Former inmate warns at-risk kids

Raymond Roe, who spent over 20 years in a maximum security prison, talked to students at PATH on Friday about his life behind bars and beyond, offering up an account of life lessons learned the hard way. STAFF PHOTO/STACI WILSON

BY STACI WILSON

Twenty-seven years ago, Raymond Roe had a chip on his shoulder and made some bad decisions.

Jumping from one job to another with mounting bills, a new baby at home and no real goals, the former Marine was angry.

Angry at the way his life was heading – angry at his alcoholic and abusive father – angry at the world.

“I met the wrong people at the worst time in my life,” Roe told a group of students Friday at PATH (PA Treatment & Healing), an alternative school in Bridgewater Twp. PATH specializes in educating high-risk youths.

With those people, Roe, formerly of Susquehanna, committed three robberies – two in New York, one in Pennsylvania. He was caught and was sentenced to serve 15-1/3 to 40 years in a maximum security prison in New York.

Despite a clean prison record, Roe served 24 years behind bars where he let go of his anger, forgave his father and accepted personal responsibility for his crime.

Now at age 50, he’s made it his mission to share his experiences with young people. “I’ve spent most of my life behind a wall,” he said. Later adding, “The little bit of life I’ve got left, I want to make the best of it.”

“I wanted to come see you guys,” he said to the PATH students. “I want to give you things to think about that I should have thought about that night.”

“I knew (the night of the robberies) that it was wrong. I knew right from wrong. My gut welled up that night,” he said. “I hit bottom.”

And, in hitting bottom, he accepted that what had happened was his own fault.

Behind the wall

Roe told the students about his feelings as he entered New York’s maximum security prison system. “I’m petrified,” he recalled. “Am I going to make it through this?”

Roe said he blamed everyone except for himself. “I felt about as alone as I could feel.”

He spoke to the students about life inside the prison walls where he regularly witnessed violence that stemmed largely from the inside drug-trade.

“Do you know how long a year in prison is? In a cage, a concrete wall with violence all around me – bizarre violence,” he said.

“I sacrificed the majority of my life,” Roe said.

Consequences

beyond jail

Beyond his jail-time, Roe said his crime and incarceration also carried other consequences.

He said his crime also brought shame to his family, friends and community.

“Some never gave up on me,” he said. But there are also people in his life that he never heard from since his arrest.

“When you do harm to a community, they may not want you back,” he also told the students.

While he was incarcerated, Roe’s mother and sister became seriously ill with cancer. Both died before his release from prison. As did his father, who Roe forgave while in prison after he learned more about the addiction that is alcoholism.

“They weren’t here when I came home. I had a gravesite to visit,” he said. “All the people I loved – I lost them all.”

In addition to the loss of people in his life, Roe also said he’s lost other rights that most Americans take for granted.

“I’ll never own a gun,” he said. “And for a long time, I could not vote. Registering to vote puts you back on the path to being part of the community.”

Lifetime repercussions

There are also collateral consequences to having a felony record.

“I’m limited as to where I can work,” Roe said. He told the students that employment in a bank or working a cash register would be difficult to obtain. “It’s tough. Not many people want to give us a chance.”

“My first job was a factory job. And I was grateful,” he said.

He went to work every day with a smile on his face. “I’m happy. I’m out of this nightmare and I feel real.”

Finding a way

“You have an open opportunity to go anywhere you want,” Roe told the students. “You’ve got that chance right now.”

And, he said, education was the key to help them find their way.

Roe became involved in a college program while in prison but after a year of classes, the grants that supported the program were eliminated.

But Cornell University stepped up and Roe was placed in a college program competing for grades against some of the best and brightest students in the country.

“And I was getting A’s,” he said which helped raise his self-esteem.

Paroled before he could finish his bachelor’s degree, Roe now serves on the board of directors for the Cornell Prison Education Program.

“We all come home,” he said of the vast majority of people who leave the prison system. “(The state) is not giving us anything to come home to (without the educational opportunities).

Looking forward

“When I look back at my life, I see a lot I don’t like,” Roe said. “But now – there’s a lot I do like.”

What he likes now is spending time with his daughter and his grandchildren – making up for time lost while he was in prison.

It was his daughter, now a grown woman, who was waiting for him at the front gate the day he was paroled. “She was there,” he said. “Somehow we managed to keep the relationship.”

Student advice

Roe advised the PATH students to start noting their own accomplishments. “Set little goals,” he said. “You’ll start believing in yourself. Figure out where you want to go.”

And his advice came without a candy-coating after sharing his life story.

“I guarantee you’ve got stories – hard stories, some you don’t talk about,” he said.

He also warned them about drugs and addiction noting many prison short-timers ended up with lengthy sentences once they got caught up in the drug trade which fuels much of the prison violence.

“It turns into a strong, cold addiction,” he said. “I guarantee somebody knows somebody that’s an addict. You’re going to have that choice.”

“Think hard,” he advised the students. “There’s so much more you can have without drugs.”

He told them to focus on what really makes them happy and find a way to turn short-term goals into long-term goals.

Following his talk, Roe spent a few minutes speaking with some of the students who shared with him some of their own stories and feelings of guilt and anger.

“You don’t get a second chance all of the time and I’m making the best of it,” Roe said.