Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Sometimes, in life, thankfully, we are granted second chances.

For Ryan Ramnarace, this moment occurred when he was released after serving 14 years in federal prison, and decided he wanted to be a positive presence for his family and community.

Tonight, he gives his Brief But Spectacular take on the capacity we all have to change our lives.

This is part of our ongoing reports Searching For Justice.

Ryan Ramnarace: I grew up in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Being poor, I had a certain idea about myself. I wanted to be perceived as tough. I wanted to be perceived as somebody not to mess with. I relied extensively on crime to live. Finally, at the age of 27, I was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

And I was given 224 months, so 18 years, eight months, in federal prison. When I went in to prison, I had four young children, and I had one child on the way. I was writing letters all the time. I was getting visits on top of visits on top of visits.

So, after about a year of this, a guy comes to me and he says, what are you doing, kid? You have 18-and-a-half years. You’re not getting out. You need to figure out how to live in this environment. You can live on both sides of that fence.

About five years into my sentence, I got into an altercation with a bank robber and was thrown in solitary confinement. I had to write everybody at home and I had to tell them why I was there. And their response was less than supportive.

It was like, really, Ryan? Like, you’re doing an 18-and-a-half years in federal prison. You have been fighting your entire life. Now you’re in jail in prison? Like, when’s it going to be enough? When have you had enough?

The disappointment from my family really forced me to do an inventory of myself, to look back at my life, to ask myself that fundamental question, like, when did I stop being a good person?

So, I just decided I’m going to reject the environment. I’m going to focus on my education. I’m going to associate with like-minded men. And I could be authentically myself. I could talk about my dreams when I got out of prison. I could talk about the pain of not being with my kids.

The visitation was always — that was always pretty tough. You go back to your unit and you can hear the cacophony of noises. It would crash on you sometimes the idea that I have this many years yet of my life that I have to be in this environment.

In prison, my constant companions were books. When I started thinking about who I wanted to be when I got out, I would take magazines, and I would cut them up, and I would put images of the things that I wanted, and I would write in little phrases or little inspirational things.

And I remember one of them was, from the street corner to the corner office. It’s kind of funny now, because I work as a peer support specialist helping people that are struggling with opioids. And I do actually have a corner office.

When you are introducing yourself to a kid who has been through neglect, has suffered trauma, and you can look at that kid and you can say, I get it, you can connect with them in a way that nobody else can.

My success is largely attributable to my fiancee. She and I connected when I first came home. We have been together this entire time. The community’s support, my family’s support, but there had to be space by the community to allow me to become this other person.

I’m not embarrassed anymore to talk about the fact that I was incarcerated. I’m not embarrassed to talk about who I used to be.

I have contemplated what it is that I would tell a younger version of myself. I would say, ask for help, apply yourself towards your education, believe that you’re worth more than whatever it is you have gone through.

My name is Ryan Ramnarace, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on my reentry.

Judy Woodruff: Such an important message.

And you can find all of our Brief But Spectacular segments online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.