling himself Ronald Freedom. He got a job parking cars at the airport, and was living with his mother — a 30-year crack addict now recovered. But, he was from Miami Gardens, and the odds are against you when you are born there. This is the setting for "Moonlight," and the film’s portrayal is both accurate and unfortunate.
“I am almost glad Ronnie is in prison,” said Carla, Ronald’s mother, more than once, “because out here, on the streets, he would be dead.”
I could never understand the logic. The choice of prison being the better alternative to existence.
When he was finally released, there were rough restarts for Ronald. You simply don’t spend all your teenage years incarcerated and walk out with the skills you need to survive in any institution, even college. Florida detention and DOC is far from perfect in helping kids gain skills, and returning to the same neighborhood presented problems.
Ronald tried to keep his beats and his music going. He finally got a job working at Home Depot. He enrolled in a computer class. We bought him a laptop to help. It was going good. “It’s all good, Richard.” This was the message of the occasional calls. Ronnie was fixated with his phone, as he had nothing like it for the past seven years. It would ring, vibrate and light up on a regular basis.
I had dinner with Ronnie a few months ago at a nice restaurant in Miami. He ordered steak well done…because he heard someone do the same, but he wasn’t sure what it meant. His exposure to the world beyond Miami Gardens was limited, and in prison you take what’s given to you rather than order your preference.
There were cracks in the façade of stability that were appearing. Ronnie’s mother, Carla, and his sister had moved away. But he said it was all good because there was a month left on the lease. Later, I asked where he was staying. “Around,” he said. I worked with Gale Lewis — his defense attorney — to try and get him shelter or some sort of housing. There was something very specific for young men like him in Miami, but each time I inquired if he had gone there was an answer like, “I can’t take time off from work to meet with them.” He was still staying “around.” Something was off. As good as it seemed to be going, something was off.
Yesterday, I got an email from Gale with the subject Ronald and the message “Call me.”
I knew what it was, Ronald had been rearrested, the system failed him and he was brought back into custody. But it wasn’t.
“Ronnie is dead.”
He was found in a shallow pond, not far from his house. Gale Lewis, a Miami-Dade Public Defender, told me in tears, “I knew he would break my heart, but I didn’t expect this.” Lewis is trying to get Miami Homicide to investigate.
“Their priority on a crime like this is low. There was no obvious trauma on the body, he was not using any drugs, the pond was a shallow wading depth and Ronald had been dead for about three days,” she said.
I met Ronnie in the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami, the adolescent wing where he had been held for four-and-a-half years without adjudication. Officials had lots of excuses, but it is clear a fair and speedy trial doesn’t exist for kids in this world.
At home—a month before he was arrested—a knife was involved and the police were called. He fled, got caught up with a group of kids. He was accused of carjacking and a gang rape. There were multiple defendants and multiple states attorneys. Ronnie was the youngest of the group at thirteen. It was a terrible night for many people: the victim as well as the lonely 13-year-old boy.
Ronald’s mother, Carla, was all he had to get him through his years at TGK and Okachobee. This is not atypical. In spite of what some people can see as family chaos, incarcerated children — possibly well into their adult years if the sentence dictates — view their mother with understanding and love. Few people are as willing to forgive a parent as an incarcerated son. Ronald was one of the most forgiving and kept pictures of his mother on open pages of his bible.
Carla fought addiction for 30 years. She has been clean and sober for more than seven years, and is now working in a day care center trying to help other families — other young children.
When kids are released with ankle monitors from Miami Dade, they are shown a wall of 50 photocopies of faces with the word “EXPIRED” handwritten across the page — fifty young men are deceased — died violently from gunshot wounds.
The photocopies are taped prominently to the wall to impress upon the young men the consequences of deviating. A twisted “graduation” wall of others in similar circumstances, some of them friends. Fifty lives and more everyday — and those are in the last two years of kids from Miami Gardens. Now Ronnie can be placed on this wall — another name, another photocopy — another young life lost.
No one to report Ronnie missing
The outcomes of many of these kids’ lives are predetermined by the zip codes of their birth. I thought Ronnie was different. I thought he had caught a break and had the talent and ability to at least survive. But Miami Gardens and the world Ronnie lived in took its ultimate toll.
Ronald’s death goes down as another statistic. Another young black man from the urban ghetto — who had made his start in a broken home — evolved to years in juvie, then prison, parole and finally a shallow pond. With no one to care, no one to report him missing. Alone. But alone among all the other young men and women we have failed. My friend Ronnie. No longer breathing free air.
Someone cries for you.