The Story of Ronald Freedom

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Photos by Richard Ross

“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.”

Ronald Franklin's mugshot at 13 years old.

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.

Knowing Ronnie

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.

We followed his story when he was released in April 2015 and a few months later too when he enrolled in school.

Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami has 1,300 beds for male and female inmates of various levels of custody. At the time of visit, the facility was cold, in the low 60s.

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.

4 thoughts on “The Story of Ronald Freedom

  1. I was once a staff at Ronald Franklin’s last facility. I got a chance to meet Ronald and I started to grow close to him, like many other staff & residents. Everybody called him “Frank” he was very talented and displayed a lot of skill sets. By the time I started working at the Facility, Frank had graduated and finished the program, he was serving the rest of his time out. So Frank, had a lot of privileges & was highly favored among staff. For a 20 year old youth at the time, he was obviously more mature than the other youths. What attracted me to Frank was his instrest in certain books like The Isis Papers by Dr. Frances Cress Welsing and 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. So we would talk about a lot social and political subject​ matters. I would also tell him about a lot manhood things as well since he spent his entire teenage life locked up behind bars way too long for a crime he didn’t commit. Frank admitted to the carjacking & home evasion but at the time according to his legal documents he didn’t participate in the rape. Frank was still placed on the sexually side of the facility. Frank allowed me to read his legal documents and his personal journal. He talks about his rough childhood, being raised in a broken home with a mother on drugs. He also talks about his life of crime, details about the incident that got him arrested. He said that he woke up couple of weeks later out of Acoma after crashing the vehicle he carjacked. So this story here is accurate to a certain degree but, what the story is leaving out or the author didn’t know, that the last time Frank was seen alive he was running from law enforcement. His car was impounded by police days before his body was found. I got this information 2nd hand from someone close to family. After reading this story, I don’t believe the official narrative. How a young, athletic guy accidentally drown in a lake that wasn’t even knee high?! Seems to be status quo. Another victim of this on going race war. The new rule is “you better not run”. After the Trayvon Martin case, the race war escalated to a new level here in America, where these race soldiers are being rewarded for killings us. The youths at the facility wasn’t allowed to watch the news, so I was telling them what was going on in world. Frank and I would always talk about what police was doing to us, unarmed black males getting shot and killed weekly at a new alarming rate. Frank was released early 2015, he frequently contacted me. He got out and did everything he said he would do. Frank got a job, started school, got a car, he was playing semi-pro football and making his music. I was so proud. I was a big brotha figure to him and many other youths. All of them but, Frank went back to the streets. A few of them called me after being released and admitted that they were back living the life. This story talks about how the system fails these youths but, this is all deliberate in this system of White Supremacy. Rest in peace little brotha, forever in my heart.

  2. Pingback: Dead at 23: The Tragedy of Ronald Freedom | The Crime Report

  3. This story reminds me a tad of the Kalief Browder story. So many youth are left unadjudicated in this system and it’s pretty sad. This is why I do what I do for a living. I can’t stand to see this.