Local groups help formerly incarcerated man back on his feet
by Lisa Butterworth | special to the COURIER
Sometimes to get ahead in life, a little momentum can make all the difference.
For 47-year-old Mario Ramos, that momentum was gifted to him quite literally on November 26, in the form of a Raleigh Spring iE electric bike.
Since being released from San Bernardino County’s Adelanto Detention Center in March of this year, having spent a decade behind bars, Ramos has been determined to get back on his feet. Without a driver’s license, that meant biking from Montclair, where he lives with his mother in her one-bedroom apartment, to odd jobs in Claremont and part-time work at a machine shop in Fontana, sometimes cycling more than 50 miles in a day. Needless to say, Ramos welcomes a little battery power behind his pedaling. “It’s a dream,” he said, eyes beaming, bike helmet in hand. “I put my need out there and the universe provided.”
The electric bike is just the latest assist Ramos has received from a network of local groups — including the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, Claremont Unified Church of Christ, and Claremont Senior Bike Group — and their well-meaning members, like Joe Marino.
“This case with Mario really highlights how these different organizations in Claremont come together to help people in need,” said Marino, who’s lived in Claremont for 30 years and has been instrumental in orchestrating support for Ramos.
Ramos was five years old when his parents immigrated to Southern California. He grew up in a gang-heavy, poverty-stricken area of Ontario before moving to Montclair after junior high. Since his mom worked as a caregiver in Claremont, he even spent time at Claremont High School before graduating from Ontario’s Chaffey High. His early years were far from easy.
“It’s like the usual story you hear from Hispanic families just coming from different countries, they struggle,” Ramos said. “That’s where we were at; we struggled to stay alive.”
Though his mom tried to remove him from the gang environment, Ramos said he gave in to that lifestyle. “It got me onto a rollercoaster of making the wrong choices in life,” he said.
In 2012 he was convicted of felony assault and sentenced to seven years in prison. Incarceration was a wake-up call. “It changed my whole life and the way I see life today,” Ramos said. “I wanted to get the help I needed.”
He became a model prisoner — reading the bible, taking theology classes, and working to get his water treatment certification — aided in part by the medical care he received for bipolar disorder, which had gone undiagnosed until he was incarcerated. But Ramos’s conviction also affected his immigration status, and though he had been a green card holder, on the day he was released from prison, while his mom waited outside to greet him, he was unexpectedly picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and detained at Adelanto Detention Center for another three-plus years.
It was during this time he connected with the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, a statewide social justice organization focused on immigration and incarceration. The group, and its Inland Empire organizers in particular, is committed to supporting Adelanto detainees, many of whom were released during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But others, like Ramos, were not, often without knowing why. “ICE has no rhyme or reason or very clear logic,” said Reverend Deborah Lee, Interfaith Movement’s executive director. “ICE has the discretion to release anybody at any time. It doesn’t mean they’re off the hook on their immigration case, it just means that they don’t have to be detained while they go through their immigration proceedings. [Mario] got Covid in there, he wasn’t getting the medication he needed. Adelanto has one of the worst medical records across the nation, the highest number of deaths of any detention facility across the nation. Sometimes immigration proceedings take four or five years, why would he need to be detained while he’s doing that?”
With the advocacy of the Interfaith Movement, Ramos was released in March 2022. “Mario is a very special guy. I remember him saying, ‘This is my fourth Christmas in detention,’ as we were organizing to get him released, so it was a huge victory,” said Lee.
The Interfaith Movement calls on local congregations to help with their mission, which is how Ramos and his wife Denise were introduced to their work. In 2018, Hilda Cruz, a lead organizer for the Interfaith Movement in the Inland Empire, gave a presentation at Claremont United Church of Christ, which the Marinos attend, about asylum seekers being held at the Adelanto facility. At the time the congregation helped raise $30,000 to free a Honduran refugee from the detention center.
So, when Cruz called them to say she had someone who needed their help, Joe Marino took it upon himself to meet Ramos in person. “I have a love for our country but I’m also ashamed of how some things are done here,” he said. “To see this person who was held in prison for 10 years, the crime and the punishment don’t seem [commensurate], so this is an injustice.”
As the Interfaith Movement connected Ramos to pro bono lawyers who are currently working on reducing his felony conviction (which they view as inappropriately inflated) to a misdemeanor, Marino focused on more practical assistance, like helping Ramos get groceries, part-time employment, and, of course, transportation.
For that Marino tapped another local group he’s been a member of for years, the Claremont Senior Bike Group. It was a natural connection since “there’s a component of the Claremont Senior Bike Group that is focused on helping the community,” Marino said, citing regular cleanup events on Mount Baldy Road and annual bike donations to children in need. Tom Shelley, a dedicated member of the recreational group, fixed up a donated bike and passed it along to Ramos. But it wasn’t until another group member recently mentioned her unwanted e-bike to Shelley that the wheels for Ramos’s grand gift were set in motion. To make it an eligible tax write-off, the $3,000 bike was donated to CUCC then gifted to Ramos.
“When we gave Mario the bike, oh my God, he was like a kid at Christmas. He was crying, laughing. He got on the bike on the street and was going 30 miles-an-hour. We’re all yelling at him, ‘Slow down!’” Marino said with a laugh. “He’s just a joy to be around and he’s very, very grateful for all the support and time that we give him. I told him, ‘There are a thousand steps in this journey. We’re just gonna take one at a time and we’ll get through this together.’”
The journey is far from over. Ramos’ mother’s landlord is doubling their rent in January, an untenable amount for the family, who are now looking for more affordable housing. And the recent economic downturn has affected Ramos’s employment. Though he’s working two days a week at a local warehouse, additional steady work would be another dream come true. But, Marino said, he manages to stay positive. “I’m just surprised all the time about Mario’s optimism,” Marino said. “He’s got so many challenges that he faces, but he’s like, ‘Ok, well, this is just another hurdle I need to get through. God’s gonna provide and I’ll figure this out.’”
Ramos doesn’t shy away from the challenges he’s had, or the ones he continues to face. But he’s clear about his path forward.
“My story that I want to share with the world is, where you come from, and how you conquer the struggles of life is amazing, because you were once in this position where you thought you were never going to amount to anything, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “If you do the work, then it will pay off down the road. You have to be able to continue working, because life is about continuing to better yourself.
“It’s not for me, it’s also for the people around me, like Mr. Joe and them. I want to see a smile on their faces. They’re putting their names out there, so I want to see to it that what I’m doing is good.”