By Erica Itzkowitz, member of Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement

June 22, 2017


I met Ralph 18 years ago, when he was11, living in a foster care home in New Rochelle, with his sister and 4 other cousins, who were also in foster care with their great aunt. He was a precocious, 11-year old, who loved basketball.

My husband and I mentored all 6 children, for many years… and witnessed the horrific systems these children and their families were subject to.

Ralph suffered much trauma in his formative years, and his anger was apparent. He moved to his grandmother’s at age 14, then to 2 residential treatment facilities, and then at age 18, he “aged out” and went to living where he could and on the streets. He never graduated from High School, and maybe went up to 9th grade. His foster care to residential facilities to prison pipeline was well established.

He had some interactions and misdemeanors with the police in New Rochelle, and they were not interested in his history, but wanted him off the streets of New Rochelle. In November of 2010, there was an armed robbery in New Rochelle, of white college students who were also dealing drugs. Ralph was living in Hemstead, Long Island with a cousin at the time.

In January of 2011, he returned to New Rochelle to attend a required court date…and he was arrested for a burglary that he did not commit, along with 2 other black young men. At the time of his arrest, the police told Ralph to “tell us who did it, or we will arrest you”. And they did… Ralph did not really know these other kids who were also charged with the robbery… just from the neighborhood… they both plead out.. and after the other young men were found guilty,  one wrote a deposition that stated that Ralph was not there… that he had nothing to do with the robbery…  the judge would not let it be admissible in court in Ralph’s defense… the “victims “described Ralph as 6’2” and 230LBS. Ralph is 5’8’and 165lbs. 

The police lied. The victims lied.

Ralph’s state appointed lawyer told him to take a plea, but Ralph refused, resisted, as he did not commit this crime, and went to trial …and with a very bad, underfunded defense, and a  horrible DA and prosecution….Ralph was found guilty of  a crime he did not commit, and got a 12 year sentence from a judge who was angered by Ralph’s insistence on his innocence.

Ralph has been incarcerated for over 6 years now.  and most of his time has been spent in solitary … kindly called the SHU, which stands for separate housing unit… He can be put in the SHU for the most minor of “infractions”…. If you look a guard in the eye…or your shirt is not tucked in…or another inmate , from another facility, has come to where you are, and there is a score to be settled.

Who knows what happened…but in the 6 years, Ralph has been moved over 8 times, as the NY state corrections facilities are numerous…and has been in solitary most of this time. He is not allowed to receive packages… he is in his cell 23 hours a day.

This is what we call “corrections”.

Ralph’s story is one of hundreds of thousands. The racist mass incarceration of young men of color in NY state and in this country is horrific and it must end.

Addendum from Carl Birman:

“Ralph’s Court-appointed appeals lawyer fought hard against the negative momentum of this case and for approximately five years litigated these issues and more in front of the same trial Court that unfairly and wrong convicted Ralph. At every juncture of the appeal process Ralph was greeted by more of the same cruel and harsh legal rules and doctrines that allowed the system to frame Ralph to begin with. From the County Court hearing to consider a post-judgment motion based on newly discovered evidence of the frame-up…to the Appellate Division considering the direct appeal of the trial and conviction…to the highest Court in New York State, the Court of Appeals, which heard legal arguments based upon the unscientific nature of the photo array that was used by the police to suggest who they were looking for…Ralph’s Court-appointed appeal lawyer received the same harsh answer that Ralph himself had obtained in confronting the system in his trial. Simply put, there was no justice in this case, none at all. Now, finally, it would appear that all Ralph’s options have been exhausted, because he lacks funds to initiate a Federal habeas corpus proceeding. Yet those of us who have believed in Ralph’s story and his fight since day one are not too bitter or angry to forget his tragic story and the terribly cruel lesson it provides about how the system takes care of young Black males.”

I was that Court-appointed appeals lawyer and while I have run out of time and resources to fight this fight for Ralph, I don’t think it is accurate to omit the story of how his appeals were handled by the various Courts that considered it.

Carl D. Birman, ESQ.