One Mother's Story

I was on the Metro North train when I found out, trying to act discreet, trying not to let anyone see me shaking, scared. It was Carmen--my son's girlfriend's mother--who told me. She danced around the words until I pushed her and then she just said it: "Ashley's been arrested." Her words didn't make sense. But soon enough I would discover that when your child, your black child, is arrested and charged with a drug offense, nothing makes sense anymore.

Mother's Day is painful for me now. In the summer of 2003, my son Ashley was 20 years old and living in Manhattan. He was staying in our old apartment in the city--we'd recently moved to the suburbs so that our daughter would have access to better schools. I wanted him to move with us, but he wanted to be independent, near his friends. What could I do? He was grown. And independence is what every parent should want for his or her child.

I don't know how or when it started. I don't know who introduced Ashley to the world of drugs, or how he met two white boys named Peter and Preston who dealt drugs at Hamilton College where they went to school. They would call Ashley, ask him to bring them a small amount of drugs, and they'd resell it on campus to other students; I know this because they were arrested for it. They identified Ashley as the person who supplied them, and the police officers pushed them to call my son and ask him to bring up 70 grams of cocaine to them. Ashley had never done anything like that before. He had gotten one gram or two for them in the past, but such small amounts don't qualify a person for an A-1 felony.

Seventy grams does though. So Peter and Preston asked Ashley for 70 times the amount that he usually brought them. Ashley did as he was asked, and when he stepped off the train to deliver the package, he was arrested. Out of fear of getting a sentence of 15 years to life, and on the advice of his attorney, he pleaded guilty instead of going to trial. My son was given a sentence of seven to 21 years.

Peter--whose father is the executive vice president of the drug rehab center Phoenix House--was given probation. So too was Preston, who was represented by former NYS attorney general Dennis Vacco. When they are off probation, their records will be sealed forever, their debt to society paid. But Ashley will still be in jail. And even after he gets out-- years from now, Ashley will be barred from jobs, barred from getting financial aid to continue his education, barred from voting, some licensing--the list goes on. He will never stop paying. 

I believe my son did something wrong and I believe that people should take responsibility for their actions. But I don't believe a sentence of seven to 21 years is appropriate. If it is for Ashley, then it is for Peter and Preston. My son should have been forced into some kind of program where he could really look at himself and his life. Essentially, that's what Peter and Preston are doing. I love my child as much as their parents love them. Why did they get treated so humanely through this process, while my son was set up, dismissed, discarded in a sense, into the prison system. Was it because he was just another black boy who's nothing, who they think could disappear off the street and no one would notice? Well I notice. I notice everyday. I'm a mother and I want the same thing any mother wants for her child. 

Ashley doesn't come before the parole board until 2009. When people hear that, they ask, how do you stay so strong? How do you keep fighting? I tell them that I'm fighting because I want people to know that this kind of thing happens to normal, everyday good families. I'm fighting because if this happened to my family, it could happen to any family. I'm fighting because it's been 32 years and it's time for a change. But most of all I'm fighting because I'm a mother. I'm Ashley's mother. And they can't have him for seven to 21 years.
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