San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Paroled Tico Seeks New Life in Turrialba

FINDING a job, getting married andhaving children are not out-of-the-ordinarygoals – unless you’ve been sentenced tolife in a U.S. prison.These are the dreams that helped keepCosta Rican citizen Ronny Zamora afloatduring the 27 years he spent at theEverglades Correctional Institution nearMiami, Fla.He was sentenced to life in prison in1977 after being found guilty of killing 83-year-old Elinor Haggart.Zamora was tried as an adult, though hewas 15 at the time. The trial, the first to benationally televised in the United States,made headlines when his lawyer claimedthat violence on television had drivenZamora to kill Haggart during a robbery.Determined to someday be a free man,Zamora became a model prisoner andspent his time behind bars developingskills in preparation for an eventual releasehe was confident would take place.After a tireless campaign on the part ofhis family in the United States and later bythe government of Costa Rica, Zamora,now 43, was paroled on June 1.Two days later, he returned to CostaRica and to what some might describe as ahero’s welcome. Zamora says he is surprisedby the kindness and understandingfrom strangers he meets on the street andthe Costa Rican press.Zamora says he has only good things tosay about the United States and regrets hewill never be able to visit the country again(under the conditions of his parole).He admits he made bad choices in thepast that he wishes he hadn’t made, but sayshe feels he has paid his debt to society andnow deserves a second chance.Zamora shared his thoughts and plansfor the future in a recent interview withThe Tico Times at his family’s home in theCaribbean-slope town of Turrialba:What does it feel like to be free after 27years in prison?A lot of mixed emotions. I can easilysay it’s something I dreamed about andprepared for the longest time, but now thatit’s happened it’s really indescribable.During those years, what helped you keepgoing and eventually get here?Well, my faith in God, number one,and the support of my family. I think thatbeing so young was a very big factor.When you’re young, you think you’reimmortal; you think you’re invulnerable.You think nothing can stop you and, moreoften than not, the future is yours sooneror later. For the first 10 or 15 years (inprison), time went by fast. I never had adoubt that I’d be sitting where I’m sittingright now. I never really questioned howlong it would be or whether it was rightor wrong. The point was to pay my debtto society and return to my country.How does it feel to be reunited with yourfamily?It feels great, although I have to say Iwas never that far away from my family –not physically and definitely not spiritually.This is more of a reunion than anythingelse, because I’ve been fortunate enough tohave my family support and be with methrough the years.Now that you’re back in Costa Rica, whatis the most significant change you’venoticed?Two things – the traffic in San José,and the security. In San José, wherever yougo there’s either a security officer or peoplelocking something down, or they’relocking gates to let you in and gates to letyou out. I never expected to see that. Ithought I was leaving the gates behind.How have Costa Ricans reacted to yourreturn?They are kind people who, at leastfrom my impression, are willing to give aperson a second chance. I’ve been verysurprised and grateful for the welcomeI’ve received from just about everyone.All I’ve heard are positive and encouragingwords. That goes a long way towardhelping a man start believing in himself.It makes it more difficult for me to letanybody down. It’s a challenge that Ihappily accept.What are your immediate plans?I will begin the job hunt. It’s importantthat I get a job and start contributing to myfamily as well as taking care of my ownneeds. I also believe getting a job will helpme adapt a little better.Is it true you’ve received several joboffers?I’ve been offered a minor position witha law firm and another at a small companyhere in Turrialba. I also have a job offer toteach English. I’m very interested in teachingEnglish right now, since it would offerme a lot of flexibility. I served as ateacher’s assistant in prison. I will be inSan José for now, but intend to make myhome here in Turrialba.Also, I have been offered an opportunityby the Ministry of Justice to participatein a transition program for long-termoffenders – men who’ve been in prison along time. It’s voluntary. I’m looking forwardto it because it’s something I participatedin while in prison. Actually, it’ssomething I had planned on doing anyway.My first goal will be to get to know thepeople a little bit better. I think it willbecome obvious after a while where thetrouble spots are; where the problems areoccurring. I’m hoping I can make a smalldifference there.The catchword for me is alternatives. Ibelieve that if you provide a man or a juveniledelinquent with alternatives, and don’tmake the choices they’re given so narrow,more often than not they will pick the rightpath. When their choices are severely limitedor there are no choices, what can we reallyexpect from them? You have to let themmake a choice; hopefully will be a good one.What lessons have your experiencestaught you?First, I have the experience of havingspent almost three decades in prison. Thatdoesn’t mean I’m qualified for anything.Some people spend three or four decadesin prison and don’t learn anything. Theydon’t better themselves, don’t prepare fortheir eventual release. I did.I know what challenges a man inprison faces. The bottom line is that inorder to stay out of prison, you have tochange your life. You have to learn to beproductive; you can’t live at the expense ofsociety. What some inmates don’t know isthat they truly have other possibilities andpotential.Where do you see yourself in five years?When you’ve lived day to day for thepast 27 years, looking five years ahead isdifficult. It’s ironic because in prison youcan look ahead – I’ll be here in five years;I’ll be there in ten years – because you faceno obstacles, you’re just dreaming.Now that I’m free and have to faceobstacles and challenges, it becomes moredifficult to see where I will be in fiveyears. I hope to be married and have atleast a child or two. I hope to be financiallyindependent. I hope five years from nowI will have made a small difference in mycommunity and that all those people whomight have wondered what I had to offer,what I had to contribute, will see there wassomeone worth supporting and offeringanother chance.How would you describe the role of themedia in your life?I believe the role the Costa Ricanmedia has played is positive, compared tothe intimidating role the U.S. mediaplayed. I think American politicians andofficials in a position to decide one’s futureare intimidated by the media, and moreoften than not will vote against a personnot necessarily on the merits of the casebut because of a fear of looking soft orweak on crime.The Costa Rican media, however, hasplayed a very significant role by showing adifferent side of Ronny. They showed mewhen I was young, and almost created apicture of what I can become by showingwhere I’m from.

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