Despite his 35-year sentence for a drug crime, Rufus Rochell remains upbeat, kind, and forward-looking. For more than three decades behind bars, he’s immersed himself in service to others—a kind of remarkable self-rehabilitation.
Rufus Rochell is cheerful. A recent email: “Good morning and GOD BLESS! Wishing you a warm and happy day as you fight this most good fight!”
His cheerfulness is persistent, contagious—and remarkable. Rufus has spent the last three decades in prison. You’d think that he’d be angry, at least resentful. But Rufus is positive and inspiring. Almost every day, he composes short messages of encouragement that the staff at Coleman federal prison in Florida post on the bulletin board.
Hold your head up with a smile, even when life appears to be disappointing at times. In life we will come across stumbling blocks that will cause us to fall, and many of us are slow to get up! Dust yourself off and create a positive plan, not a criminal plan, because we know criminal plans often lead to prison or the grave. A positive plan leads to success and productivity for you and your family.
In 1987, Rufus was arrested, charged, and convicted for drug dealing, then sentenced to 35 years in federal prison. The out-sized punishment was a mandatory minimum term and was based on the weight of the drugs, among other factors. To many in his large family and among friends who’d known him for years, the episode was a surprise.
Growing up in Florida, Rufus was a shy kid who “loved neatness” and never missed a day of school. After his parents divorced, his mother raised Rufus and his seven brothers and sisters alone until she remarried. Home life stabilized. “My parents placed love as a priority in our household and taught us about world ethics, respect for yourself and others.” As he grew older, Rufus took the lessons he learned at home to heart, working several jobs over the years and into college. He sold cars, ran his own janitorial service, sold men’s fashion, and picked oranges and grapefruit—anything he could do to help support his family.
Somewhere along the way, starting in college, he lost his footing. Partying suddenly seemed more important than his studies. “I drifted off, and I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into, looking for extra income.” He became involved in selling drugs, though he wasn’t a user himself, and eventually he was arrested.
“If only you acknowledge or accept your mistakes, the road becomes smooth sailing from that point on. Always remember, shortcuts often make life just that much more difficult.”
Prison was a shock. But soon after he got there, an old-timer gave him some advice. “A man named Barney came up to me. He said, ‘Rufus, I can tell you’re bitter. Think about this: What has happened has already happened. You can’t be bitter and be successful. The best thing you can do is take the bitterness and put it into something positive.’ I thought about what he had said. I started moving away from my problem, and focusing on other individuals. I met people who had far worse problems and I thought, Dang, I thought my situation was bad. That’s what made me look forward, made me want to go in the law library and start helping guys.”
He’s never looked back. Over the years, Rufus has accomplished more than many people walking free ever do. Even more notable is that most of what he’s done has all been about helping others. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, he galvanized fellow prisoners in fundraising close to $4,000 for relief efforts. He is a prolific writer and passionate activist, lauded for his work by many groups including the NAACP, My Brothers 2 Keep Ministry, Mothers of Incarcerated Sons, and Fathers Behind Bars. But most of all, Rufus does what he does best: supporting his fellow prisoners, just like Barney did for him more than 30 years ago. Almost across the board, he is described as a gentleman and a gentle man. He loves to talk, but he’s equally good at listening. He’ll offer support and friendship, and doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is.
“We often want to use the blame game and feel like others are responsible for the mistakes we make and got us in this mess. Come on, man, let’s get our act together. The stories you are telling to justify your situation are just plain and simple a bunch of bull. So get your act together and stop playing games with yourself.”
Through the years, he’s met some well-known people in prison, like Conrad Black, a former newspaper publisher who served 29 months at Coleman. Today, years after his release, the journalist, activist, and media personality praises his prison friend: “I knew and remember Rufus well; he is a decent, kindly, honest and immensely likeable man, beloved in the residential unit where we both were at Coleman Low Security Prison, and throughout the compound, cheerful and helpful to everyone despite his absurdly extended confinement. He was, in sum, a saintly man, helpful to everyone and never exchanging or receiving an unpleasant word. It is scandalous and inexplicable that he remains confined. He may have negative points, but I never detected any. He is a peaceable, placatory, kindly man, and should have been released many years ago.”
As much as he’s formed a “prison family,” Rufus hasn’t forgotten his own family on the outside, including his brother, Gary Clark, who describes his big brother as being a central part of their family. “Growing up, he helped me a lot, like when I’d been going through different things, he’d help me, talk to me. He taught me everything. Even from the prison, he still helps me. He encourages me about this and encourages me about that.”
Rufus’ girlfriend was pregnant with his daughter when he went to prison, and he tries his best to be a good father from behind bars.
“It’s so important to stay in contact with your loved ones—mom, dad, siblings, or your kids. I learned love starts with you loving yourself, and once you start loving yourself then you will forever love and appreciate that wonderful family that loves you unconditionally. If you have not told them you love them and truly mean it, what a better time to do it than now and watch the cheerful response and love you get back in return, trust me.”
Recently, Rufus had a visit from Gary and their sister, Cheryl. The visit was bittersweet; recently both their parents died, and the visit gave them a chance to grieve together. Like many others, Gary has a hard time reconciling the positive force that is his brother with his sentence of 35 years. “He should have never got that kind of time from the start. He should have been out a long time ago. Ten years ago or more he should have been out.”
In many ways, Rufus is quite far from the man he was when he walked through the prison gates years ago, stunned at his lengthy sentence. “I am totally remorseful for my actions, and if I could give back to anyone I ever hurt or disappointed, I no doubt would be the very first to do so without hesitation. If I could go back in time I would be an advocate against drugs.”
But in other ways, Rufus is still like the kid he once was. When he was in the third grade, he won second place in his school’s Bicycle Rodeo. The prize was a ride in a prop plane—which he hated. The plane swooped low over the school, and Rufus and the other winners were terrified. The real prize came the next day, when his picture was in the local paper. “I was so proud that people could see that I was representing the school in such a positive way.”
That outlook hasn’t wavered. “My plan upon getting out is to work on reestablishing myself and reprogramming my overall thought to the idea of being free and back into society. I want to work to thank everyone who has supported me all these years, and I want to work helping to keep youth from a life of crime. Also, I want to eat great food!”
As always, Rufus has a smile on his face.
“Clean your house, and when others step in your house and see it clean, it rubs off on them and they begin to do the same in light of the positive change you have made.”
Name: Rufus Rochell
Sentence: 35 years (420 months)
Offense: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base; possession with intent to distribute cocaine base
Year sentenced: 1988
Original projected release date: 2023