By Amanda Celek
In the early morning of January 20, while her entire family was still tucked in their beds fast asleep in their swanky Manhattan midtown apartment, a powerful thud rapped continuously on the front door quickly waking evertone up. Before Saramarie’s mother could even make it to the door, it was violently broken down. As the door split from its hinges and clashed onto the wooden floor, five masked FBI agents in full body equipment, armed with guns intruded their home.
They angrily instructed the family to follow their orders and began to raid the home. As they tore through furniture and destroyed the family’s belongings, baby John’s crying echoed in the midst of the ruckus.
The family’s livelihood was stolen away from them when the FBI brutally arrested their father while aiming gun at them. They read him the Miranda rights while handcuffing him and then taking him into custody.
This was the day Saramarie and her entire family’s world got turned upside down and nothing was left behind but a broken home and the debris scattered across the floors of the apartment.
History will remember January 20, 2011 as the biggest Maffia bust in New York history. The homes of every person affiliated with Maffia crimes were violently raided by the FBI, NYPD, state police, and U.S. Marshals. Suspects were then seized and taken in for questioning in this thorough investigation. A total of 127 suspects from New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island were charged.
Federal charges of criminal activity ranged from illegal gambling and racketeering to extortion, narcotics trafficking, and murder. These charges carried a variety of penalties, including the maximum of life in prison. Her father, along with many others, was convicted during this investigation and charged with four years in prison. He was snatched away from his wife, four children, and a beloved job in their local church because of the corrupt justice system.
He is currently serving his second year in a federal low-security prison and holding on strong for the next two. In the meantime he is bettering himself to return to his family and his regular life. His beloved family is counting down the days until his release so they could have their husband and father back.
While these difficult events caused heartache and many rough times ahead, a wonderful epiphany came to Saramarie from her father’s incarceration.
While studying away at school at SUNY Plattsburgh unsure of the educational route she wanted to pursue.
But her father’s experience, his newfound unfortunate life for the next four years, and the stories he reported to her during their many visits, calls, and letters gave Saramarie inspiration on what she was called to do with her life. She realized that with the right educational background and hands on experience, she wanted to one day start a non profit organization to defend prisoners rights and make a big difference in how things are currently handled in today’s system.
Upon meeting with Saramarie in the sorority house that she lives in, a few blocks away from campus, we settled down on her bed. Her room was decorated beautifully with flowers, letters, scraps of paper, and pictures from visits with her father. I admired them closely, and with just a few words read off of these papers, a tear formed in my eye. She stared at me with a bittersweet look stretched across her face. She handed me a tissue box, smiled, then tucked her long black hair behind her ear. And so we began.
The Banner: Tell me more about your current major and how exactly you came to realize this is the path you want to take.
Saramarie: Currently I am double-majoring in International Business and Marketing, and minoring in Gender and Women Studies. My international business and marketing courses provided me with the fundamental concepts of business and my gender and women studies courses allowed me to view gendered issues and human rights issues with agency. Ultimately my dream is to work for prisoner’s rights.
TB: Prisoner’s rights, thats a tough topic. Can you tell me more about prisoner’s rights?
S: Almost 3 million children in the United States under the age of 18 have a parent in prison. And that 54% of those incarcerated men and women are parents with minor children. As the oldest sibling of 3, I have been personally affected by these statistics and I can relate. I would love to start an after school program for children in New York or work to create a re-entry program for prisoners.
TB: What are some of the things you really want to change about the justice system and the lack of rights that prisoners actually have?
S: I find the Prisoner’s Rights Project intriguing and would like to work towards relieving the beyond major issues that prisoners deal with every day, including corruption within the prison, mistreating done by the correction officers, health rights, support services for victims of rape in prison, and safe spaces for those who need help or feel threatened as a better option instead of solitary confinement.
TB: I know you are graduating this year, what is the next step?
S: I want to attend NYU, The New School, or Baruch to get my masters in Non-Profit management. There are so many New York based organizations that work towards prisoner’s rights that I would like to work with, for example The Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Practice.
TB: Besides education though, with everything that you have gone through, what’s your go-to for inspiration?
S: I look to my [father’s] strength, he inspires me every day. Within a year in prison he has gotten his G.E.D, runs a bible study, got a job in the chapel, is taking French and Spanish, has taken a wood class, a beadery class, and exercises daily. I really look to his strength, he sends me letters weekly and he’ll always write an inspiring quote, I cut them out and tape them to my wall and when I don’t want to study anymore I look to his inspiration wall and I keep going. Also I look to the inmates he tells me about, every one of them has a story and although they are all in there for different reasons at the very basic level they are all humans just like you and me.
TB: What is one of the stories that really touched you most?
S: One story resonates very deeply with me, [my father] told me about a new bunk mate that came in that was extremely quiet. He had been moved from his old bunk because he had been raped. For weeks the man did not talk and would only answer questions by shaking his head yes or no. One of their bunkmates was getting ready to be released and was giving his things away to guys in the room, my dad asked if he could have his mirror and the new bunk mate jumped down from his bunk and said, “here you can have my mirror I don’t use it anyway.” My dad was shocked because he had never heard the man speak and my dad replied, “don’t you want a mirror to see yourself shave or something?” and the man responded with “I can’t look at myself.” He had been raped in prison and he was so disgusted with himself that he can’t even stand to look at himself. So many questions ran through my mind like where were C.O’s, where was his protection? Stories like this make me want to get to work tomorrow, but thats obviously not possible just yet.