Feminist on Cellblock Y

Richard Edmond Vargas (right), who goes by the name Richie Reseda, discusses the film with his wife and co-founder of Initiate Justice, Tiana Vargas-Edmond (center) and Graham Finochio (left). Photo by Gabriella Anderson, staff photographer

At just 19 years old, Richard Edmond-Vargas pled guilty to two armed robberies at a local Rite Aid. While he was serving his 10-year sentence, he founded an inmate-run organization alongside fellow inmate Charles Berry called “Success Stories,” which focuses on feminist literature and challenges men to confront toxic masculinity as a form of rehabilitation, according to the film. The 2018 CNN documentary “The Feminist on Cellblock Y,” directed by Contessa Gates, follows Edmond-Vargas and other inmates in “Success Stories” at the all-male Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California. While Edmond-Vargas was sentenced to 10 years in California State prison, he was released after serving seven years. 

“We live in a society where one out of five women are sexually assaulted, one out of three women are violently assaulted, where men commit 90 percent of murders and 80 percent of violent illegal acts,” Edmond-Vargas told The Panther. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence: that’s a cultural problem that we have and feminism offers us a solution.” 

Edmond-Vargas argued that feminism benefits men as well as women, since men are also negatively affected by the patriarchy; by teaching feminism, men are able to escape the strict gender expectations that cause violence.

“What we believed about masculinity is what led us to commit harmful acts in the first place and what kept us involved in harmful patterns while still in prison,” Edmond-Vargas told The Panther. “Nobody is truly changing their lives unless they are challenging the beliefs that led them to make harmful decisions.” 

On Nov. 20, approximately 100 people filled the seats of the Irvine Lecture Hall to watch a screening of “The Feminist on Cellblock Y” put on by the sociology department, the women’s studies minor and the peace studies department within Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Guests were offered a 25-minute window for a Q&A session with the subject of the film, Edmond-Vargas, following the screening before attending his feminist workshop in Argyros Forum. The workshop facilitated a discussion about how the patriarchy is created, what the implications of it are and how each person individually participates in it, whether they are conscious of it or not. 

“Men who are whole can speak their fear without shame.When males are required to wear the mask of a false self, they cannot experience joy and they cannot truly love,” Edmond-Vargas said in the documentary. “If a man is not willing to break patriarchal rules that say he should never change, he will turn away from loved ones and choose his manhood over his personhood – isolation over connectedness.” 

He realized his conversations with his wife provided him profound emotional freedom, so he began opening up and having the same conversations with others incarcerated around him. One of Edmond-Vargas’ most important revelations centered around toxic masculinity being based on fear; the more fearful we are, the more toxic we act. 

“Feminism offers freedom for everybody,” Edmond-Vargas told The Panther. “Feminism offers men a way to be free and have emotions as opposed to getting our value from being violent or making money.”

Edmond-Vargas’ work as an activist is significant because he is challenging the myth that domination is power and that men are inherently dominant. He co-founded the organization Initiate Justice alongside his wife Taina Edmond-Vargas in September 2016. The group was created for and by incarcerated people and works to end mass incarceration through helping members inside and outside prison organize to advocate for their well-being.

“My inspiration came from wanting to be free – to be my whole self,” Edmond-Vargas said. “Feminism offered that freedom, so I wanted to offer it to others. We’re opening people up to a new story.”

Edmond-Vargas encouraged students to reflect on how the patriarchy shapes their lives rather than simply viewing the documentary as a movie exploring issues that pertain to male prisoners. 

“We’ve all been raised in a patriarchal culture,” Edmond-Vargas said. “We all have room to heal from it.”