Meet Rojai – full of love, full of hugs

On July 1, 2020 Rojai Fentress was released from Augusta Correctional Facility after serving 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Fentress, who had been convicted of murder at the age of 16, was released after serving 25 of his 53-year sentence, due to changes in laws that went into effect on July 1. The UVA Innocent Project is still working on proving his innocent.

Recently, Rojai spent a virtual evening our Lifers about his experience serving time as an innocent man and his journey to newfound freedom.

Rojai’s testimony was both heart breaking and heartfelt. Rojai began his story talking about his feelings as an innocent prisoner. He stated that it was hard for him to come to terms with accepting the prison demeanor because he knew in his heart, he did not belong there. His anger led to retaliation which led to him being transferred to 14 different facilities during his time. Rojai claimed that after sitting with his anger long enough he started to comply with what it meant to be a prisoner. He knew that his only chance to prove his innocence was to remain in good behavior and rely on his connections with those on the outside to help him with his case. Not only was Rojai focused on clearing his name, he was worried about how his conviction was affecting those that he loved on the outside. He learned that his mother who was suffering from schizophrenia had become homeless while he was incarcerated. He said he felt consumed with guilt that his conviction had led to worsening his mother’s conditions. With increasing concerns about his mother, his denial of his appeal, and the passing of his sister, Rojai claimed he had found himself at the lowest point in his life, even attempting to commit suicide.

Rojai claimed that moment as a turning point in his life. He said that following that day he knew he only had one life and he was determined to live it to fullest, no matter where he was at, advice that was suggested to him by the offender in a cell next to his. Although Rojai was still making connections to people on the outside about clearing his case, he had accepted that his life may just be within the correctional system. Rojai had frequently thought about the repercussions of staying within the system. He worried that he would never marry or have kids to pass his legacy on to. Rojai reframed the way in which he saw his fear, claiming “I knew I may have never been able to pass on my last name or my genes, but I could leave behind something just as good, my kindness. I stood in maximum security prisons, with both innocent and guilty men, and when I came across some of the hardest inmates in there, I hugged each one of them.”

Unbeknownst to Rojai, his freedom was closer in sight than he may have realized. UVA’s Innocence Project took on Rojais case. They went through his case, deconstructing evidence, testimonies, and the credibility of eyewitnesses. While Rojai was released due to changes in laws, they continue to work to prove his innocent. Meanwhile, Rojai claims that since he has been released from prison, his one goal is to “love someone as much as I have been loved”. He says that the way those students from UVA could love and devote their time to help free a man with no reward in return, showed him the true testament of love.

Since Rojai’s release in July, during the Covid-19 pandemic, his thoughts on the world have been colorful. He shared, “the world is so beautiful right now, the areas that I grew up in are filled with so many people of different colors, there’s gardens in the yards, and the kids out here today are so driven and intelligent, so much has changed since I was locked up.” Rojai now enjoys spending time with his niece who has been teaching him to work a smart phone, eating ribs from TGI FRIDAYS and grabbing a strawberry milkshake from McDonald’s.

When summing up his time in prison, Rojai tells us “God chose me for a reason, and God don’t make mistakes”. Rojai’s story is one that touches your heart for all the right reasons. His tenacity to turn every challenge into a learning experience and better himself is a skill anyone could hope to master. He reminds us to appreciate the simple pleasures in life and to not only treat others but the world with kindness.