Release Robert Rosso!

By Seth Ferranti 09/23/15

Imagine receiving a life sentence for a non-violent crime and then being shipped to one of the most violent and drug-infested penitentiaries in the nation.

Robert Rosso
via Author

Robert Rosso was convicted on April 2, 1998, on a one-count conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. The indictment alleged that the conspiracy existed from “on or about March to on our about August of 1997.” The total weight was 1.1 actual kilos of meth or 4.4 kilos with the cutting agent used in the mixture to stretch the weight. But even though those were the only drugs seized, Robert’s probation officer, who did his pre-sentencing report, wrote that Robert was responsible for about 48 pounds of meth over the period of the conspiracy alleged, about six months. 

The feds do this a lot in conspiracy cases. They take the actual drugs that they confiscated and use cooperator testimony to jack up the drug quantity, which in turn makes the offender's base level higher so that the judge has to sentence the person to more time. This is what happened in Robert’s case. He received a life sentence for a non-violent offense of distributing 1.1 kilos of meth. And even though Robert was a drug dealer, his real crime was being a drug addict and when he was shipped into prison, his addiction took over.

“I began serving [my] sentence at USP Leavenworth in September of 1998. I was 28 years old, and I couldn't believe that they sent me to Leavenworth. Honestly, I was terrified,” Robert tells The Fix. “My intentions when I arrived was to be the best jailhouse lawyer in the system, instead I was put into a cell with a guy who was selling drugs and I began using that night.” 

Imagine being railroaded with a life sentence for a kilo of drugs and then being shipped to one of the most violent and drug-infested penitentiaries in the nation to start serving your sentence. Especially as a non-violent offender. Robert was no newbie to doing time. He had been convicted and served time before, but USP Leavenworth was another world all together. It was an infamous prison, immortalized in the book, The Hot House by Pete Earley, that was run by notorious gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood. Robert did his best to fit in and that meant doing drugs and getting in trouble. 

“In September of 2001, my 2255 was denied and that was like the end for me. At that point, I felt like I was never going to get out of prison. I became involved in prison politics, abused alcohol and drugs and thought about suicide often,” Robert says. Like many prisoners in the same situation, Robert didn’t care. He was caught in the cycle of drug abuse, violence and prison politics that many fall into. When you are doing life in the penitentiary that is just the trap that you fall into and it can get ugly fast.

“I was transferred to Lewisburg in October of 2003 for administrative reasons,” Robert tells The Fix. “There, I continued to be involved in prison politics with the emphasis on keeping the peace between groups of whites and the DC blacks.” With nothing else to do and violence brewing in the swirling chaos of the penitentiary, men like Robert do what they can to keep the peace, but usually it is a losing battle as prisoners are primal and racist instincts take over and overpower any sensibilities that they have left intact. Instead of getting a murder case, Robert just kept using drugs.

“In the beginning of 2004, I was diagnosed with hep C due to my intravenous drug use that I began in Leavenworth," Robert says. “In September of the same year, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer.” With his mortality in question, Robert did some soul-searching. “For just under three years, I remained sober.” He recalls, but it didn’t last.

“In the spring of 2006, I got drunk one night, went to the hole, and lost my cell, my job, everything...I was running a big store and making a minimum [of] $1,500 a month, I lost that as well,” Robert tells The Fix. “When I was released from the hole 30 days later, my cancer returned and it was like I wanted to die—I was actually wishing I would. The thought of being in prison for the rest of my life was just too much to take.” Like a lot of men on the inside, Robert had no hope, there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

“In 2007, an associate warden named Estrada told me that I had a death wish and he wanted no part of it,” Robert says. “He was instrumental in having me sent to the federal medical center in Butner, North Carolina, for cancer treatment. I arrived at Butner on January 27, 2007, and began abusing prescription drugs—specifically OxyContin and morphine. After two near overdoses, I decided I wanted to live and on October 13, 2007, I quit cold turkey.”

A lot of people in society would like to think that drugs aren’t available in prison but Robert was shooting heroin and using other opiates in three different prisons in three different parts of the country for a period of almost 10 years. When Robert decided to live, he turned to writing to consume his time. He left drugs and gangs behind.

“Rather than use, I began putting all of my time and energy into a manuscript I had been working on about my time in Leavenworth. My family members also created an online format for me to post random articles,” Robert tells The Fix. He found that writing gave him an outlet that he needed. A way to express himself to the world, and with the Internet, it made all things possible. Even if he didn’t have direct access to it. 

His articles on the Internet drew a lot of interest and also brought Robert the type of attention he thought was lost to him since he was doing life in prison. “In August of 2010, I was contacted by Marta, a 24-year old student studying psychology from Barcelona, Spain, who read some of my stuff. Her interest was in the American prison system, then later [it] turned into helping me get out,” Robert says. 

Marta set up a Wordpress account and started generating online support for Robert’s release from federal prison but then Robert's addictions took hold again. “In the mist of gaining online support for my release, in June of 2011, after being sober for 3 years, 7 months and 27 days, I relapsed on prescription drugs. The relapse lasted a week and resulted in a failed UA and a trip to the hole,” Robert tells The Fix. “Because I felt that I couldn’t in good conscience ask people to support my release, due to the relapse, I had the Wordpress account and Facebook page taken down.” 

Robert was at rock bottom yet again. But this time he was determined to stay sober. He had a reason to keep on living—Marta. “Through the years, Marta and I kept in contact and our relationship developed into something more,” he says. “In November of 2014, at FCI Terre Haute, we got engaged. Marta has written the Queen of Spain, Pope Francis, and President Obama seeking my release.” And now that the President is signing commutations, Robert hopes that he will look into his case.

“In March of 2014, I filed my commutation. And in October of 2014, I was contacted by the Pardon Attorney's office saying they had received my petition and to please be patient,” Robert tells The Fix. “The majority of inmates expect Obama to do something big and release thousands of prisoners. We see what he did with ICE and the illegal immigrants following the government shutdown releasing 3,000-5,000, many who reportedly had violent felonies and over 100 of whom have since committed violent crimes. We see the stance he has taken with illegal immigration, the Cuba Gitmo detainees and we just can’t see him leaving office and not commuting thousands of sentences. He has the chance to literally right the wrongs of the mandatory minimum scheme, especially with us non-violent lifers.” 

There are over 3,200 non-violent lifers in the federal Bureau of Prisons, some who have been locked up numerous decades like Robert. With President Obama making moves, there is a big push in this country for prison and sentencing reform and it's about time as the War on Drugs and the criminal justice policies of the last 25 years have turned our great country into an incarceration nation. Cases like Robert's are gaining a lot of attention and support.

Dr. Stephen Richards, professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh tells The Fix, "Considering the fact that nearly half the states now have legal pot, I suggest President Obama might decide to commute the sentences of all federal prisoners doing time for marijuana. In general, there is no reason a person convicted of a non-violent crime should do more than five years. The President could wave his magic wand and release thousands of these men and women that have already done too many years behind bars.”

Robert Rosso is one of those men; he has a wife and a career in journalism waiting on him. It's time to right the wrongs of the drug war. Release Robert Rosso and all the others like him that are serving life sentences for non-violent offenses. President Obama has started the process, now see it through and release all of those serving unjust sentences. They have paid their dues to society. Now it's time to let them out and give them a second chance.

If you support Robert Rosso’s release please email Deborah Leff, the United States Pardon Attorney at [email protected] 

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