Roberta Bell’s Nightmare: Raped at 13, Now Serving Life for Mother’s Drug Addiction

Roberta Bell’s Nightmare: Raped at 13, Now Serving Life for Mother’s Drug Addiction

This is the story of Roberta Ronique Bell, serving a life sentence for a violent crime I do not believe she committed. Roberta was vulnerable to and a victim of the United States’ culture of rape. Rape or rape culture is when sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. She was a child of 13 when she first suffered abuse and manipulation before another predator raped her for many years and involved her in a violent crime. She was extremely vulnerable, a young woman who the law should have protected but who now is incarcerated for life.

Some believe – or act as if they do – that the main motor behind mass incarceration is the drug war and only people manipulated by the drug war deserve our attention and love. There are, however, many people convicted of violent crimes who deserve compassion and understanding. 

Roberta was raped at 13 and became pregnant when she was the charge of her grandmother. Her grandma then decided Roberta – and her newborn infant – be returned to her mother’s care in another state. Her mother was a crack addict who allowed her dealer and lover, David Tyler, to rape her then-14-year-old daughter whenever he wished in exchange for drugs and support. Roberta, now the young mother of Jazzmin, did not use drugs, but she held Tyler’s drugs and drug money when asked. At age 16, she married Robert Bell, escaping Tyler and her mother. She had two children with Robert Bell. Still obligated to Tyler through her mother, Roberta returned to Tyler when he demanded. He kept her and Jazzmin from homelessness and hunger – and her mother from being on the corner, turning tricks for crack. Discovering his wife’s infidelity, Robert Bell savagely beat her and left her to raise three children by herself. Bell returned frequently to brutalize Roberta, once badly breaking her hand, hindering her new job as a legal secretary in Joanne Kehr’s law office. 

David Tyler asked Roberta to drive to his brother in another city and bring him $2,500 for a drug deal. Roberta complied. The brother, Willie Tyler, asked her to pick up Doreen Proctor and drop her off at another drug dealer’s house. Roberta complied and dropped off Doreen Proctor – who had come along freely – and left the car to connect with a drug dealer. Roberta then left for home.

Doreen Proctor’s body was found on the side of a country road in Adams County, Pennsylvania, on April 21, 1992 – shot in the head and chest, badly beaten, and stabbed repeatedly. Roberta said Tyler came to her home, beat her, and insisted she say he was there the entire night. 

Roberta Bell was acquitted of the murder in state court. 

In June 1995, federal agents arrested Bell and charged her with witness tampering, intimidating a witness, and using a firearm. Prosecutors asserted she fired the first shot at Proctor, a charge Bell continues to deny. Vindicated once, the federal government tried Roberta for the same crime in federal court and convicted her. 

What is wrong with this? 

The government case repeatedly refers to Roberta as David Tyler’s girlfriend, but we know about their forced relationship. For Roberta, this was not a love interest. Tyler was her handler. Roberta Ronique Bell was a child brought up by a crack-addicted mother and a vicious drug dealer. This is what I mean by rape culture. The FBI proceeded as if there was nothing more than a love relationship. Roberta’s age, her past, and manipulation were all “normal” for a young Black woman (especially one who had three children by age 19), pointing more directly to her guilt. To me, sexual assault and harassment are procedural and state mechanisms that are supposed to prevent rape culture but that instead reproduce and reinforce it. The system prosecutes and violates women of color, trans women – especially Black ones – and all girls who struggle to exist daily.

Roberta with her daughter Jazzmin, photo via the CAN-Do Foundation

Police, Federal Agents and the Court

In Roberta Bell you will find a sensitive, hardworking woman who has parented as well as she can from prison, has a long list of achievements, and is not a threat to society. If freed, she will contribute to society. Likewise, many sisters are still behind the prison walls convicted of violent crimes who need our help, compassion, and understanding of who they are today after so many years behind bars. 

If you were in Roberta’s shoes, do you think you could go to the police for protection?

Police are still there to serve the purpose of policing. Police contribute to sexual violence. After police brutality, sexual misconduct is the second most reported complaint against cops. And then, the people they arrest – regardless of the reason for arrest – are put in jails and prisons, making them vulnerable to sexual violence by their guards or other workers where they’re confined. Police perpetrate sexual violence. 

Simone Biles recently exposed the FBI as unsympathetic in turning a blind eye to multiple rape testimonies of young female athletes on the US Olympics Team. They are high-profile celebrities, unlike Roberta. Rape culture is so pervasive in advanced capitalism that without enormous money, resistance to rape culture – let alone victim compensation – is impossible.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, accused by Anita Hill of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, is now probably the most powerful court member. The allegations of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford against Justice Brett Kavanaugh are still fresh in our minds, while the attempts to overthrow Roe v. Wade are now in progress. The highest court in the land perpetuates the culture of rape. Will the court acknowledge women have any rights over their own bodies? Could the Supreme Court create conditions that enable safety and resistance to violence and oppression – or provide reparations to women who are the victims? 

Rape culture is the everyday vocabulary of movies, the media, friends and family. I hesitate to speak about it, even when I cry inside for Roberta, the unspeakable horrors she endured as a child and continues to endure in the prison system – for life.

Roberta with her children, photo via the CAN-Do Foundation 

According to Roberta:  

“Although my heart has always been in the right place, my head was not. I went through some things as a teenager that no child should ever have to endure. Some of these things I haven’t even discussed with my children, because I didn’t want them to have to deal with it without me there. It all played a part in some of the very poor choices I made in life. All of which I am very sorry and regretful for. All I need is one chance – just one window of opportunity to open and I guarantee my best efforts at making a difference in people’s lives and contributing to society in a positive way.”

***

I am advocating for the release of Roberta Ronique Bell #08116-067 from Dublin Federal Prison in CA. She is a victim of rape and rape culture, not the perpetrator of a crime. She made mistakes and has been in prison for 25 years, beginning with her conviction when she was 20 years old. She is serving a life sentence plus 10 consecutive years. I believe she is innocent. I believe she deserves another chance. Even if I did think she was guilty of murdering a witness 25 years ago, I would advocate for her release based on the person she is today. She Is an energetic, loving, faithful, motivational mother whose kindness, hard work and clarity have won many hearts in the prison administration and among her incarcerated sisters.

Don’t miss our 50 at 50 series: one current or former prisoner published a day until New Year’s Day 2022.

I am also advocating for the many women who have been incarcerated, seemingly forever. They deserve a review of their cases in light of who they are today. Today the population of women prisoners who have been physically, mentally, or sexually abused is between 72% and 86%. They are products of our nation’s rape culture. 

In their haste to prosecute the killers of a police informant, the federal police swept Roberta Bell up and prosecuted her. They completely disregarded her position – her helplessness – regarding the perpetrators of the crime and her innocence, as established in a state court. She’s not alone in the trauma she suffered, even as the system’s made her feel alone in her prison cell.  

Many women have been a party to or committed violent crimes. These are people who can and do change.  

Please refer to the Can-Do Foundation’s 25 women most deserving of clemency page and look for Roberta’s long list of academic and social achievements while in prison. Sign the petitions.  

My heart and vision for Roberta are that she be released from prison and receive therapy to help her and her children reunite and work through the extreme trauma of her life. Unfortunately, our social standard will leave her children to support her.

There are just over 5,000 signatures on Roberta Bell’s clemency petition; she needs at least 7,500 signatures for the change.org petition to get a reaction from a decision-maker. Please join her cause – our cause – here

Write a letter to the President of the United States in support of Roberta R. Bell #08116-067, clemency pending case # C184602 here.

One of “the real women of Orange Is the New Black,” Carolina Soto is one of the founding members of the Re/Creation writing workshop at Restoration Plaza. You can view her full bio here. 

One of “the real women of Orange Is the New Black,” Carolina Soto is one of the founding members of the Re/Creation writing workshop at Restoration Plaza. You can view her full bio here. 

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