Voices of the Failed Drug War

Jesse Jackson commanded the entire auditorium in a booming chant of "Schools, not Jails!" Al Franken, costumed as the sappy "Stuart" he played on Saturday Night Live, said that drug users shouldn't be imprisoned, but rather put into twelve-step programs to realize that they're good enough, they're smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like them. But the most important guests at the Shadow Convention on Tuesday were the scores of family members of people incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses.

They came from New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C. to this day of events organized by the Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation, the leading independent drug policy institute in the U.S. They were mostly black and Hispanic women -- the wives, mothers and sisters of young men imprisoned at rates wildly disproportionate to their percentage within the U.S. population, as well as within the population of illicit drug users. They came with their kids, whom they struggle to raise alone, and they held placards with photos of their loved ones behind bars.

"Hello, I'm here on behalf of my brother Harry Peak, who is currently serving two life sentences and two years for a non-violent drug offense."

"Hello, my name is Sylvia and I'm representing my brother David Colon, who is serving a ten year sentence for a non-violent drug offense."

One by one, they stood onstage and announced this dismal roll call of names and prison sentences. Many seemed shy, unaccustomed to speaking into microphones and standing under bright television lights. But they did it anyway, determined to publicize the causalities of the drug war.

Jackie Diaz' husband Ricardo was seventeen years old in 1989 when he was arrested in Rochester, New York. He had been working at a local construction company, Jackie was pregnant and working at a supermarket, and they were barely getting by. "His friend came by with the opportunity for fast money, easy money, and he jumped on it. It was his first offense. He had never done anything like that before," said Jackie. Ricardo transported a package containing two ounces of cocaine, an amount which landed him a mandatory sentence of fifteen years to life under New York's Rockefeller drug laws.

After eleven years in various prisons, Ricardo Diaz is now locked up in Sing-Sing, six hundred miles from Rochester, precluding his family from making frequent visits. Jackie Diaz, now 31, has been hospitalized for suicidal behavior and currently takes anti-depression medication, and their eleven year-old daughter Porshia is in anger-management therapy due to her feelings about her father's predicament. Jackie remains in close phone contact with Ricardo, who told her about Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Washington-based national organization that brought many family members to the Shadow Convention yesterday. Through her involvement with FAMM, Jackie has confronted many of the glaring injustices of her husband's case.

"When I was sitting in that courtroom with him, I saw white people come in on the same charges and the judge was much more lenient with them," she said. "We've tried to file an appeal but most lawyers won't touch the case. My husband should not be in jail. Taking a non-violent person and putting him in a violent prison isn't the answer. He was only seventeen, he was just trying to provide for his family."

Denise Clark, 31, also came to the convention with FAMM from Rochester. When she was twenty-one and pregnant, her husband Anson Clark, then nineteen, was caught transporting a small amount of cocaine as an owed favor to a friend. He was not a drug user and had no previous record, yet under the Rockefeller drug laws he was sentenced to fifteen years to life. Now thirty, Anson calls Denise from prison for emotional support almost every day, and in fact called her at the Shadow Convention on her cellphone. For a man who spent every day of his 20's in jail, he sounded surprisingly upbeat and optimistic.

"I feel like I was young and stupid, but I had never been in the court system before and I don't feel like my sentence was fair," he said over the phone. "I just want to come home and be a good husband a good father to my child."

Men, of course, are not the only victims of what Ernie Preate, former Pennsylvania Attorney General and outspoken opponent of mandatory minimums, called this country's "hellbent incarceration binge." Tamika Gates' mother, Jackie, was on welfare with seven kids in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota when someone tempted her with the opportunity to make money transporting a kilo of cocaine from Chicago. She was caught on a Greyhound bus and sentenced to five to ten years in prison. Tamika, 21, has taken care of her six younger siblings for the past four years. She works part-time at a department store, attends community college, and has gotten involved with the Minnesota-based organization Federal Females Organizing and Restoring Unity for Mothers (FFORUM).

"We're always going to feel the effects in our hearts of having lived without our mother," Tamika said about their family. "When they sentenced our mom to five to ten years, it's like they sentenced us to life." Indeed, as the government spends upwards of $40 billion annually to fight the failing drug war, these family members are a potent reminder that the prisoners of this war number more than just those in jail.

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