Growing up, Bryan Russi says he saw his hard-working, blue collar Colombian-born father, a mechanic, coming home tired from work covered in grease.
"I would see the drug dealers in the street and I wanted to have what they had. I saw that as an option," he said. "I got my high school degree at 16. I was bored I think and I focused on the wrong things."
He blames his early mistakes on immaturity. "My brain was so young I wasn't able to realize it was wrong, because it seemed so right. I started incorrectly, and it was a snowball effect."
He got involved in the fast life at a young age as a silent partner in a bar and a night club. By 20 he was a millionaire making $60-70,000 a week. "I did pretty well financially. Even though I wanted to get out, you have women, you have power. You become addicted to the lifestyle," he said.
It all came to an abrupt finish. By 24 he was convicted and sentenced to 13 years for a drug trafficking conspiracy in 2003.
Under Florida law convicted felons are banned from voting in elections and can only have their rights restored completing their sentence, including probation, followed by a five to seven year waiting period and then applying under a highly selective state 'clemency' process.
An amendment on the Florida ballot in November would automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences.
Trial and tribulation
Prison was "an awakening," he says. "For me, it was necessary to change the mindset that I had for so long. Everybody learns that at different times. For me, I think it was necessary to go through that trial and tribulation to understand what was really awaiting me out here," he adds. "I am thankful for it, if I gotta be honest with you. I wasn't at that moment, until I realized it was part of a bigger plan."
It wasn't easy at first. "I got in trouble a lot at first because I was still set in my ways. It wasn’t until the final four years that I had sort of an epiphany," he said.
That was after he spent 12 months in confinement due to a disciplinary action. "That's when I realized there's much more for me outside, there's a greater purpose for me," he said. "I had to hit rock bottom. It was a horrible experience. That's what really changed my life around. Focusing on the rights things I would attract the right things, and that's when everything changed," he added. "I realized I didn’t like the position I was in. I didn't like the fact that someone had full control over me and being treated like garbage. I told myself; 'this is not who I am. I know I am a great man. I'm not allowing the world to see that.'"
He credits the beginning of his turnaround to sheer will power. It was in prison that he began reading and studying correspondence courses. "I started reading about criminology and western philosophy, like Plato, Seneca," he said. "That critical thinking that was missing in my life kind of sparked, and everything just kind of took off from there."
By the time he was released after 11 years and three months on December 30, 2013, he was a different person.
"Some people say, 'I’ll wait till I get out to change,'' he said. But Russi had already decided what his new life was going to look like. "When I got out, I was ready. I just sailed into what I had been planning."
That was a career in real estate.
Now 42, he is a real estate agent, ranked in the top 250 in central Florida at Keller Williams, which claims to be the world's largest real estate franchise in the country.
His biggest obstacle was getting a license. "I sent in 16 character reference letters. It took 18 months. Normally it takes a couple of weeks," he said.
His interview at Keller Williams went better than expected. "Once I told him my story, he was kind amazed by it. He says, '“I want to have you here. I want to see what you're gonna do.”
Now he teaches incoming new agents and participates in the company's motivational Quantum Leap for Young Adults program. "We have to attack the root of the problem which is the mindset," he says.
He also visits high schools to talk about life decisions. He has a 14-year-old daughter who was born after he went to prison. He remarried after his release and has a four-year-old daughter, Lilly, who is battling a rare form of cancer, as well as a 16-month-old boy. He has never voted.
He has never voted but is keen to participate. "In the past it wasn't a bid thing in my social circle. Now I’m in the community I understand the importance of it," he says. "Understanding insurance and healthcare access are important to me. I want to be able to vote on these issues."
(This is part of a series of articles featuring convicted felons seeking the restoration of their voting rights. Return to main story here)